Click photo to enlarge
Courtesy Bill Connell Matt Long, at age 37, is having one of his best seasons for the Park City Pioneers. He has seven goals and eight assists in 15 games this year.
Matt Long used to be a typical hockey brawler.

He'd drop his gloves every chance he'd get, and ended up spending quite a bit of time in the penalty box during his first two seasons with the Park City Pioneers.

He was also having trouble dealing with his father's medical problems. His dad was paralyzed in a skiing accident in Chile while on assignment for Forbes Magazine in 2009.

Long received a text message from his mother informing him that his father had been airlifted from the mountain, and he was on a plane to Chile the very next morning.

"Being a skier, I kind of knew what that meant," he said. "I was just hoping for the best."

Long's father spent the last three years of his life as a quadriplegic before passing away the day before Long's birthday in April 2012. For Long, seeing the man who once enjoyed living life to the fullest confined to a wheelchair was very hard to handle.

"The first year I was here, you could usually find Matt Long at a bar," he said.

Then Kylie came along and changed everything.

Long and his wife, Tricia, welcomed baby Kylie into the world barely a month ago. Since then, Long, who can't help but smile while talking about his new daughter, has gained a new perspective on hockey, and on life in general.

"When I first came up here to the Pioneers, I was expected to drop my gloves whenever someone got hit hard," he said. "This year, I've really become more of a leader and a motivator and I want to be a mentor to the guys on my team. I'm on the ice a lot more and they expect me to be on the ice instead of in the penalty box."

But he still thinks of his father every time he takes the ice before a game.

"It's tough," he said. "I know he's in a better place now considering his injury and what he'd been through the past three years, but there isn't a game that I don't go out there and look up to the sky or touch my watch or the ring he gave me. There's a part of me that plays for him every time I go out there."

And he hasn't forgotten the way his father, a former Marine, lived his life. Long hopes he can teach his newborn daughter some of the same things his father taught him.

"The things he instilled in my family were to never quit and to enjoy your life," he said. "Whether it was skiing, sailing, fishing or whatever it was, he always enjoyed himself."

Long has skipped Pioneer road trips since Kylie was born, focusing on his responsibilities as a father first, but the 37-year-old feels that he still has a lot left in his tank, despite being the oldest member of the Park City squad.

"Age doesn't matter if you have the inspiration and drive to play the game you love to play," he said.

He has also become a bigger presence in the locker room, passing on his knowledge of the game to his younger teammates.

"I try to be as positive as I can in the locker room," he said. "If one of us makes a mistake, we all made a mistake. It's a team sport and that's the way it needs to be played."

With seven goals and eight assists in 15 games, he's having one of his most productive seasons on the ice.

"Not being in the penalty box has helped quite a bit," he said.

His new leadership role is manifesting itself off the ice, too. Long, teammate David Imonti and others are working to turn the Park City Pioneers team into a non-profit organization.

Other teams in the Mountain West Hockey League, like the Jackson Hole Moose and Sun Valley Suns, are already non-profits, with money from ticket sales going to help local charities.

Long and Imonti envision a similar path for the Pioneers. With the experience of his dad's injury still fresh in his mind, Long would like to see the team get involved with sled hockey at the National Ability Center.

"If our guys can be role models for people with disabilities, it's a huge boost for our organization," he said. "We really want to get the team involved in the community."

But first, he'll focus on trying to get the Pioneers another MWHL championship.

After two losses to the Las Vegas Hookers on March 1 and March 2, Long said the team needs to get back to playing for each other to be successful.

"Every shift you go out, you want to better your teammates," he said. "If we do that, we can beat anybody."

The Pioneers (9-10) will wrap up their regular season schedule on Friday and Saturday against the Jackson Hole Moose. Friday night's game begins at 7:30 p.m. and the puck drops at 7 p.m. on Saturday.