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Auston Matthews: From the Arizona desert to the Center of the Hockey Universe

Auston Matthews has come from a non-traditional market via a non-traditional route to become the next superstar on the NHL horizon.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Surely, the Matthews residence in Scottsdale, Arizona is a lovely abode. But when Auston Matthews was growing up, he tended not to stay within its walls for very long, even through the Xbox era. That’s because there were always sports to play outdoors. The neighborhood was full of kids up for games of football, soccer and basketball, while organized hockey and baseball went year-round thanks to summer hockey all-star tournaments and Arizona’s perfect ballpark climate. Auston’s father, Brian, must shoulder some of the blame for this as well, however. A college pitcher who went on to play semi-pro, he loved to challenge his son in the batter’s box. And the right-handed Brian had more than just fastballs in his arsenal against the left-batting Auston. Brian hurled sinkers and filthy stuff fathers don’t typically give sons. “I was throwing everything at him, mixing it up,” Brian said. “He never knew what was coming. But his hand-eye co-ordination was uncanny.” Auston was a catcher and a hard-hitting one at that. Coaches told him there was more money to be made on the diamond than the ice rink, but the Arizona Kid wasn’t having it. When time constraints forced him to choose between sports at 13, baseball lost out handily. “Auston was a better baseball player than he was a hockey player, but the game wasn’t fast enough for him,” said his mom, Ema. “He needed motion.”

Lately, Auston hasn’t stopped moving. From Arizona to Michigan, Switzerland and Russia, he has gone where the hockey is. And the next step is the draft podium, where he will be a game-changer in Toronto. The kid they call ‘Papi’ is the type of player franchises are built around, a dominating center with size, instincts and skating ability. But no high-end draft prospect from North America had ever gone to play pro in Europe as a teenager, something Matthews did when he shocked the hockey world by signing a one-year pro deal with Switzerland’s Zurich Lions last summer. For Matthews to not only attempt the trick but also succeed brilliantly is quite the feat. He was one of the top offensive threats in all of Switzerland this season, leading the Lions in goal scoring despite missing a month with a back injury. He also had to wait about a month when he arrived in town due to immigration issues that dictated he had to be 18 to suit up for the club. As he waited, Matthews ingratiated himself in the Lions’ culture, practising hard and taking on the traditional rookie duties of packing up the team bus and cleaning it out when the team got back from games. Because the Swiss League allows only four import players per team, those skaters need to be impactful, and it’s rare for one to be young. All eyes were on the teen, and he came through immediately. “He totally won over the Swiss players,” said Marc Crawford, who coached Zurich this season. “He didn’t need any special treatment, and he didn’t expect it…Swiss players can be cynical, but even they said, ‘Wow, this is kid is talented.’ ” Now back in the U.S., Matthews can reflect on a truly unique and remarkable season. He’s got the chocolates and team posters to remind him of his time in Switzerland, but he also has the memories of a gamble that paid off. If there is one aspect of Matthews’ on-ice game that separates him from the pack, it’s the cool confidence that allows him to try things most others won’t. He’s unique in his creativity, enough so that one executive even believed Matthews was home schooled. (For the record, he wasn’t.) The scary part for his opponents is he often succeeds when freelancing in-game, and NHL execs love that even if he fails, he doesn’t get weighed down by it. “I have enough confidence in my abilities to make an impact,” he said. “It’s about going in with an open mind but having confidence to make plays and to be a player.”

Matthews is the creation of Brian, the chief technology officer for an east-coast firm, and Ema, a former flight attendant from Hermosillo, Mexico, who has also worked in real estate and education. The two met at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and Auston was born a bit north in San Ramon, just outside San Francisco, though he was raised in Scottsdale. Competitive instincts came naturally, especially when it was cards night in the Matthews household. The clan plays for keeps, and it wasn’t unusual for someone to storm away from the table. “The whole family is competitive,” Brian said. “There’s a lot of chirping – in English, in Spanish…the knives come out.” Brian and Ema also made sure their children stayed active, with a family mandate that each kid had to pick two sports. For Auston, it was baseball and hockey (younger sister Breyana, 13, is now a rising golf star, while older sister Alexandria, 21, now studies at Arizona State). At first blush, you’d think baseball would have won out. Brian had taken Auston to NHL Coyotes games, but the bug wasn’t there right away. “He couldn’t really have cared less about the game until the Zamboni came out,” Brian said. “He was fascinated by that.” It was a different story once Auston took the ice. He was always one of the strongest players on his team, even when he was little, and the fire burned inside. “Right off the bat we could tell,” Brian said. “It was going to be hockey.” As it turned out, Matthews came along at a great time for hockey in the desert. Arizona has long been a target of disdain for angry Canadian fans who would rather see an NHL team in Saskatoon than the Sun Belt, but other folks from the Great White North have helped populate the local hockey culture. On top of regular hockey parents, you also had ex-NHLers putting down roots around Phoenix, leading to some of the first serious prospects to come out of the area. Henrik Samuelsson and Brendan Lemieux, for example, got their good hockey genes from dads Ulf and Claude, respectively. Players born between 1994 and 1996 (the Coyotes’ first year in Arizona) paved the way for growing success. And this year, players born in 2002 led the Arizona Bobcats to the prestigious Quebec Peewee tournament championship, beating Detroit’s Little Caesar’s in the final. Ron Filion coached that team of 2002s, and he also coached Matthews for years with the program. A former QMJHL player and ECHL bench boss, Filion has seen a lot of hockey, but he saw something special in Matthews, especially on the rush. “We didn’t know what he was going to do,” Filion said. “The opponents didn’t know what he was going to do, and half the time maybe he didn’t even know. Papi was very creative. He would pull off moves where you’d say, ‘Where did that come from?’ ” Playing in Arizona meant a lot of travel for Matthews – first to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, then to destinations across the continent. But he didn’t really know how good he was until he tried out for the Michigan-based U.S. National Team Development Program. A leg injury during his under-17 season kept him off the radar of mass audiences, though scouts who’d seen him raved about the kid. As an under-18 star, he thrashed the NTDP record books, racking up more points in one season than any player in program history. Matthews ended up with 117 points in 60 games, surpassing Patrick Kane’s record of 102 in 58 games.) And while Matthews loves his home in the desert, NTDP headquarters in Ann Arbor (it’s now in Plymouth, Mich., about 20 minutes away) gave the youngster a concentrated hockey market that included University of Michigan games and the Detroit Red Wings just a short jog down the highway. During his tenure with the NTDP, Matthews did more than just score goals. He also set the pace. One of the traits that differentiates him from players who are just very good is the competitive motor he brings to games, something NTDP roommate and St. Louis Blues goalie prospect Luke Opilka observed. “He was more of a quiet leader,” Opilka said. “On the ice, he was one of the hardest workers and everybody drew off that.” And if it wasn’t for his NTDP placement, Matthews’ Swiss adventure may have never taken off in the first place. As a late birthday, Matthews missed the cut-off for the 2015 NHL draft by two days. As an underager, he earned his way onto the U.S. World Junior Championship squad for the 2015 tournament in Montreal and Toronto, holding his own on a team that went down to the Russians in the quarterfinal. That’s when he and his family began to think about the future. Several WHL teams visited, including Everett, the franchise that owned his major junior rights. The NCAA was also an option, though Matthews would have had to jam a lot of schoolwork in to be eligible. Then the world under-18s came in the spring. The Swiss towns of Zug and Lucerne played host, and Matthews led an NTDP-dominated squad to defend what is perennially their tournament to rule (Canada is hamstrung by CHL playoffs, which are going on at the same time). Indeed, the Americans won gold again, and Matthews led the tournament with 15 points in seven games, taking MVP honors. Crawford saw a lot of those games. He first caught Matthews in action at the world juniors and took in 10 more games at the under-18s. Crawford was coaching Zurich, and no road rink is too far when you’re on that circuit. He saw Matthews four times in that tournament and was left intrigued. “His skating ability and efficiency played out right away,” Crawford said. “Coupled with his size and the fact he always seemed to have the puck…they couldn’t get it off him. There was maybe one player per team that had a chance.” Crawford began talking to Matthews’ agent, Pat Brisson, who was looking for an alternate development path for his client. The coach knew Brisson (who also represents Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews) from his days behind the bench with the Kings in Los Angeles, where the pair became not only industry contacts but also friends. “I don’t know who came up with the idea – it wasn’t me,” Crawford said. “But it was a good idea.” Could Matthews play pro in Europe instead of the traditional major junior or NCAA route? The kid certainly had the mental makeup and physical tools to do it. Crawford approached Matthews’ parents about Zurich after the second game of the under-18s but didn’t dare disturb the teenaged center until after the Americans clinched gold. What began as an idea quickly became a mission. Matthews and his parents bought in, and the wheels were in motion. Not that it was easy. Brisson and fellow agent Judd Moldaver had to plow through paperwork and precedent to get Matthews eligible for a Swiss work visa, and the process stretched over months. For fans and outsiders not privy to the work going on behind the scenes, Matthews seemed to be dithering on his decision. Brisson and Moldaver kept asking the teen if he wanted to keep following the Swiss option, and every time Matthews coolly told them to continue. He would be patient.

When the paperwork was eventually sorted, the Matthews family had to decide who would go over with Auston. Ema got the nod, while Brian stayed back in the U.S. with Breyana. Alexandria spent some time in Switzerland at the beginning, helping Auston with his remaining high school assignments. Ema usually cooked for Auston twice a day, and the 6-foot-2, 188-pounder required a healthy amount of food. Switzerland isn’t exactly a Costco kind of country, however, so appliances in their new place were a lot smaller than they were used to. That meant Ema needed to go grocery shopping every day, buying only what she needed in the short term. As for Mexican ingredients, they were hard to come by, though not impossible. For Auston’s 18th birthday, Ema cooked him and the team an entire Mexican feast, with a pinata tossed in for good measure. Crawford said it the best Mexican food he and his wife ever had. After two years away from family in Michigan, Matthews got to spend more time with his mom in Europe. During one break, he took her to Paris for a couple days. The atmosphere around the picturesque city was great for both of them on an individual level. “Anywhere you turned, it was a beautiful view,” Ema said. “Coming from the desert, I would look around and see green everywhere and think, wow, it does exist.” Auston’s free time in Switzerland was often spent walking around downtown with teammates or taking a stroll by Lake Zurich. That tranquility may work against his dogged on-ice persona, but both halves are part of his personality. On the ice is where the beast comes out, and that’s why his potential is so high. Crawford has worked with a plethora of elite talent during his coaching career, having seen the early years of Peter Forsberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Jamie Benn and Anze Kopitar. Those players were all adept at stealing pucks by picking them off. Although Matthews has the reach to do that, he often does his thievery in the corners – a trait that will serve him well at the NHL level where battle level is key. Like all prospects, he will have to get stronger, but there’s no doubt he will. In the meantime, he put a priority on defense this season, and one of the reasons he liked Crawford’s pitch for Zurich is that the coach wanted to work on the teen’s positioning. “Offensive players think the game differently,” Crawford said. “They anticipate and they see opportunities where there may be danger, so you try to teach them about risk.” And the management of said risk. That’s why Matthews got a steady diet of video featuring Kopitar and Jonathan Toews. Those two NHL stars are usually on the right side of the puck in the defensive zone and always have their heads on a swivel. But difference-makers need to provide offense as well. Racking up points has never been an issue, and it wasn’t a problem in Zurich. “When it came to the D-zone, there’s positioning,” Matthews said. “But in the offensive zone they gave me a lot of freedom for creativity.” Just hit up Vine or YouTube to get lost in Auston highlights. They’re not hard to find. Playing with Robert Nilsson – the former NHLer whose dad is Kent ‘Magic Man’ Nilsson – Matthews found a kindred spirit with whom to torture opposing teams. Nilsson and Matthews finished 1-2 in Lions scoring, but the party came crashing down in the first round of the playoffs, when Zurich was swept by underdog SC Bern. Crawford maintains that Bern – the team that had fired Guy Boucher as coach during the season – had underachieved and faltered due to injuries, only to come together at the right time. Zurich, on the other hand, was a young team that couldn’t keep overachieving at the right time. The loss led to Crawford’s ousting in Zurich, while Matthews got a big rest when players don’t necessarily want one. But the teenager’s season wasn’t finished, as he was the first player named to the U.S. World Championship team, following in the footsteps of Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, a buddy and fellow draft phenom who has been there for Matthews ever since the two were roommates at the 2015 WJC. Eichel had an incredibly big magnifying glass on him last year, as he and Canadian counterpart Connor McDavid torched scoresheets and filled sports columns with their exploits on the ice. So he knows what Matthews will continue to face during his draft year. “I like to keep things simple and just shoot the breeze with him,” Eichel said. “I tell him to relax, because you can get bent out of shape about all this stuff. He’s a great player, a great person and a hard worker.” In a way, Matthews’ Swiss adventure was a double-edged sword. Being in Zurich for the season meant far fewer reporters visiting him, but that will only ramp up expectations for him as an NHL rookie, when most fans and pundits get to see him in person for the first time. Even the world juniors were in Europe this year, with Matthews leading the U.S. to a bronze medal in Finland, whereas Eichel had to deal with hostile Canadians in Montreal, and McDavid had the pressure of winning gold on home ice in Toronto. Fortunately, Matthews doesn’t really get rattled. “He’s loose,” Filion said. “I’ve rarely seen Papi stressed. He wants to compete on the ice, but in the room, you don’t see the stress.” Cool and confident, powerful and skilled. The always-in-motion Matthews next move is to take over the hockey world – and he will not be deterred.

This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

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