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Auston Matthews focused on helping U.S. win gold

by Mike G. Morreale

BOSTON -- Ron Wilson, coach of the United States national junior team, feels Auston Matthews is a more confident player this week than the one he saw four months ago.

Matthews left the United States to play for Zurich in Switzerland's top professional league following USA Hockey's National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., in August. He returned to the U.S. this week for the four-day U.S. Junior Select Camp at Boston University.

Wilson knows Matthews needs to play a huge role if the United States is going to have any success in the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland beginning Dec. 26. He also knows the pressure will be on, but the fact Matthews has spent the past three months playing against men and for a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Marc Crawford in Switzerland might alleviate some of the heat.

"For an 18-year-old, he has gone out and faced other team's top import players and they're good defensively too," Wilson said. "He had to handle all the big faceoffs and he did a good job with that. I'm really curious to see how well he plays in this tournament against his peers, because he's dominated among men this season."

Matthews has taken the accolades in stride and continues to stress his intention of keeping his world small, as did Jack Eichel for the United States at the 2015 WJC even as the media attempted to create a three-ring circus.

"I remember the way Eichel and [Connor McDavid of Canada] handled themselves on and off the ice with all the media attention at last year's [World Junior Championship]," Matthews said. "They kept it to themselves, didn't really get too attached to it and focused on the team. That's how I want to work it."

Matthews, an A-rated prospect on NHL Central Scouting's November players to watch list, took the time this week to discuss several topics with in advance of the 2016 WJC.

Here is the interview:

What has been most difficult playing in Switzerland's top professional league?

"I think it's a lot faster and it forces you to really elevate your game, make quicker plays and be alert at all times. It's obviously a pretty high-skilled league and there's a lot of dangerous players, especially in the defensive zone. You have to be aware where players are and make sure you're in the right position."

What is it like playing for the fans in Switzerland? How has the media been?

"It's pretty cool. There are some cool rinks and it's a great atmosphere in all of them. There's always one section at each arena, kind of like college hockey, where it's similar to a student section but they have flags and banners and just non-stop chanting. Then there's the other team's section as well, and they're always going at it with each other. It's fun to be there and be right in the middle of that atmosphere. I think there's a big fan base in Zurich, and it's a well-recognized city. Zurich is obviously a team that's been known for winning, and that's kind of what fans and media expect from us, so it's pretty widely covered in Switzerland, but nothing is too crazy and everyone is respectful."

Do you feel a need to play very well at the World Junior Championship to prove to fans and scouts that Auston Matthews is the real deal?

"Yes. Especially a tournament that's as widely broadcasted as this one. You want to personally play well, but in the end, it's all about coming home with hardware, and that's really the only option when it comes to this tournament. You have to put your personal pride aside and do whatever you can to help the team win."

How do you define a generational player, and would you like to be considered in that company?

"It's hard to kind of describe. You look at players such as [Sidney] Crosby, [Patrick] Kane and [Jonathan] Toews; they are all winners and they compete hard and are so skilled. They are those players who put you on the edge of your seat. For sure, I am striving to become a player like that. My dream is to play in the NHL and be an impact player each night and obviously get better and better as I get older and continue to elevate my game."

Does leadership come naturally or can it be taught?

"I think it's different for everybody. To be a leader, I don't think you really need a letter on your jersey. I think it's just the way you carry yourself on and off the ice and just being a good person and teammate. Hard work can go a long ways to becoming a leader."

Do you consider yourself a leader?

"Yes. I'm not really the most vocal person, but I think when it comes to working hard and always competing, I think I definitely bring that to the table."

You broke Patrick Kane's single-season scoring records at USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in 2014-15. What are the odds you can one day have a point in 26 straight NHL games as he recently did?

"That's a pretty unbelievable accomplishment. I was watching his game against the Colorado Avalanche when his 26-game streak ended [on Dec. 15]. Nobody has seen this type of streak in such a long time and especially in this era of hockey. It's so much harder to do that. He's probably the best player in the world right now, fun to watch, and it's pretty exciting."


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