Jesper and Julius Mattila try their best to put the memory behind them. But it’s not an easy one to forget.
At just 17 years old, the twins were representing Finland in the 2015 IIHF U-18 World Championship, on the biggest stage of their young careers. Jesper was a defenseman with an eye for playmaking who manned the blue line while Julius, a speedy forward with a nose for the goal, patrolled the attacking zone. The second-smallest of the top-division countries to participate, Finland has a population of only 5.5 million—Massachusetts alone is home to a million more people—but the Mattila brothers and the rest of the Finnish squad had battled their way into an overtime period with the mighty United States in the gold-medal game.
Jesper remembers looking on from the bench as Julius skated back on defense to slow a fast break from the Americans. Barreling toward Julius at full speed was Jeremy Bracco, then a commit to Boston College who would later be selected with the 61st overall pick of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Bracco turned a corner and whipped the puck back to center ice. His pass found Colin White, soon to be the 2015-16 Hockey East Rookie of the Year for BC, in the soft spot of the Finnish defense. The electric attacker slotted home the game-winning goal and lifted his stick in the air in elation. Julius and Jesper heard the blare of the final buzzer, forced to watch as White was buried by his teammates at the bottom of a dogpile (which, by the way, is a far more dangerous celebration in razor-sharp skates) in the middle of the rink. No redemption. No rebuttal. The Finns would have to settle for silver.
The Matilla twins never expected to see the young U.S. forward in competition again, nor did they particularly want to. Then Jerry York came calling.
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“We hate you, Colin,” Jesper chirped down the hall at his former rival.
The Mattilas exchanged laughs with their new teammate in the belly of Conte Forum after a loose September practice. The thunderous claps of slapshots echoed off the empty red seats, followed by an occasional ring off the post. Here, 4,000 miles away from their family and friends, the brothers seem right at home.
In school clothes, Jesper and Julius are barely distinguishable. They both measure 5-foot-11, share the same pale skin, and wear their light brown hair combed to one side. When teammates see the twins in passing, they often resort to calling them by the color of their clothes.
“I wear a gray coat and Jesper wears a black coat, so that’s kind of the joke on the team,” Julius said.
It helps that the brothers have a sense of humor as they adjust to life in New England.
“They’re very outgoing and personable, and hard to tell who’s who,” York said. “We’re learning every day since they’re pretty close-looking.”
Ironically, it’s only when Jesper and Julius suit up in pads and helmets that York and his staff can tell them apart. Julius wears No. 26 and focuses on the opponent’s end of the rink, while Jesper wears No. 8 and is anchored on the blue line.
But just because they don’t play the same position doesn’t mean they don’t connect with each other on the ice. Jesper, the highest-scoring defenseman for Finland’s Ilves U-20 team last year, likes to get involved in the attack with his brother, especially on power plays. His 33 assists last season caught York’s eye, and he experimented with pairing the twins together on the second power-play unit during Sunday’s scrimmage against Carleton.
Jesper did exactly what he has done his entire career. Playing on the second line, the defender helped set up the Eagles’ first goal of the afternoon with an assist to Scott Savage on a power play in the first period. Then, Jesper and Matthew Gaudreau combined for an assist on a JD Dudek goal at the end of a BC power play. Ultimately, the Eagles would eke out a 4-3 win and offer a glimpse of what roles the Finns could play on this young squad.
With blue-liners Steve Santini and Ian McCoshen departing for the NHL this offseason, Savage is the only remaining upperclassman on an inexperienced defensive front. Savage and Casey Fitzgerald are the only current defensemen who have played at least one full season for BC.
This vacuum could translate into a lot of responsibility for Jesper, who, along with fellow freshmen defenders Luke McInnis, Michael Campoli, and Connor Moore, will compete to fill the gap among the top-four defensemen. For Julius, there won’t be as much weight on his shoulders in his rookie season. Although the Eagles lost four of their top six forwards—all of them underclassmen—they are being replaced by Christopher Brown, Chris Calnan, Austin Cangelosi, and Dudek. Julius is thought to be a front-runner for York’s third line and second power-play unit (with Jesper), and should log double-digit minutes along with his brother.
Originally, Jesper and Julius were supposed to play on different teams this year, for the first time in their lives. Associate head coach Greg Brown, who specializes in defense and special teams, first saw tape of Jesper playing for Ilves and offered him a spot on a defensive unit in desperate need of some depth. Meanwhile, Julius was initially slated to bring his talents to Western Michigan’s men’s hockey program. But when Miles Wood, Alex Tuch, Zach Sanford, and Adam Gilmore decided to follow Santini and McCoshen to the pros, York realized that the defense wasn’t the only position that would be operating shorthanded this season.
“Coach called me and said, ‘We have a spot for a forward,’” Jesper recalls with a smile. “Julius was my first recruit.”
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Jesper and Julius are no strangers to intense rivalry. Back home in Tampere, Finland, you either pledge your hockey allegiance to Ilves or Tappara. The two teams have been playing in the same city together for over 80 years, and have 16 Finnish league championships each. The Mattilas, like their father, were members of the Ilves squad before they came to America for collegiate hockey.
“We are like BC, and the other team is like [Boston University],” Julius said. “So obviously we are a better team than they are.”
Julius was kidding around, but this year’s Terriers are no joke. The same team that lost 1-0 in the Beanpot Final to BC last season may have graduated its star goaltender, Sean Maguire, but it gained a mammoth recruiting class packed with NHL talent like Clayton Keller and Patrick Harper, who tallied five goals and two assists last Saturday. According to preseason polls, BU is favored to win the Hockey East and make a legitimate run at a national championship.
In order to do that, though, the Terriers will have to run through the Eagles, too. The Comm. Ave. rivals are scheduled for back-to-back matchups in January in addition to a first-round meeting in the Beanpot.
Some, like the Hockey East coaches made clear in their recent polls, think that the recent mass exodus of talent from BC will cripple the team’s chances in such a competitive conference. But Jesper and Julius are ready to fill in accordingly and affirm York’s ability to seamlessly replace premier talent on a yearly basis.
Sure, it will be an adjustment, but so is everything for the Mattila twins right now. Enrolled in CSOM, Jesper and Julius are taking challenging courses while still learning a second language.
“It’s hard, especially in the beginning. A lot of reading, a lot of new words we have never heard about,” Jesper said. “We have dictionaries in the classes, so some of the words we check in the dictionary, and then translate it into Finnish in our head, and then back to English.”
Luckily, on the ice, it’s all the same language: just 12 men and a puck. And when Jesper and Julius are playing, you can bet on unmatched natural chemistry and two beaming smiles to go along with it.
Featured Images by John Quackenbos / BC Athletics and Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor