By Chris Pierce, Media Relations Intern


ROANOKE, VA. – In a town of 1,500 on the southwest side of Chicago, a 16-year-old Matt O’Dea loomed upon a decision that would change his life. It was never a question of if he still wanted to play hockey, but whether he wanted to become a hockey player.

The hill was never going to be easy to climb. Challenges awaited the young junior hockey player, including having to compete with 45 other kids his age, where every tryout, practice, and game felt relentless, battling for a top-line spot.

Through adversity and a hard work ethic, O’Dea competed at the highest level throughout college. When the time came for his next chapter, O’Dea stood on his belief that he could become a professional hockey player.

O’Dea began his professional career with the Fayetteville Marksmen during the 2019-2020 season. During his tenure, O’Dea felt alienated. Instead of using his vocal and vibrant personality, he was putting his nose to the ground, only interacting with his teammates during games when needing to call for the puck. After four games with Fayetteville, O’Dea was traded up north, a place he would call home for the next four seasons.

The Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs welcomed O’Dea with open arms, and O’Dea felt refreshed in his new setting. Skating on the ice at the Berglund Center for the first time with his teammates, O’Dea had a blast, amazed to see unity within the group when they all slapped their sticks on the ice after warming up at center ice.

“It was much more of a family atmosphere, and that makes you play better, or at least for me it makes me play better with that kind of atmosphere,” O’Dea said. “It felt like a night-day difference.”

In his first season with Roanoke, O’Dea played in 41 games, tallying 15 points on four goals and 11 assists. He went from feeling isolated to now thriving in a fun and welcoming environment, O’Dea knew that Roanoke was the place he would call home for the future.


Since 2021, O’Dea has 32 goals, 72 assists, and a plus-37 rating in 135 regular season appearances for the Dawgs, most of which have been at defenseman. (Photo Credit: Weslie Rouse)

O’Dea’s style of play did not grow overnight. Enter in Rail Yard Dawgs Head Coach Dan Bremner. Learning under the tutelage of Bremner, O’Dea committed to whatever it would take to succeed after joining the Dawgs four years ago, and has since cemented himself to be one of the top players in the entire league. Whether that included working on either end of the ice, understanding Bremner’s system for O’Dea was seen as black and white.

“Matty just does it all,” said head coach Dan Bremner in a pregame interview back in March. “He skates the puck so well, and his intensity is such a big difference-maker for our group.”

O’Dea came into Roanoke primarily playing as a forward, but has played most of his games in the blue and gold as a defenseman. He owns basically every franchise record among defensemen by now, but can still push up to forward when injuries or roster movement require him to adapt.

“He (O’Dea) is just a monster in this league,” said Roanoke media manager/broadcaster Mitch Stewart. “Matt has long been one of the fastest guys in this league, but he’s got great awareness and is gritty as well. There aren’t many guys that can be one of the top defensemen in the league night in and night out, then swap up to center or one of the wing positions and still produce. His abilities and overall versatility are absurd.”

This was evident during the 2021-2022 season, as he heightened his level of play and truly broke out onto the scene in the SPHL. O’Dea posted multiple career highs, and set a single-season team record for goals by a defenseman with 14 and an all-time franchise-best plus-27 rating. Furthermore, the growth of O’Dea on the ice paralleled his work ethic behind the scenes.

“Coming in as a rookie, you tend to get caught up in everything else going on outside of the rink rather than working on your body and caring about that idea of things, said Roanoke forward and fellow alternate captain Josh Nenadal. “You see Matty in the gym putting in the extra work. That’s contagious for the guys seeing that, a leader who has been here, and especially for the younger guys that they should want to work harder.”


O’Dea has long been known for his intensity on the ice, as he shows here while celebrating a goal against the Macon Mayhem back during the 2022-2023 season. (Photo Credit: Brian Collett)

Last season, O’Dea was rewarded for his leadership efforts as he was presented as one of the team’s alternate captains. In that moment, the memories of doubt that haunted him from his first SPHL days in Fayetteville seemed to fade away in how he has grown and developed as a player since.

“It is one thing to become a better hockey player, but it is another thing for your teammates to recognize and see you as a leader on and off the ice and say, ‘We want you to be one of the guys that will represent us,’” O’Dea explained. “It was special.”

In the last two seasons, the foundation of the Dawgs has lied within their ability to develop a family atmosphere in the locker room. An environment where everyone, both rookies and veterans, is close-knit with each other and will go the extra mile to establish chemistry on and off the ice. O’Dea, Nenadal, and the rest of the leadership group stress the importance of that locker room culture as a major factor in how the team has enjoyed success.

“He (Matt) is going to talk your ear off, but what he is saying is going to hold weight,” Nenadal said. “He is very humble and honest, which is a very good character trait that not many people have. He is honest to the core, whether you like it or not. He’s just a really good guy, and he’s going to be there when you need him.”

Nenadal and O’Dea have been teammates in Roanoke for four years, and have since developed a close off-the-ice relationship during that time. Additionally, the two players have roomed with each other in the past, and were named to the leadership group along with captain Mac Jansen before the 2022-2023 season began for the Dawgs (CJ Stubbs and Owen McDade have since received letters as well). From there, the three-man group developed into a brotherhood.

“When guys come into our locker room, they see our culture and how we interact with one another,” O’Dea said. “We don’t let anybody sneak by our locker room without saying good morning or anything, we are that kind of team. We also have guys who want others to be successful. We are not trying to see the second you get here whether or not you’re tough or something. We want you to be comfortable… it is your spot here, and it’s only yours to lose.” 


O’Dea quickness and versatility have been major factors in him becoming one of the best players in the SPHL. (Photo Credit: Michele Hancock)

O’Dea’s inspiration as a leader in the locker room draws from his early days in high school and college. His captain then, from sophomore year until college, made it a point to treat rookies well and that all new guys should be just as respected as the veterans on the roster. O’Dea thought the methodology was interesting and unique, and took it upon himself to push hard for that same type of treatment if he had ever received a ‘C’ or an ‘A’ in his career.

“When we were playing in the same pairing together, just coming back to the bench there would always be pointers from Matt,” said Roanoke rookie defenseman Billy Roche. “With him, it was nice to have an experienced guy that I was paired up with. Just to be able to come back to the bench and get feedback from someone who has done it at this level for a while and was willing to give advice, it was very helpful.”

Now in his second season as alternate captain, O’Dea continues to play his part in supporting his teammates day-to-day by fully embracing his leadership role within the locker room. Along with fellow captains Jansen, Nenadal, and Stubbs, there are responsibilities that many do not see on the stat sheet.

“Matt is a do-it-all type of guy,” said Nenadal. “He is vocal in the room and leads by example. If there is anything that needs to be addressed, Matt is the first one to do it and he does things the right way consistently.” 

O’Dea’s first professional playoff experience came with the FPHL’s Columbus River Dragons during the 2020-21 pandemic year where he joined several current and former Dawgs like Stubbs and Jansen, eventually winning their first championship together. The following year when that group returned to Roanoke, the Rail Yard Dawgs squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed, but made a massive playoff run to the President’s Cup Final before losing to Peoria.

In the fall of 2022, the Dawgs were hungrier than ever after their season ended on home ice in that Game Four overtime loss. As the year unfolded, Roanoke would reach the postseason once again, determined to settle that unfinished business. In the locker room, the mindset that passed down from the leaders was to remember the feeling of falling just short in that prior championship series and to ensure from puck drop to the last sound of the buzzer they were going to play their game. 

“Matty is a gamer, through and through,” Stewart said. “You know you can count on him in the high pressure situations, regardless of what position he’s playing at or what the team needs.” 

O’Dea would contribute two goals and two assists during the team’s second consecutive run to the President’s Cup Final. The Orland Park, Illinois native would score a huge third period goal to help seal a road win in Game One at Birmingham, then notched an assist on the game-winning goal in an overtime win during Game Three. The Rail Yard Dawgs would clinch their first-ever President’s Cup trophy the next night in Game Four – a moment that O’Dea says he’ll remember forever.

“It was incredible,” O’Dea beamed. “I remember when I was holding the Cup that I thought about when I was released from a team three years before and had thought things like ‘You are not good enough for a championship run.’ At this point, I was holding the trophy, with an ‘A’ on my jersey, and had fought to help this team to that championship. It was just awesome.”


O’Dea taking the ice for Game Four of the 2023 President’s Cup Final. Just a few hours later, the Dawgs would be celebrating Roanoke’s first hockey championship since 1987. (Photo Credit: Keith Lucas)

On March 15, the Dawgs would place O’Dea on the 14-day injured reserve. At the time, the Orland Park, IL native was in the midst of a career year, leading the team in points and assists, while tied for first in the league in those categories among SPHL defensemen. After pouring his heart on the ice every night leading up to that point, he would now have to watch on the other side of the glass.

“You want to be out there battling on the ice with your guys,” O’Dea said. “It was tough, as entertaining as the games are, it is brutal. In the locker room, you try and keep the vibes high. You don’t want anyone looking at you and seeing you sulking over your injury because you already know they feel terrible enough for you.”

Missing valuable time on the ice was anything but a vacation. Leading by example, O’Dea would spend most of his recovery time working out in the gym, aiming to come back stronger for what he hopes is another deep postseason run for Roanoke.  

On March 30, O’Dea was activated to suit back up again for the Dawgs. Walking into the locker room to get dressed while listening to pregame tunes, O’Dea felt like a kid again. In a close game against Fayetteville, O’Dea would score what ended up as the game-winning goal against his former team, a victory that enabled Roanoke to sweep the weekend series against its rivals and guarantee a franchise-best third-place finish in the SPHL regular season standings.  

Now in his fourth season in the Star City, O’Dea continues to strive to be a player who positively impacts his teammates. On the ice, he ranks among the franchise’s top seven all-time leaders for games played, goals, assists, and points. In the locker room, he’s one of the leaders of a hungry, disciplined, and talented Dawgs team that is entrenched in the values of being a family. From getting a second chance in the SPHL to someone that Roanoke fans cheer for by name every single game, O’Dea’s journey has been long but fruitful.  

“The passion that the fans have for this team is incredible,” O’Dea said. “You are playing for the logo, but you are also playing to keep your fans happy and in the seats. Roanoke has a very loyal fan base, and those people deserve good hockey.” 

With the playoffs looming once more for Roanoke, the hopes and expectations of reaching the Final once more are high. As a veteran leader who knows what it takes, O’Dea enjoys the pressure as his team aims to hang another banner in the rafters at Berglund Center.