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the long way home

When Auston Matthews was asked to consider the most substantial challenge he faced as an 18-year-old prodigy from Arizona spending a year playing professional hockey in Switzerland, one particular obstacle came to mind quickly.

It was not the speed of the Swiss league (though that is significant), nor was it the expectations that come with being a top NHL draft pick in waiting (though those are considerable). Rather, the complication that Matthews was thinking of was something that requires concentration, diligence and on-the-fly thinking, not to mention some measure of tactile dexterity.

"This might seem a little weird," he said, "but the recycling here is intense. I mean, like — intense."

He shrugged. "At our apartment building, if you don't have it right — bottles here, paper, you know — they yell at you. They take it very, very seriously. So we're still getting used to it."

Matthews readily acknowledged that a delayed acclimation to the anomalies of living in the world's greenest country was not an immense impediment in the grand scheme of things. But its mention is in some ways indicative of a more important reality for him: Matthews' unusual NHL gap year, such as it is, which he chose to spend as a European professional instead of playing college hockey or joining a junior team, has been notably smooth.

So far, Matthews — who has scored 11 goals and nine assists in 20 games for the first-place Zurich Lions — has fit in well, found success on the ice and, in his words, "already grown" as a player. Whether he might ultimately be seen as an early pioneer who adds another established path to the NHL for young hockey talents from North America is still to be determined, but Matthews says he has no regrets about his own choice.

"I don't think I did it to be a trendsetter or anything," he said. "I did it because I thought it was the right option for me."

It is not hard to see why. Matthews, a center, almost immediately became a critical part of the Lions' tactics, and in his very first game, on Sept. 18, he scored a goal, which helped put him at ease.

Since then, not all has been perfect; he missed about a month with a back injury after sliding headfirst into the boards. But there is little question that Matthews is suited for professional hockey. Playing on a team that has its share of veterans and is coached by Marc Crawford — who won a Stanley Cup while coaching the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 — Matthews has, with great effect, combined the copious tips he gets from his older teammates with his own instincts.

"I have nothing against college hockey or junior hockey," Matthews said. "They produce tons and tons of really great players. But to have this opportunity — to live over here, to play in this league — it just seemed right."

Still, the decision to leave home and take up residence in a city known for its financial institutions, culture and, at least lately, early-morning arrests of soccer officials was not easy.

Matthews was born on Sept. 17, 1997, nearly two weeks later than his mother's due date and two days after the Sept. 15 cutoff that would have made him eligible for the 2015 NHL draft.

For most teenagers, that distinction would not have mattered much, but Matthews has shown a preternatural ability on the ice since he was a little boy, according to his mother, Ema. Early on, it became clear that professional hockey was his goal.

Matthews went to his first Coyotes game when he was 3 and "always had a stick in his hand," Ema said, ultimately giving up his other sports love, baseball, to focus exclusively on hockey in middle school.

"Once it was clear that he was really into hockey and really good, I was thinking about it like most mothers: Great, he can get a scholarship to college," Ema said. "But this isn't about me. When we saw his love for the game and his passion, we decided as a family that we wanted to support that even if it was in a different way."

The players selected first and second in the 2015 NHL draft took more traditional routes: Connor McDavid, a center with the Edmonton Oilers, spent several years playing junior hockey for the Erie Otters, and Jack Eichel, a center with the Buffalo Sabres, played the 2014-15 season with Boston University, winning the Hobey Baker Award for top collegiate player.

"We looked at every option with Auston and his family, and they asked all the right questions," said Judd Moldaver, one of Matthews's agents at CAA. "Then, with Zurich, it all just sort of fell into place."

He was talking about the serendipitous scheduling in which Matthews competed in an international youth tournament in Switzerland this year, scoring eight goals and seven assists in seven games. Crawford, who was at the tournament, sold Matthews on the upside of playing in Zurich in a meeting after the tournament ended. Part of the appeal, Matthews said, was playing for Crawford, who has had a longtime relationship with a leader of CAA's hockey division, Pat Brisson.

"Marc's experience and presence there made it an easy decision from that standpoint," Brisson said. "We knew he would be in great hands for his development and progression both on and off the ice."

Matthews arrived in Zurich this fall and lives in an apartment with his mother, who left her job in the United States to move with her son. Matthews's father, Brian, remained in Arizona with his younger sister, Breyana, who is 13. Another sister, Alexandria, is a student at Arizona State but took a semester off to spend much of this fall in Zurich as well.

Matthews will return to the United States this week to join the junior national team for its training camp ahead of the world championships in Finland at the end of the month.

The family has endured some of the attendant quirks of Americans living abroad — finding cilantro in a grocery store is next to impossible, Ema said, while Matthews bemoaned the lack of Chipotle burritos — but has largely adjusted well to European life.

During a recent break in the schedule, Matthews and his mother went to Paris for a quick vacation.

Around Zurich, Matthews is mostly anonymous, though he is often recognized by fans when he is near the team's training center or on game days at the arena. A sports newspaper plastered Matthews' picture on its cover recently, proclaiming, "Jungstar Matthews ist der Beste der Neuen," or, roughly, "Young Star Matthews Is the Best of the Rookies." After games, Matthews often does interviews, though — thankfully, he said — they are in English and not German.

As for any potential hazing at the expense of his older teammates, Matthews said his age had not really been held against him. The only obligation he has as a new player, he said, is to help clean up the team's bus at the end of every road trip.

The work is tedious — food wrappers, drink bottles and other trash typically litter the floor — but Matthews is conscientious, if only because he knows how serious proper garbage disposal is taken here. "I don't mind doing it," he said. "I just make sure I follow the lead of the other guys so things go in the right bag."

the long way home 12/15/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 15, 2015 3:38pm]
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