Fire And Ice: Hockey Player Chases Dream Of Becoming A Firefighter

By Tim Volkmann

As the SUNY Geneseo men’s ice hockey team circled around center ice following its 5-4 upset of top-ranked Plattsburgh last Saturday night, senior defenseman Matt Hutchinson joined his fellow Knights in raising their sticks and tapping them on the ice in their traditional salute to the Ira S. Wilson Ice Arena faithful. 

Returning to his apartment following the hard-fought win, one of the first things Hutchinson did was take a peek at the pager that he typically carries around as a member of another Geneseo team. Swapping the skates and hockey sweater he uses to battle the ice and cold of the rink, he often is called to pull on heavy boots and a fire-resistant coat to battle the heat associated with being a member of the Geneseo Volunteer Fire Department. With prospects aimed at becoming a professional firefighter after graduation, he also spent a harrowing summer as a member of the British Columbia Wildlife Service in the Canadian Rocky Mountains that put him well on his way. 

The seeds of becoming a fireman were planted back to his early days in North Vancouver. Growing up with a hockey stick in his hands for much of his youth, Hutchinson recalls many of his teammates’ relatives being firefighters. Always preferring to be outside or working with his hands, he also remembers shadowing his father as he worked around the house, or tagging along with him when he was on the job.

“My dad is a plumber and, when I was young, I always loved helping him out. Sometimes he’d take me along on some of his side jobs. I wouldn’t really do anything except hand him stuff, but I’ve always loved working with tools in my hands. I knew early on I didn’t want to be stuck in an office. I’ve always liked, hands-on, labor-intensive jobs. I spent three summers working on a water main construction road crew. I was basically one of those guys on the side of the road leaning on a shovel, but I loved it.”

Multiple career exploration experiences in high school allowed him to spend an extended amount of time with some career fire professionals while learning more about what it might take to make a living out of being a firefighter. Some of the benefits stood out more than others. 

“I thought everything about firefighting would make it a cool job,” smiled Hutchinson. “You got to work around heavy equipment, break things and run red lights in a big red fire truck. I guess it is kind of a kid thing. A lot of people call me a big kid so maybe that is why I like it so much.”

Joining the Geneseo Fire Department shortly after arriving on campus for his first semester, he started out as an “exterior” fire fighter, serving as a member of the team that ensures everything on the outside of a fire scene is in order. The following fall, he took the New York State Firefighter One class to earn his official certification and, by the end of his sophomore year, had exhibited enough ability and skill to be trusted as one of the “interior” members of the team that goes into buildings and performs search and rescues. Bringing his truck to campus for his junior year afforded him the opportunity to be on call and answer the bell whenever it rang, sometimes to his roommates’ chagrin.  

“A lot of times, you’ll be in the middle of doing some homework and you’ll hear his radio start blaring out a call,” said senior Ryan Donnelly, the men’s hockey team captain and friend of Hutchinson’s since their first day on campus as international students. “Sometimes in the middle of the night, you’ll hear the town siren go off, which means the next thing you’ll hear is the stomp of boots going down the stairs and out the door before you hear a truck speeding off to go answer the call.”

While most college students are either studying or being social in their spare time, Hutchinson has a different definition of what a typical evening out in a college town is like. Even after playing a hockey game. 

“There was one Saturday night last season where we had just gotten back to our apartment after a home game. Everyone was changing to go out and my pager went off. There was a house fire nearby. Those are hard to pass up.”

Admittedly, not all calls are as dramatic as a structural fire. But even the calls that are seemingly harmless can be life-saving. Some of Hutchinson’s fellow Geneseo students probably don’t even know the role one of their classmates played in keeping them safe. 

“I’ve been on quite a few calls, including a lot of what we call `smells and bells’ which are basically fire alarms going off or smoke detectors malfunctioning. There was one last year at an off-campus student apartment where we walked into the house and our gas meter started lighting up. We put our packs on and went downstairs and found out the furnace was malfunctioning. The house was full of carbon monoxide.”

While the road to becoming a firefighter is different between Canada and the United States, experience is a key component on both sides of the border. Hutchinson has gotten extensive first-hand exposure with structural fires typical to living in a suburban area like Geneseo, but he also had the opportunity to spend last summer working as a wildland firefighter out of Cranbrook, B.C., located 10 hours west of his home and an hour north of the Montana and Idaho state lines. 

“I applied last January not expecting to get a call back because I didn’t think I had the right qualifications,” remembered Hutchinson. “I got an invitation to do some testing at the end of February so I flew back to Vancouver on a Sunday night, did a fitness test and had an interview on Monday and flew back to Rochester so I could make it back for practice on Tuesday. It was kind of in the back of my mind but I wasn’t super worried about the results because of all the stuff I had going on back at school, but then in March, I got an email saying I had been invited to new recruit boot camp.”

Barely two months later, Hutchinson was in Merritt, B.C. taking part in a grueling nine-day crash course in wilderness firefighting. Up in the wee hours of the morning until late at night, all the trainees were pushed to their physical and mental limits in the field and the classroom.

“We were waking up early and working out for two hours and then we’d be in the classroom all day learning about all the different aspects of wildland firefighting ranging from the types of helicopters we’d be working with and the various pumping systems we’d be using all the way to chain saw safety. The book we used was about three inches thick. For the final two days, after we took a written exam, we faced an even bigger test of not only how much we learned but how well we worked with others as a team. We were put in groups and assigned scenarios to work through utilizing all the skills we had studied earlier in the week. There was a lot of digging, navigating and problem solving. Every individual had their turn as a crew supervisor, managing everything that was going on during a certain exercise. There was also a lot of carrying equipment. I lost track of how many lengths of hose I had to carry.”

And who would have thought his experience as a member of a hockey team would pay dividends during his fire training.

“A lot of people don’t have experience dealing with stressful or adverse situations. Being on the hockey team, you get into arguments with your teammates during the course of a season and there are also times when someone on the bench is yelling at you or your coach is giving it to you. While I’m alright with these situations, you could see the guys that struggled when things started to go wrong because they couldn’t cope. Just being able to work with a whole bunch of different people and use teamwork to our advantage was such a big part of it.”

The day after he finished boot camp, Hutchinson received a phone call letting him know he had gotten the job. So, from May through August this past summer, he was part of a 20-person crew that was assigned to putting out and preventing the spread of wild fires. Days were spent digging containment trenches, cutting down trees and taking steps to ensure the endless acres of wooded wilderness didn’t go up in smoke during the dry heat of the summer months. 

“While some of the biggest concerns with structural firefighting are property and preventing the fire from spreading to other structures, in the wild the focus is containment and protection of infrastructure and natural resources like trees and valuable timber. This summer, there were a couple fires that combined both as they moved into urban areas where there were peoples’ houses, major roads and water lines. We ended up being able to protect them all, which was pretty cool because we were usually the first crew on the scene.”

The unexpected, whether working in the wilderness or in a town, is what draws Hutchinson to the job, well, like a moth to a flame.

“Just going to the fire ground and being able to do different things every time you are there is something about the job that just makes it so dynamic. Every fire you go to is never going to be the same, every incident you go to is never going to be the same. You learn so much from the people you meet, from their experiences with new techniques to the tiniest little details you watch them do, just everything about every single situation makes it fun. And that’s why I do it because, for me, it’s fun. Giving back to the community is great too, but I love working with all of these new people and doing the job for and with them is the best part.”

Geneseo men’s ice hockey coach Chris Schultz will tell you that Hutchinson is a valuable part of his team for many reasons. 

“Matt brings a fireman mentality to his game and I'm sure he brings his game to the firehouse as well. To be a part of both cultures, you need a tough mindset. You need to put others’ well-being above your own and that is precisely the commonality between the firehouse and the ice rink. Matt provides great leadership to our team and has provided it since his first day on campus.” 

Hutchinson has also been able to translate his fire experience into being a better teammate.

“Becoming a lot mentally tougher has helped me become a better leader in dealing with situations when things don’t go my way. You can especially tell when guys are being negative on a fire line because it brings your mentality down and people start to get bummed out. So that is something that I’ve tried to work on. It doesn’t matter what happens to me. It is all about getting our goal accomplished. 

“One thing I remember telling my hockey teammates this summer was that this was the best job I’ve ever had. But playing hockey at Geneseo and going through the things we go through, I get goosebumps just thinking about winning with the group of guys we have now.”

On course to graduate in the spring with a degree in geography with a minor in business, the next step will be taking what he has learned, both on and off the ice, and applying it to a career once he leaves Geneseo. 

“The discipline, coordination, being a good communicator and listener, the physicality, as well as the type of people you get to work with and the teamwork and comradery you build, those are all the things that drew me to play hockey and now, being a firefighter. Hockey helped get me to college, so I’m looking forward to being able to translate what I have loved about being a hockey player into being able to make a difference for the rest of my life.”

Added Schultz, “I consider Matt to be a throwback, in that, he doesn't fit the mold of the millennial generation. He likes phone calls rather than texts. He would rather have an eye-to-eye talk than a conversation on the phone. A handshake is the only contract you need with him.”

Asked which he likes better - the red light flashing above a hockey goal or on top of a fire truck - Hutchinson proves that ice still beats fire, even from his current point of view.

“Am I scoring the goal? If you can show me the red light in an overtime-game winner in the playoffs, I think I could pass up a call for that.”

There would be plenty of fans tapping their sticks on the ice for him either way.

Tim Volkmann is the Director of Athletic Communications and Media Relations at SUNY Geneseo.