State champions: Rowe enjoys success with Capitols AAA

The Madison Capitols pose with the trophy after winning the Wisconsin state championship in 18U Tier 1 play in early March. The Capitols defeated Team Wisconsin in a shootout, 4-3, to claim the title. (Photo provided)

MADISON, Wis. — While it is becoming increasingly more normal for local high school hockey players to move on to the junior ranks after they finish high school, sometimes those players are young enough that they can play another year of youth hockey before taking that step. Former Houghton Gremlins defenseman Matthew Rowe had that chance this season, and he made the most of the opportunity.

Rowe competed this season for the Madison Capitols 18U Tier 1 team this season, and while his former teammates were making a run to the Division 3 state semifinals, he was winning a state championship in Wisconsin.

For Rowe, the chance to play hockey at a high level while also being within six hours of home proved too good an opportunity to pass up.

“So, I obviously graduated last year, and I just had another year of 18 U AAA,” he said. “I was looking for teams to play, and had several options downstate, but I decided to play in Madison, because it was closer to home.”

Playing for the same 18U program that produced NCAA players like Carson Bantle, Will Butcher, Jake Dowell, Keegan Ford, Jack Johnson, Phil Kessel, Jack Skille, Gary Suter, and Ryan Suter, several of whom also went on to play in the NHL, was a no-brainer for Rowe. However, he learned quickly that the game is very different in AAA than it is in high school.

Houghton native Matthew Rowe poses with the trophy after the Madison Capitols won the Wisconsin state title in 18U Tier 1 play in early March. (Photo provided)

“It was definitely a much higher pace, a lot more skill, so it was definitely a little bit of an adjustment,” he said, “but, I think I adjusted pretty quickly. It’s definitely a lot more fun just because it’s a higher paced, and a higher skilled, game. I like it. It’s a little bit of adjustment at the start, but, other than that, it’s a lot of fun.”

It did take Rowe a couple of weekends to get used to the pace of play, so he tried to focus on the things he could control, like nutrition, to keep up with the changes happening in front of him. He finished his year with eight goals and 15 points in 71 games.

While the Capitols have a storied history of producing high quality male and female hockey players, the boys’ programs in recent years have struggled. The club brought in Dominic Zombo, son of former Detroit Red Wings defenseman Rick Zombo, to help right the ship.

Despite the coaching staff, the other two 18U Tier 1 programs, the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals and Team Wisconsin, refused to play the Capitals during the regular season.

“They wouldn’t play us all year,” said Rowe. “I mean, Milwaukee, it’s an hour away from Madison. You’d think that we’d at least do like a home and home, or just a weekend where one of us would go to the other team’s home and play, but they wouldn’t play us all year because they thought that they were going to walk all over us.

“Then we ended up beating both of them in the state championships.”

Without the opportunity to face the more local teams, Rowe and the Capitols took on several storied programs from Chicago, Omaha, Ohio, and Indiana. They battled against the Soo Indians, going 3-2 against them during a stretch from Oct. 21 to Dec. 4. They went 5-1 against the Indy Jr. Fuel.

The Capitols closed out their regular season with a showcase tournament in Detroit at the Troy Sports Center where they lost to the Vegas Jr. Golden Knights and the Northeast Generals Academy but beat both Northeast Generals Academy and the Fuel in between the losses.

If Rowe had to pick a favorite opponent from the regular season, it was Omaha Mastery. The Capitols went 1-3-1 against them this season, but Rowe felt like each game reminded him of facing the Calumet Copper Kings.

“We played them four or five times this year, and every game was competitive, every game was a battle,” he said. “I think we ended up being 1-3-1 against them, so losing more games than we won, but every game was close, and every game was a battle and really, really physical games. Kind of (like) rivalry games. That was definitely the most fun team to play against.”

In the state tournament, the three teams, the Capitols, the Admirals, and Team Wisconsin, played a round robin where the team with the most points would be crowned the winner. The tournament was delayed by two days to give Team Wisconsin players who were competing in the state high school championships a chance to finish their tournaments and then join the team.

In their opening game, the Capitols found themselves outshot 10-4 in the first period against the Admirals. They flipped the script in the second period, outshooting the Admirals 14-7, but more importantly, they got on the board. The Admirals tied it early in the third, but the Capitols struck again with 7:04 left in the contest and then held on for the win.

Team Wisconsin featured a roster that included Hunter Bill, who led Notre Dame Academy in scoring this season with 48 points in 23 games. Bill was held off the scoreboard by the Capitols in the game.

Team Wisconsin struck first, but the Capitols responded 7:09 later. Team Wisconsin took a 2-1 lead less than a minute into the second period, but again the Capitols responded to even things.

The game went to a shootout, where the first two Team Wisconsin shooters were stopped. The Capitols scored on their second attempt. Team Wisconsin scored on their third attempt, but so did the Capitols. Team Wisconsin’s fourth shooter was stopped, but the Capitols’ fourth shooter scored, sealing the win and the state title.

“It was definitely really exciting, and I’d say it’s probably one of the highlights of the season,” Rowe said. “A lot of those kids, they’re tendered in the North American Hockey League. A lot of those kids will probably play Division I hockey.

“It was really exciting, and it was a big upset. A lot of those kids are just, they’re very cocky, and so it was nice to kind of beat them and just put them in their place.”

While winning a state title means a lot to Rowe, getting the chance to learn from Dominic Zombo was a great experience. He tried to soak up all the lessons he could from the Capitols’ coaching staff.

“He played in the USHL, and then Division 1 for Nebraska-Omaha,” Rowe said. “Then he played in the ECHL. Our assistant coach also played in the USHL, played for Omaha, and then played in the ECHL. So, two coaches with a lot of experience and they know the game. It was definitely really nice to have those two guys coaching me.

“If there was ever anything that I needed, they knew exactly what to say, and they had a lot of tips, a lot of pointers, and it really helped improve my game, whether it was skills or just kind of the knowledge of the game.”

The Capitols’ season ended with their regional tournament, but Rowe felt that he learned, and improved, a lot. He did get a chance to play a couple of games with the Wisconsin Windigo during the season and hopes to stick there next season. With an ultimate goal of Division I college hockey, Rowe felt that this past season was a great stepping stone for him on that path.


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