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‘Rempemania’: NHL rookie’s stunning rise has Okanagan connection

Matt Rempe attended Penticton Secondary while playing at Okanagan Hockey Academy
Washington Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie (77) collides with New York Rangers center Matt Rempe (73) during the second period in Game 3 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series Friday, April 26, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Tom Brenner)

Before “Rempemania” was running wild in New York City, it made a brief stop in Penticton.

Matt Rempe, the 21-year-old rookie forward for the NHL’s Rangers, has been subject to extensive coverage in the United States’ largest media market for the last three months.

His physical play and ability to get thousands of people to chant his name in the world’s most famous arena has a lot to do with it.

Not too long ago, a 14-year-old Rempe would attend classes at Penticton Secondary School before lacing up his skates to play for the Okanagan Hockey Academy (OHA), hoping to beat the odds and one day get his shot in the bigs.

Originally from Calgary, Alta., Rempe was drafted by the Rangers in the sixth round of the 2020 NHL Draft.

After two seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL, and another year and a half with the Hartford Wolfpack in the AHL, the 6’7”, 241 pound-forward made his NHL debut on Feb. 18, 2024.

Ninety seconds after the opening puck drop, in front of almost 80,000 people outdoors at MetLife Stadium, Rempe dropped his gloves and fought the New York Islanders’ Matt Martin. Six days later, in a showdown against the Philidelphia Flyers, the OHA alumni again didn’t hesitate to drop his gloves and record another five-minute penalty.

But this time, he also added a goal — a game-winning marker in the final frame — en route to being named first star.

The thousands of people who have packed Madison Square Garden (MSG) in the three months since have regularly been heard chanting his name.

Rempe’s old Penticton coaches have watched the frenzy unfold with excitement.

“You couldn’t have scripted it any crazier than that, at the outdoor game and then what’s happened since,” said longtime OHA vice-president Dixon Ward, who played 10 seasons in the NHL, including for the Vancouver Canucks, Buffalo Sabres and Rangers, from 1992 to 2003. “If you want to know if any of us saw this coming, the answer would be ‘no’.”

After becoming the first player in NHL history to make his debut in an outdoor game, New York sports fans began referring to the imposing forward’s rise as “Rempemania.”

His popularity — or lack thereof in nearby northeast cities not named New York — only increased after he took centre stage in an early April line brawl against the New Jersey Devils and established himself as the NHL’s marquee “tough guy.”

“It’s the nature of that role,” Ward said. “He’s going to be a guy that everyone’s going to love when he’s on your team, and someone you’re not going to like when he isn’t.”

Rempe recorded 71 penalty minutes in 17 regular season games before suiting up in 11 high-energy playoff contests with the Rangers.

“I don’t wanna let [the fans] down,” the forward told reporters on May 25, after a loud, Rempe-loving MSG crowd watched the Rangers top the Florida Panthers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. “I love them so much. No matter what. I want to go out there, make them proud and do something every shift.”

Ward says Rempe was quiet, respectful “and had a shy personality” when he was in Penticton from 2016 to 2018.

“When Matt came here, like a lot of 14-year-olds, he was just coming into his own as a hockey player,” Ward recalled.

“He already had good size, and there was some obvious skill set there…but by no means was he a physical force. While he was with us, we were working more on his physical skillset and game understanding than anything else.”

His former coach added: “He was also a great kid and great teammate to everyone.”

The OHA vice president praised Penticton Secondary for hosting not only Rempe but all the travelling athletes who call the South Okanagan their temporary home while playing at the academy.

“The appreciation that I know Matt and his whole family have for the great people at Pen-Hi made for a great experience,” Ward said. “The school has always been tremendous to us and they don’t get enough credit for the work they do with our kids.”

Rempe scored on April 21, in Game 1 of the first round against the Washington Capitals, to mark the Rangers’ opening goal of what’s become an extended and memorable postseason run.

“That’s the one thing I know he’s doing, enjoying every moment and not taking it for granted,” said Ward, who played for New York during the 2002-2003 NHL season.

Rempe’s Rangers are currently in the Eastern Conference Finals against Florida and sit two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, as of May 31.

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Tony DeAngelo (77) and New York Rangers center Matt Rempe, second from left, exchange words in the first period during Game 5 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup second-round playoff series Monday, May 13, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

About the Author: Logan Lockhart

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