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Hockey Heroes: Auston Matthews

by Cat Silverman / Arizona Coyotes

People don’t traditionally think of hockey as a primary sport in the desert, but the potential success that 18 year old centre Auston Matthews could bring to the NHL may change that.

Matthews is a testament to the growth of hockey in Arizona.

If he follows true with the predictions that he’ll get drafted first overall at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, he’ll be just the second product of Arizona’s youth hockey development system to get drafted in the first round – ever. If he hits the NHL full-time next season, as many expect him to, he’ll be the first Arizona-raised hockey player to accomplish that feat.

Twenty years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible; while Matthews is a generational talent, he’s also the perfect example of what the sport of ice hockey has become to residents of the valley. When he started playing in the early 2000’s, there weren’t enough competitive boys players to make up a single Tier I junior team; now, there are enough to make up two full rosters, with more coming down the pipeline.

Seem surprising? For those who know Matthews – such as his former youth coach Pat Mahan, a coach for the NAPHL’s AAA Arizona Bobcats – he’s the perfect example of why you don’t have to grow up surrounded by snow to be excellent at the sport, so it isn’t that much of a shock.

Photo by Jason Cakebread

“As good of a player as Auston is, he’s equally as good of a person,” suggested Mahan.

“You see somebody like Auston and you just think, ‘oh, he’s just a great player.’ But it’s how much work he’s put into it, and all of his decisions geared towards getting better at hockey have been based on development.

Obviously, he went to the USNDP to develop at the highest level, and now he’s in Switzerland looking to develop… but he’s always looking to get better. He’s never satisfied, but in a good way; he always puts in the work needed to get better.”

It’s that attitude that will bring an impact to Arizona regardless of where Matthews is drafted.

The dream is to see Matthews don a Coyotes jersey at the 2016 Draft in Buffalo, but a whole slew of factors would have to fall in favor of Arizona for that to happen. The team is sitting just outside a post-season berth, which would eliminate them from the lottery for the first overall draft pick – but even if they do fail to reach the playoffs, they’d need to win a weighted lottery in order to earn the coveted pick necessary to select the homegrown talent.

Still, though, his work ethic will make an impact on Arizona regardless of where he goes. Younger children will have an attainable goal with a real-life hero when they sign up to play hockey, and good relationships with his junior teams could mean visits from Matthews no matter where he ends up around the NHL. His success will make Arizona’s junior hockey system look more attractive to incoming skaters, growing the prevalence of hockey in the region with every skater who opts to choose Arizona for their development path. He’ll bring more attention to the NHL in the valley, particularly among young fans – and with children making up the most important part of a developing fan base, that’s huge.

“What will happen,” suggested Mahan, “is that we’ll constantly hear that the kid from Scottsdale will do this, or that the kid who was drafted from Scottsdale is performing well.”

“If you ask any hockey player or parent in Arizona if they know Auston Matthews, they already do. That exposure will only continue to grow.”

Matthews doesn’t come from rich hockey bloodlines. His mother is from Mexico, and his father – a California native – had never been fully exposed to hockey before Auston became interested in the sport. He played baseball for a chunk of his youth as well, excelling in both sports before opting to stick with hockey full-time – further proof that snow doesn’t have to fall outside for kids to fall in love with the game. Matthews didn’t shoot pucks on a pond in his backyard like P.K. Subban, and he doesn’t have generations of famous uncles and cousins like the Sutters or the Stastnys.

He did, though, have a brand-new hockey team to fall in love with when he was just seven years old, and heroes to look up to. Now, he’ll become one of those heroes to kids just like himself – if there was ever a success story in hockey as a growing game, this is one.

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