While the SFU Hockey Team prepares for its five final regular season games, alumnus Mathew Berry-Lamontagna is in the homestretch of his first pro season in Europe.
After finishing his collegiate career with SFU in 2019, Berry-Lamontagna signed with HK Budapest for the 2019/20 season, where he’s been a steady presence on the blue line, with four goals in 37 games.
“It’s really good, it’s a really cool spot,” he says of playing in Hungary. “The hockey’s been really good and this is my first time in Europe, so getting to be here and live in Europe for the first time has been really cool too.”
HK Budapest competes in the Erste Liga, which features 10 teams — seven in Hungary and three in Romania. Travel’s not too bad — aside from an 11 hour trip to play the Romanian teams, most of the teams are within a couple of hours from each other, with four located in Budapest.
The style of play in Europe took a bit of adjusting for the Canadian defenceman.
“It’s definitely different than North America. It’s a little less physical, a little more skill. More puck possession, less kind of chip and chase and grind away, it’s more possession, and keeping the puck, and trying to make a play with it instead of trying to get rid of it,” he explains. “Sometimes you get called for penalties that might not be called back home, just playing physical, but that’s just the style of game here.
“Because guys are so fast and so skilled, you kind of have to elevate your game or you get left behind. Playing against faster, skilled guys, you have to be faster, skilled. It’s been really cool that way. We’ve got some really good players on our team, so you get to see them in practice every day, and then across the league we’ve got ex-NHL players, KHL players, guys who have played in the Olympics, so you get to play against some really high end guys.”
The chance to play in Hungary actually came through an SFU connection.
After last season ended for Berry-Lamontagna, he talked to former SFU teammate Rob Izsak, who has Hungarian citizenship and has played extensively in Hungary. Izsak noted that his coach was looking for a defenceman.
The recruiting process went fairly fast, and Berry-Lamontagna signed in May 2019, arriving in Hungary at the end of July, just before training camp began in August.
On his second day of training camp, Berry-Lamontagna suffered an MCL injury, missing eight weeks, but only missed five games.
Joining a good team environment made the transition easy.
“Everybody’s been awesome, coaching staff, the players. It makes it easy when you have good teammates and they’re good guys, especially when you’re an import coming over, it makes the adjustment a little bit easier.”
As well, getting the chance to play with his former teammate, Izsak, was a tremendous help. Izsak has since returned to Canada to after suffering a season-ending concussion.
“He’s was my roommate,” Berry-Lamontagna says. “It was super helpful to have someone who spoke the language and knew the way around town.”
Looking back at his time at SFU, he says it was important to finish his education before turning pro, completing a Bachelors of Science, majoring in Environmental Science.
“I got a really good education out of it which was number one,” he shares. “I always wanted to finish school first before I even thought about pursuing pro hockey.”
He still keeps in touch with his old teammates.
“Even though I was one of the older guys last year, it was quite a young group last year, and a lot of guys returned [for SFU this season], and I still talk to them almost weekly, and check in how they’re doing,” he says.
And he credits his time with SFU Hockey with his success in his hockey career.
“Getting the chance to develop for five years, I got to play a lot in every situation with [head coach] Mark [Coletta], and [the coaching staff],” Berry-Lamontagna says.
“If you told me when I was 13 that I’d have the chance to come live and play here [in Hungary], I just wouldn’t have believed you — it didn’t seem realistic at that point. SFU was big for that, for me, helping me develop and being confident in myself to have the possibility to give it a try.”