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Score one for untraditional hockey markets: Arizona desert gave the NHL its next big star

Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, right, celebrates a first-period goal against the Senators with teammate William Nylander in his NHL debut  Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, in Ottawa, Ontario. Matthews scored four goals in the game, a debut record for the modern NHL. (Associated Press)

Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, right, celebrates a first-period goal against the Senators with teammate William Nylander in his NHL debut Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, in Ottawa, Ontario. Matthews scored four goals in the game, a debut record for the modern NHL. (Associated Press)

TORONTO — In the middle of the Arizona desert was a rink, if you could call it that, with a sheet of ice about a third the size of regulation. And above the rink were some bleachers. And in the bleachers would sit a kid. And next to the kid would be a duffel bag. And in the duffel bag would be a dozen hockey jerseys, each a different color, with "OZZIE ICE" and a logo of a snarling grizzly bear. And the kid would sit there until, inevitably, a couple of kids, usually older, would be short a player for their 3-on-3 game.

And there, in the bleachers, in the middle of the Arizona desert, young Auston Matthews would start digging through his bag.

For that kid to become what he is today — a 19-year-old rookie sensation who has arrived at the shores of Lake Ontario to help lift one of the most storied franchises in hockey out of the bleakest era in its history — a combination of unknowable fate and cold, hard calculation was required.

If he had been two days older, he might have been subject to the 2015 NHL draft instead of becoming the top overall pick in 2016, and thus would have wound up with someone besides the Toronto Maple Leafs.

If he hadn't defied decades of convention by playing professionally in Switzerland as an 18-year-old, he may not have exploded into the NHL with the greatest debut in league history: a four-goal game Oct. 12 in Ottawa.

But of all the twists and turns in Matthews's story, the most remarkable — and ultimately the most significant — is where he came from. "He's an absolute trailblazer," said Mike DeAngelis, the director of hockey for the Arizona Junior Coyotes youth program. "Auston is the outlier."

Because it was always understood that among the list of things you can't grow in the desert, at least without an inordinate amount of resources and care, at or near the top was this: hockey players.

And because young Auston Matthews had another duffel bag back home, stuffed with baseball gear, and had this been the 1980s, say, instead of the 2000s, the kid might have never been in those bleachers with those hockey jerseys. There might not have been enough resources or care in the entire Valley of the Sun to grow and nurture a hockey phenom out of the desert sand.

Twenty years earlier, Auston Matthews almost certainly would have played something else.

- - -

High above the ice, in the rafters at the Maple Leafs' practice facility, hang 13 banners, representing the franchise's Stanley Cup titles. If you didn't know any better, you might note the one that says "1967" and wonder what happened to the more recent ones. This is the Maple Leafs' centennial season. Left unsaid is that the entire second half of this storied century has gone by without a title.

"Everybody here knows the history. Everybody wants a title. Everybody wants the team to make the playoffs every year. Everybody wants Auston to be the guy," said Wendel Clark, the last player drafted by the Maple Leafs with the first overall pick, in 1985. "But the great thing about him is he's not here to be the guy, to be a savior. He's here to be the best player he can be and help the team. It can be a whirlwind here. But he has the right mind-set."

Two days after the home opener, Matthews, a 6-foot-3, 216-pound center, greeted an out-of-town reporter in the locker room with a "Nice to meet ya" and a handshake.

It was a big hand, a catcher's hand.

Matthews' father, Brian, was a junior college pitcher, and baseball was Auston's first sport. Over the years, it became clear the kid was immensely talented, a left-handed-hitting catcher with big-time power.

"I was pretty good," Matthews said matter-of-factly, without a trace of braggadocio. "My dad seems to think I could've gone pretty far. You never know, I guess."

Baseball was fine, but young Auston hated the long stretches between at-bats. Another sport was grabbing him by the heart, one that was faster, the action more constant. And in a land where the sun always beats down, there was something mysterious and alluring about a sport played on ice.

"I was always intrigued by it," Matthews said. "I loved baseball, too, but everyone knew hockey was my main passion. I would miss (baseball) practices and games for hockey. I think I always knew."

The NHL's Winnipeg Jets had moved to Phoenix and become the Coyotes in 1996, a year and a half before Ema Matthews — a native of Mexico who spoke no English when she met her future husband — gave birth to a boy named Auston, the second of their three children. They lived in the San Francisco Bay area, moving to Scottsdale, Ariz., when Auston was 2 months old.

Auston was a toddler when he attended his first Coyotes game, marveling at the Zamboni and the remote-controlled balloons that dropped prizes into the crowd. Baseball didn't know it yet, but it had just lost the heart of a potential great one. He quit baseball at age 13, when it began to interfere too much with hockey.

"If it wasn't for the Coyotes playing in the desert," said Pat Brisson, Matthews's agent, "there's no way Auston Matthews becomes a hockey player."

After being forced to repair one too many puck-sized holes in the drywall in their Scottsdale garage, the Matthewses eventually entered Auston in DeAngelis' Junior Coyotes program, but the cost of year-round travel hockey can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, which Brian and Ema couldn't always afford. So in the fall and winter, they would drive Auston to the lower-cost, smaller-sized Ozzie Ice, where he quickly gained renown.

"There were other people at the rink saying, 'Those parents are going to burn that kid out,' " said Sean Whyte, a former Los Angeles Kings player who managed Ozzie Ice. "And I would say, 'No, I'm pretty sure it's Auston who's going to burn his parents out.' "

For a few hours each week, Matthews would also take lessons in "power skating" from Boris Dorozhenko, a Ukranian coach with an unconventional technique that involved pirouettes, huge leaps and drills where the kids would have to balance on their heels for minutes at a time.

"When he was done working with the players, the ice was completely chopped up," Whyte said. "There were chunks of it everywhere."

All that 3-on-3 play on the tiny sheet of ice had a lasting effect: "He learned to stick handle in a phone booth," Whyte said. "When he went onto the larger sheets, it was like he was turned loose." Eventually, when the limitations of Arizona youth hockey couldn't contain him any longer, he was turned loose nationally.

- - -

It was a phone call Don Granato had never had to make in 20-plus years of coaching, including five years as head coach of the U.S. National Team Developmental Program. He had seen NHL first-rounders come through the program. But he had never seen anyone like Auston Matthews. Granato figured if the kid was his son, he would want to know what they were in for. So he called Brian Matthews. He said they needed to talk.

"I just had a gut feeling. 'I gotta call Brian and the family, right now, because their world is going to change, and fast,' " Granato recalled of that conversation in 2014, when Auston was 16 and nearly two years out from the 2016 draft. "I just said, 'Do you understand how good Auston is?' (Brian) said, 'I'm not sure, Coach.' I explained to him, 'Well, he's got a chance to be top in the top two or three in the draft two years from now.' … He had all the ingredients: An incredible athlete. A passion for the sport. And a purity about him. He's just in the moment, every day."

The idea to take Matthews to Switzerland instead of college or Canadian juniors came from his agents at Creative Artists Agency. The Matthews family quickly got on board, and on Sept. 17, 2015, Auston's 18th birthday, he made his debut for the Zurich Lions of the Swiss National League.

DeAngelis, the Junior Coyotes director, had spent time in the Swiss league during his playing days and said, "It's a grown-man's league. People were saying, 'He should be playing junior hockey.' But Auston would have destroyed junior hockey."

Nine months later, having won the Swiss league's Rising Star Award and finishing second in MVP voting — behind 31-year-old Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who had tallied 11 years and 347 points in the NHL — Matthews became the first American to go No. 1 in the draft since Patrick Kane in 2007, and the first from the Sun Belt.

"The kid from Phoenix going to a franchise like Toronto and being the first pick overall," Brisson said, "is almost like a kid from Quebec going on to be a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees."

And nearly four months after that, Matthews stepped onto the ice in Ottawa for his NHL debut. By the end of that night, Auston had done something unprecedented in modern league history — four goals in a debut — and his mother's tear-streaked face, up in the stands, had become famous across North America.

The second goal is already a thing of renown. You can watch it dozens of times and see something new each time. He bats down a hard pass from a teammate. He loses the puck briefly, then gains it back. He jukes past one Senators player, avoids a check by another at the boards, flicks the puck against the board to get past a third, picks the puck up again, crosses over a fourth defender in front of the net and goes five-hole for the score.

"It was unbelievable," said Craig Button, former Calgary Flames general manager and now an analyst for Canada's TSN TV network. "As you go through it and watch it — and watch it again and again — you're saying, 'Look what he just did here! Look at this, look at that!' You're going, 'Holy geez.' And that's his first NHL game, against some really good NHL players."

The NHL appears at the front edge of a new era of dynamic young superstars, with Connor McDavid in Edmonton, Jack Eichel in Buffalo and Patrick Laine in Winnipeg — all of them teenagers, all with the ability to become the Gretzky or Crosby of their era.

But those three also hail from traditional hockey hotbeds: Ontario, Massachusetts and Finland, respectively. You can drop a seed in the cold, naked earth in any of those places and come back in 18 years to find a fully grown hockey player.

In the Arizona desert, though, for that seed to grow into Auston Matthews, it takes nurturing and care, and it takes something else: someone, or something, to scoop it up from the burning sand and carry it inside, to the ice.

Score one for untraditional hockey markets: Arizona desert gave the NHL its next big star 10/22/16 [Last modified: Saturday, October 22, 2016 12:50am]
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