Cultivating hockey in the Arizona desert gave the NHL its next big star


TORONTO – In the middle of the Arizona desert was an ice rink, if you could call it that, with a sheet of ice about one-third the size of regulation. And above the rink were bleachers. And in the stands would be sitting a child. van riemsdyk jersey. And next child would be a travel bag. And in the duffel bag would be hockey jerseys a dozen, each a different color, with “ICE OZZIE” and a logo of a snarling grizzly bear. And the child would sit there until, inevitably, a couple of children, usually older, would be short-handed for their game 3-on-3.
And there, in the stands, in the desert of Arizona, young Auston Matthews would start rummaging in her bag.

For that child to become what it is today, a rookie sensation 19, who arrived on the shores of Lake Ontario to help remove one of the most legendary hockey the most franchises era dark in its history, a combination of both unknowable and out cold, hard calculation was necessary.

If he was two more days, he was subjected to the NHL draft in 2015, instead of becoming the top global recovery in 2016, and would have wound up with someone other than the Toronto Maple Leafs .

But of all the twists and turns in the story of Matthews, the most remarkable – and ultimately the most important – is where he came from. “It is an absolute pioneer,” said Mike DeAngelis, hockey manager for Youth Arizona Coyotes junior program. “Auston is the outlier.”

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

And because young Auston Matthews had another travel bag at home, stuffed with baseball gear and if this was the 1980s, for example, instead of 2000, the child was never in the stands with these hockey jerseys. It might not have been enough resources or care throughout the Sun Valley to grow and maintain a hockey phenom on the desert sand.


“Everyone here knows the story. Everyone wants one. Everyone wants the team to the playoffs every year. Everybody wants to be the guy Auston,” said Wendel Clark, the last player drafted by the Leafs with the first pick in 1985. “But the great thing about it is that it is not there to be the guy to be a savior. He is here to be the best player that it can be and help the team. it can be a whirlwind here. But he has the right mindset. ”

Two days after the opening of the house, Matthews, a 6-foot 3 216 pounds, welcomed a reporter outside the city in the locker room with a “Nice to meet there” and a handshake.

It was a big hand, the hand of a recipient.

Matthews father, Brian, was a junior college pitcher and baseball became the first sports Auston. Over the years, it became clear that the boy was immensely talented – a hard-hitting southpaw catcher with a big-time power.

“I’m pretty good,” Matthews said matter-of-factly, without a trace of bravado. “My father seems to think that I could have gone far enough. You never know, I guess.”


Winnipeg Jets NHL had moved to Phoenix to become the Coyotes in 1996, a year and a half before Ema Matthews – a native of Mexico who did not speak English when she first met her future husband – gave birth to a boy Auston named the second of their three children. They lived in the San Francisco Bay, moving to Scottsdale when Auston was two months.

Auston was an infant when he attended his first game of the Coyotes, amazed by the Zamboni and remote control balloons dropped prices in the crowd. Baseball did not know it yet, but he had lost the heart of a single-could’ve been great. He quit baseball at age 13, when he started too interfere with hockey.

“If there were not the Coyotes playing in the desert,” said Pat Brisson, the agent Matthews, “there is no way to Auston Matthews becomes a hockey player.”

After being forced to fix too many size washer holes in the drywall in their garage Scottsdale, the Matthewses finally entered in the junior program Auston Coyotes DeAngelis, but the cost of this year could run hockey Travel in the tens of thousands of dollars, which Brian and Ema could not always afford. So in the fall and winter, they drive Auston at lower cost, smaller Ozzie Ice, where he quickly gained fame.

“There were other people at the rink saying,” Parents will burn this kid, “said Sean Whyte, a former Kings player from Los Angeles who managed Ozzie Ice.” And I would say, “No, I ‘m pretty sure he’s Auston that will burn his parents there. ”

For a few hours each week, Matthews would also take lessons in “power skating” Boris Dorozhenko, a Ukrainian coach with an unconventional technique that involved pirouettes, huge jumps and exercises, where children have to balance on their heels for a few minutes at a time.


It was a phone call Don Granato has never had to do in 20 years of coaching, including five years as head coach of the national team of the US development program. He had seen the NHL first rounders come through the program. But he had never seen anyone like Auston Matthews. Granato figured if the child was his own son, he asked what they were for. He therefore called Brian Matthews. He said they needed to talk.

“I just had a gut feeling of – I have to call Brian and family at this time, because their world will change, and quickly,” Granato recalled this conversation in 2014, when Auston was 16 and ? still almost two years from the project in 2016. “I just said,” do you understand how good is Auston He said: “I’m not sure, Coach I explained.” well, he has a chance to be in top two or three in the draft two years from now “he had all the ingredients. an incredible athlete ….. a passion for sport and a purity of it – it is just in the moment, every day. ”

The idea of taking Matthews in Switzerland, instead of the NCAA or Junior Canadian, came to his agents at Creative Artists Agency. The Matthews family quickly got on board, and September 17, 2015, the 18th anniversary of Auston, he made his debut for the Zurich Lions of the Swiss National League.

DeAngelis, the junior director Coyotes, had spent time in the Swiss league during his playing days, and said, “He is the league of an adult man. People said: “He should play junior hockey. But Auston would have destroyed the junior hockey. ”

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

“The Phoenix kid goes to a franchise like Toronto, and to be the first choice,” Brisson said, “is almost like a child spends in Quebec to be a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees.”

And nearly four months after Matthews stepped on the ice in Ottawa for his NHL debut. At the end of that night, Auston had done something unprecedented in the history of the league – four goals in the first – and the tear-streaked face of his mother in the stands, became famous throughout the ‘North America.

The second objective is already a thing of legends. You can still watch and dozens of times – that millions have undoubtedly made – and see something new each time. He bats down a difficult pass from a teammate. He lost the puck briefly, then won back. Jukes it past a player Senators avoids a check by another in the boards, flicks the puck against the boards cross a third, picks up the puck again, crosses on a fourth defender in goal and goes five holes the score.

“It was incredible,” said Craig Button, former general manager of the Calgary Flames and now an analyst for TSN. “As you go through it and look at it – and watch again and again – you say,” Look at that he comes here look at this, look at that !! You go, ‘Geez Saint – and this is his first NHL game, against some very good players in the NHL. ”

NHL appears on 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 teenagers, all with the possibility of becoming the Gretzky Crosby or their time .

In the Arizona desert, though, for that seed to grow in Auston Matthews, we must maintain and care, and we need something else: someone, or something, to pick the burning sand and carry it inside, on ice.

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