When Matt Pettinger made his NHL debut with the Caps on Nov. 24, 2000, he was a month past his 20th birthday, and about a year removed from the University of Denver campus. The entire hockey landscape in the District has turned over and over during the intermittent six years, and the face and direction of the team has changed with it. Pettinger has rolled with – and survived – all those changes, and has developed into a dependable goal scorer for the Capitals.
“My first year when I got called up and played in 10 games, I was the youngest guy by far,” Pettinger remembers. “I was 20 years old. It was me and [Stephen Peat] and I think the next oldest guy was [Jeff] Halpern, who was around 25. Then they had Calle [Johansson] and Joe Reekie and [Craig] Berube was here so it was definitely an older crowd. It took a little bit of an adjustment to come into that.”
Pettinger adjusted, and he spent a few seasons going back and forth between Washington and its Portland affiliate in the American Hockey League. After playing at the University of Denver and for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen during his amateur career, Pettinger stepped into the pros and netted 19 goals in just 64 games as an AHL rookie in 2000-01. That season gave a hint at the player that Pettinger has now become in the NHL.
Pettinger spent most of the 2001-02 season with Washington, totaling seven goals and 10 points in 61 games. He was still one of the youngest players on a mostly veteran club, and his ice time was limited to a fourth line, crash-and-bang type of role. But the next season brought a backwards step.
After making the opening night roster, he skated a total of just 3:30 in one early season game against the Islanders before being sent back to Portland for the remainder of the season.
“It was tough,” remembers Pettinger. “I don’t think it was a very good year on the whole at all. It was very disappointing going down there and I didn’t play as well as I should have, for whatever reason. But the [2002-03] season ends and they’re looking for changes here. They lost in the first round and you could see going into the summer that there is room for improvement. I just had to realize that, ‘You know what? You’re still young, just work hard over the summer and come in with a whole new desire and respect for the game.’”
He did exactly that, and in doing so, made sure that the AHL was permanently in the rear-view mirror. Two months into the season, Glen Hanlon took over as the Caps’ bench boss. Hanlon had coached Pettinger when he first turned pro in Portland, and he had faith in the young winger’s ability and potential.
“He has to be able to take his game and apply it to playing with good players,” said Hanlon, late in the 2003-04 season. “I don’t want him to get away from playing the body. That for him is the next step and that’s why I’m playing him with good players. He has good speed, he has an NHL shot and now we just have to get him in a position to succeed.”
Pettinger would get in that position to succeed, but it would not happen overnight. A lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. Considered too “seasoned” by the AHL rules to join his young Caps teammates in Portland in ’04-05, Pettinger went overseas to Slovenia where he played with then-Caps teammate Brian Willsie. Pettinger also underwent surgery to correct bursitis in his hip.
“I probably first noticed it the summer after my first year after signing with the Caps,” says Pettinger of the hip ailment. “It feels just like a headache in my hip. It limited me in working out because it hurt every time I did squats and really loaded it up. It limited the amount of offseason training I could do. I could do different things like lunges and leg presses. It was just an ongoing thing and I got a few cortisone shots throughout the years.
“I went to Europe for two months [to play in Slovenia]. It started bugging me over there and this was right at the time when the NHL and the NHLPA were talking about maybe getting back [on the ice] in December there when the 24% [salary] rollback came out. I just said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here, out of Europe and get back and see if we can do something about this and get it at least ready so that if we do have a half season, I can be ready to go. I was back in Victoria [British Columbia] skating and the season got cancelled. I just thought it would be a good time to take care of it. It was a quick surgery. I was out for about three weeks to a month. The time I was off was April-May, so that gave me three months to get back into shape for the season.”
When the lockout ended and 2005-06 training camp got underway, Pettinger showed up in terrific shape both mentally and physically. He was flying.
He scored Washington’s first preseason goal, but suffered a groin injury soon thereafter. While he was on the sidelines recovering, he got pushed down the Capitals’ left wing depth chart a couple of notches. Washington obtained veteran 20-goal scorer Jeff Friesen from New Jersey and Czech League star Petr Sykora finally reported to Washington after several years of “almost” reporting.
Pettinger played in the Caps’ 2005-06 season opener, but was scratched for the second game. He dressed for only three of the team’s first eight games, and skated less than 10 minutes when he was in the lineup.
“There’s nothing I can do about that,” Pettinger remarks. “Sykora was a highly touted European player. And obviously Jeff Friesen is Jeff Friesen; everyone knows what he has done and what he can do. I guess I had to sit out and wait my turn.”