The legend of Matt Rempe: Inside the Rangers rookie’s wild first days in the NHL


Matt Rempe‘s eye looked like a wall of paint samples at a hardware store. A lot of black, some blue, a touch of chartreuse around the edges. Facial bruising is a commonplace sight on an NHL rink. Rempe’s shiner was more noticeable because he stands around 6-foot-8 without skates.

“It’s nothing. Just a little … I don’t know, nothing,” Rempe said to an unusually large group of reporters on Tuesday after the New York Rangers‘ morning skate. “It’s awesome. Just part of what goes along with hitting. You get bumps and bruises along the way.”

Rempe is a 21-year-old rookie whose first NHL games sparked a leaguewide obsession few could recall witnessing. He had three fights in his first five NHL games. He might have had a fourth had he not been ejected for an illegal check to the head against the rival New Jersey Devils.

Through six NHL games, Rempe has more penalty minutes (32) than minutes spent playing (28).

To counterbalance that disobedience, his first professional goal was also the game winner in a nationally televised game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

“It’s gotta be one of the craziest NHL debuts that there’s ever been,” Rangers center Jonny Brodzinski said… I don’t know if there’s been anything else like it.”

The Rangers promoted Rempe from AHL Hartford ahead of their Stadium Series game against the New York Islanders at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. He was an injury replacement for winger Blake Wheeler, whose season ended with a lower-body injury on Feb. 15.

In front of 79,690 fans, on his first NHL shift, Rempe fought the Islanders’ Matt Martin, immediately earning cult hero status in New York. In his fourth game, he fought Philadelphia Flyers pugilist Nicolas Deslauriers three minutes into the first period, and then later scored the game-winning goal when a Barclay Goodrow shot bounced off Rempe’s lanky frame into the net. In his fifth game, he fought Columbus Blue Jackets forward Mathieu Olivier 2:12 into the first period, which is why his left eye turned several different colors after Olivier pummeled him.

Does Rempe like fighting?

“I’m not going to lie: It’s good. I enjoy it,” he said. “I want to get better at it. I want to learn. I want to do everything.”

Rempemania has run wild on Rangers fans for a number of reasons. It’s his unusual size and enthusiastic physical play, including those fights. It’s also his endearing personality and inherent goofiness, such as when he pridefully described taking photos with Rangers fans at a local Cheesecake Factory “while rocking the black eye.”

The crowd cheered for him at his first regular-season game at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, a rematch against Columbus. The NHL’s flagship retail store, located about two blocks from the Garden, had Rempe’s jersey displayed in its front window, available for purchase. That doesn’t usually happen for a player that hadn’t played more than eight minutes in a game yet in his NHL career.

But Matt Rempe’s debut was anything but usual.

“I think you’ve seen it all over the internet. He’s definitely created a buzz,” Rangers winger Jimmy Vesey said. “It’s been a while. You don’t really see fighting like that anymore.”

It’s not just the frequency of fights that has created that buzz. It’s how he fights, according to John Scott, who was one of the NHL’s leading heavyweights for eight seasons until his retirement in 2016.

“It’s a rarity these days, just because fighting is such an anomaly. I know it’s still around, but the types of fights that Rempe is having, you don’t see them anymore. I think guys who fight are more strategic and defensive, whereas he came in and he just throws,” Scott said. “He doesn’t care if he gets hit. He just wants to inflict pain and hurt people, like back in the 1970s where you just grab on and just start chucking. So people aren’t used to that. That’s why I think it’s such a novelty now.”

The thing about novelties is that they wear off.

Can Rempe become something more than a two-week sensation for the Rangers?

REMPE HAS AN aw-shucks way of handling his sudden and inexplicable fame.

“It’s been awesome. My dream is playing in the NHL. Got a goal, got an assist, and we’re winning hockey games. Had some good fights. And you know just playing hard, playing good,” he said. “I am just trying to keep a level head, just try to stay down to earth. I’m at the beginning of my career. I’ve got a long, long way to go.”

He said he’s avoiding all media, social or otherwise, to remain focused on his growth as an NHL player. Rempe said he’s relying on his usual diversions to avoid getting caught up in his own hype.

“I love reading books. I love to do that. I’m a big fantasy book guy, so I like to read my books,” he said. “I go home, read my books, talk to my family, do that type of stuff. Play my guitar.”

Matt O’Dette, head coach of the Seattle Thunderbirds, where Rempe played junior hockey from 2019 to 2022, said this is the “multifaceted kid” that he got to know well in the Western Hockey League.

“He is a really intelligent kid, really smart kid. He’s an authentic guy. He’s a reader, he’s a musician, he’s got a personality,” O’Dette told ESPN. “People are seeing him as this 6-foot-8 monster. He plays the game a certain way. He wants to protect his teammates. I’m excited for the people to get to know him more.”

As Rempe’s teammate in the AHL and NHL, Brodzinski has had the same experience.

“When you meet him and when you get to know him, he’s the nicest guy ever. Such a family man and just a good all-around human being. And then he gets out on the ice and something clicks, and it just switches,” he said. “You hear that about a lot of great NFL players: Great guys off the field that just turn into absolute killers during the game.”

Rempe is from Calgary and has two older twin sisters obsessed with hockey. Steph and Alley Rempe went on to play at Brown University.

They lost their father, Rom Rempe, to a heart attack in February 2018. Matt Rempe called his father his best friend, someone who fueled his love of the game. His NHL debut in the Stadium Series was on the six-year anniversary of his father’s passing.

O’Dette, who welcomed Rempe to the Thunderbirds in the 2019-20 season, noted how difficult losing his father was for the young player.

“We were supportive of him and anything he needed,” he said. “And I tried to be the best mentor I could for him. But that’s a very tough thing to deal with as a kid that age.”

O’Dette mentored Rempe on and off the ice. One particular challenge was his height. Rempe plays a physical game. But because of the height disparity between him and his opponents, checks that were intended to be legal ended up being penalties or, in some cases, suspensions.

“Oh, it was extremely difficult. You have to understand that Matt Rempe is not a malicious guy. He’s not a predator. He is a very nice kid, very smart kid. He is just trying to play hockey and finish his checks and do it in as clean a way as possible,” O’Dette said. “Just him being bigger has led to some violent looking hits that were, in our opinion, more on the clean side.”

That scenario has already played out in the NHL. In a recent game against the Devils, Rempe went to deliver a check to forward Nathan Bastian and made primary contact with Bastian’s head. Rempe earned a match penalty, ending his night after just 13 seconds of ice time, but wasn’t given any supplemental discipline from the NHL Department of Player Safety.

“That’s a play where he doesn’t want to do that. That’s not the type of guy that he is, either,” Brodzinski said. “After looking at it, he did everything right. He tucked his elbow. It’s just unfortunate that the main point of contact was his head, but he’s like 6-foot-7. It’s a learning curve for him, obviously, being that tall. He has to play a certain way, so you’re never going to really get around it.”

O’Dette said that hitting at his height was something Rempe struggled with in the WHL. He was suspended four times during the 2021-22 season and five times total in his Thunderbirds career.

“He was profiled, you know, for his size. The refs always had an eye on him,” O’Dette said. “So anytime there was a heavy hit, it more often than not led to a major.”

“I remember at times he would get so frustrated and be in tears some days. He’d say, ‘I’m not meaning to hurt anybody’ or ‘These aren’t dirty hits.’ And he just continued to get kicked out of games and suspended. So it was really frustrating,” the coach added.

Rempe wasn’t a prolific fighter in the WHL. O’Dette said it wasn’t for a lack of trying, but that there weren’t a lot of takers, given his size.

“I just think he’s just learning about what he can do [as a fighter]. He is still relatively inexperienced in that area,” he said. “Seeing him do as well as he has, it’s been impressive. But yeah, it’s, still relatively new for him.”

Brodzinski said it was the same story in the AHL, although Rempe did fight more there.

“I think around six or seven fights this year, maybe a couple more in preseason. So he has fought quite a bit,” the Rangers center said. “I don’t think a lot of guys really wanted to fight him. He’d ask a bunch of guys, and people would just say ‘no.'”

But Rempe has heard “yes” in the NHL, starting with Martin in the Stadium Series game, who likened Rempe’s reach to that of Zdeno Chara, the retired defenseman listed at 6-foot-9.

“Matt Martin didn’t have to say ‘yes’ at that point at all. So it was kind of a nice old guy giving the young guy a fight, and the young guy showing up to the show and saying, ‘Here I am,'” Scott said.

When Scott, the 2016 NHL All-Star Game MVP, played his first full season with the Minnesota Wild in 2009-10, his inaugural fight was with Anaheim Ducks enforcer George Parros.

“He said before the fight, ‘I shouldn’t fight you. But any time I ask you to fight going forward, you have to say ‘yes,’ because I’m doing you a favor.’ And I was like ‘absolutely.’ So I kind of treated it like that where the young kids come up and I’d give ’em a shot whenever they would ask,” Scott said.

Now, Scott is looking out for another young fighter.

SCOTT SAID HE CONNECTED with Rempe through social media and has been offering advice to the Rangers rookie.

“If you don’t use your reach, it’s useless. It’s almost a hindrance,” he said. “Being a tall guy too, I know how to protect myself, but still be able to do my job and inflict some damage.”

Some have expressed concerns about Rempe’s future health with the way he has taken punches in these fights. It turns out one of the NHL’s most prolific fighters of the last 15 years shares those concerns.

“I’ve just been trying to give him a few tips on how to protect yourself a little bit and prolong your career,” Scott said. “If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he will have a short career. He’ll get concussions and it’ll just be hard for him to come back.”

Rempe’s home debut for the Rangers was notable for what didn’t happen. Despite being in MSG in front the fans that had embraced him, despite being on the ice against Olivier for a potential rematch, Rempe didn’t have a fight. He threw a couple of good hits in 7:42 ice time and had a team-low 11 shifts.

Rangers coach Peter Laviolette wouldn’t detail the conversations he has had with Rempe about when or when not to fight. But Laviolette, in his 22nd year as an NHL head coach, acknowledged that he has told players in the past to keep the gloves on.

“I think in Carolina we told the whole team not to fight. It was the end of the year. We were locked in for the playoffs and just didn’t want to lose anybody,” he said. “I think there’s always situations that happen where you got to defend yourself or you got to defend your teammate. Those things happen out there. But we’ve definitely had those conversations.”

Scott said he wouldn’t be shocked if the Rangers had discouraged Rempe from fighting so frequently.

“As a young kid, you don’t pick your spots. You just ask everybody at all times. The Olivier fight was great. I don’t think it was a good spot for him to fight because the Rangers are a better team and obviously Columbus got momentum from it,” Scott said. “So it would not surprise me if they sat him down. If not [the coaches], just a veteran on the team who could just say, ‘Hey, we know you’re tough now. You don’t have to do it every single shift. Maybe pick your spots a little better.'”

Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said he hasn’t had that talk yet and wouldn’t tell Rempe to change his behavior.

“I’m sure he’s had some conversations with some people, but from my standpoint, he is doing what he wants to do to contribute to the team,” the veteran defenseman said. “I think he’s come in and provided something that we didn’t have. I think there’s a lot of value to it. I have a lot of respect for what he’s doing. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially coming as a young player, but he’s contributing.”

Rempe believes he has more to contribute beyond fighting. He has worked on his skating, his wall play as a winger and his speed when playing center. He has tried to go from a wrecking ball on the forecheck to someone more aware of the details on a play. While no one’s going to confuse him with Artemi Panarin, Rempe believes he has some offensive upside, having scored 17 goals in 56 games in the WHL back in 2021-22.

“I want to continue to show my skill set,” he said.

But his greatest asset is his energy. O’Dette talked about how the Thunderbirds used Rempe as the template when talking about commitment, long after he had left the organization. “First guy at the rink, last guy to leave the ice. He shifted our culture,” he said.

It was the same story in Hartford, according to Brodzinski, who said Rempe was a pacesetting teammate before and during games. “He’s always high-tempo. He’s very assertive when he plays, so you’re going to get that from him every night,” he said.

Trouba has now seen Rempe bring that energy to the Rangers. “I think it raises everyone’s level in a way. I think you have a guy on your team that goes out there and puts it on the line every night like that, I think it’s a message to the room,” he said.

No one’s sure about the shelf life of Rempemania. The Rangers’ lineup could change by the March 8 trade deadline, leaving Rempe out in favor of a veteran addition on the wing. Laviolette could decide to go in another direction with his forward depth as the playoffs draw closer. Maybe Rempe ends up not being as effective after this initial euphoric blast.

Rempe said he’s not worried about sticking around in the long term. He’s too busy trying to make the most of this “dream come true” that he’s experiencing on every shift.

“I’m 21, so I’m going to play my heart out every time and every practice, every game,” he said. “I love this game. I think it’s so fun. I love getting better. I love practice, I love it all. I love every aspect of it. I’d love to be a New York Ranger for a long time, but I want to take it day by day. I don’t know what tomorrow brings. I don’t know what the next day brings. If I just do my job, that’s all I can control.”

No matter how it ends up, it has been a myth-making few weeks for Matt Rempe, both in New York and around the NHL.

“We haven’t seen someone come in the league and do what he’s done in a long time,” Trouba said.

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