The start of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on everything from sports to everyday life was still weeks away when Matt Cairns decided he might be better served finishing his college hockey career elsewhere, besides Cornell.

But he didn’t want to leave the Big Red without that Ivy League diploma, so he began to look into finishing his bachelor’s degree in applied economics and management with a focus in finance early. Once he learned that was possible in April — via six classes over the summer — he entered the NCAA transfer portal.

“Duluth was one of the first teams to reach out, and I had made a list of a few teams that I definitely wanted to pursue or look at,” Cairns said. “They were at the top of the list, no question. It just so happened the next week they called.”

From there things moved fast, Cairns said, allowing him to refocus his brain on finishing his degree so he could play for the Bulldogs right away in 2020-21 as a graduate transfer.

Cairns, a 2016 third-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers, played in just 19 games last season as a junior at Cornell, including just one of the Big Red’s final eight games. Meanwhile at UMD this year, the 6-foot-2, 203-pound senior defenseman has suited up for all 13 games and has four assists going into the Bulldogs games against Western Michigan on Saturday and Sunday at Amsoil Arena.

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Cairns was a guest this week on the News Tribune’s Bulldog Insider Podcast with college hockey reporter Matt Wellens and guest co-host Kelly Hinseth (filling in for her My9 Sports colleague Zach Schneider).

Below are edited excerpts from this week’s episode. You can listen to the full episode — produced by News Tribune multimedia producer Samantha Erkkila — on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

UMD was at the top of your list. From a guy at another school — from the outside looking in — what was so appealing for you about this program?

“I mean, obviously, the two championships to start right there — that's the biggest thing. I knew a lot about the coaching staff and a lot about what their values were. They have such a good combination of being able to, want to win because that's the ultimate goal, but also wanting their players to play at the next level. There has to be a balance between the two because obviously players want to play the next level, but they want to win as well. Those complement each other very well. Also, Duluth was losing some key parts on the back end and I was hoping to step in and be able to help this team as much as I could to win. I felt like it was a great scenario.

“I remember talking to one of my teammates, who helped me along with this process, Yanni Kaldis. We were just talking about different schools and where he thought I would fit in best. We both agreed that Duluth had a very similar culture to Cornell in a sense of a winning culture, a team culture, and that's where I thought I would fit in best.”

What originally brought you from Mississauga, Ontario, to Cornell?

“There's a few factors actually. Kind of like Duluth in this process, they were one of the first teams to talk to me coming out of junior hockey. I was drafted into the OHL (Ontario Hockey League, major junior). And kind of in Ontario, that's what every kid dreams of, playing in the OHL. That's what you want to do. You watch them growing up. I was drafted by the Peterborough Petes and they wanted me to come and play. They wanted me to sign right away with them after they drafted me, but they wanted me to go back to tier II junior and play for a bit, which I didn't want to do because then you give up your NCAA rights. So I decided to play (tier II) junior for a bit.

“Once I started talking to some schools, I really wanted to try and go to an Ivy League school. That was something that, just for me, I really wanted to do. (Cornell’s) hockey program there with the school, they were both unbelievable together. Another thing too, is it was only four hours away from home. It was right over the border there. That was huge for me because my parents were able to come. My parents, I could see them on weekends and things like that, I can go home for Christmas, just so many of those things.

“From the school standpoint and the hockey, the two combined together were amazing. Those three years were a great experience for me. I say this to everybody: ‘Obviously, the hockey wasn't what I expected to be and what I hoped it would have been, but if I had to do this all over again, I would do it all over again. I would go back there 100 percent.’ I got my degree and did everything I could. It just worked out really, really well this way for me.”

Minnesota Duluth defenseman Matt Cairns (22) and Denver forward Jake Durflinger (16) exchange words between plays as an official tries to break them up in the second period Wednesday, Dec. 2, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. (Tyler Schank / File / The Rink Live)
Minnesota Duluth defenseman Matt Cairns (22) and Denver forward Jake Durflinger (16) exchange words between plays as an official tries to break them up in the second period Wednesday, Dec. 2, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. (Tyler Schank / File / The Rink Live)

What was the transition like? Was it tough coming from Cornell and the ECAC to UMD and the NCHC?

“It definitely wasn't an easy transition. The guys have helped me tremendously with that and the coaching staff as well. My situation was just so unique being able to transfer as a graduate transfer. I was just so grateful and so happy that everything worked out. I kind of just wanted to put my head down and work as hard as I could. I just have that mentality of putting in everything that I can and if it ends up working out, that's great. And if it didn't, then I knew that I could look myself in the mirror and say that I did everything that I possibly could.

“That transition, in terms of the hockey standpoint, it definitely was a little bit faster. I've definitely tried to use some of my (attributes) to my advantage — obviously my size and things like that. But there's been things that I have definitely struggled with too. The coaches have been awesome helping me with that and the guys here. I think it's been really good and hopefully, we can definitely turn this the second half of the season around and really start putting some wins together for the end of the year.”

What was it like to be introduced to a new program virtually? How much of being welcomed and making the transition done on Zoom or connecting for the first time on social media?

“Yeah, it's so different. We talk about this actually, all the time, because of the interactions that we can have. We can't really have the whole team together, we can't do things that we would normally do, we can't hang out. I've noticed that the most with bringing the freshmen into the program. In a normal year, every would want to be hanging out with the freshmen, doing all this kind of stuff with the freshmen because we want to have them in, and even myself included in there as a new guy. But you just can't because of the rules and the circumstances that we're in right now. A lot of those things you can't control and that's something I've learned, crazy, over my career that just to control the things that you can control. We make the most of it. We do things where we can, if we're just by our houses, hanging out with some guys, or we use Zoom or other small group stuff like that. You just have to make the most of it. We have to be safe and follow the rules and just control we can control.”

What has it been like being paired with freshmen defensemen Connor Kelley and Darian Gotz this season? Playing alongside these younger players, have you been in this kind of mentorship role before and how comfortable or familiar are you with the role?

“Actually, no I haven't been in that role. I would say my freshman year, other guys were in that role with me. I’ve tried to take what they did with me and the things they helped me with tremendously over there at Cornell.

“I've loved playing with those guys, both Darian and Connor are great players. They're going to be great players for this team. Being a freshman, you're coming in a little bit nervous about things and I'm happy to help them with everything. I try to help them as much as I can. I always say this to Connor, too, I'm always talking and saying things to him about things that he needs to do, things that I used to do. I'm always telling him that I'm just talking because, it helps me too. And it helps them as well. They've been doing a tremendous job, been really happy with the way they've been able to give us some great minutes on the back end there. We're really looking forward to the second half of the season and being together as partners with either of them as well.”