SAN JOSE -- Four years ago, Auston Matthews attended the Western Conference Final. He was just a kid then. Well, make that an even younger kid than he is now.
Matthews was 14 and a fan of the Phoenix Coyotes, as they were known then, watching his hometown team play the Los Angeles Kings as part of the WhiteOut at Jobing.com Arena.
"Oh yeah," Matthews said with a smile. "I was rocking a white shirt."
Matthews will attend Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday. He's 18 but already has played a season of professional hockey with Zurich in National League A, Switzerland's top professional league, and finished second in voting for the league's most valuable player award. Then he skated with NHL players at the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Russia. He led the United States in goals (six) and tied for the lead in points (nine).
A 6-foot-2, 216-pound center, Matthews is No. 1 among international skaters in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking and could go No. 1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs when the 2016 NHL Draft is held at First Niagara Center in Buffalo on June 24-25.
The NHL has invited some of the top draft prospects to the Stanley Cup Final since 1993 to give them a peek at the finish line before they start. Matthews will watch the San Jose Sharks host the Pittsburgh Penguins at SAP Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports) along with four other forwards: Pierre-Luc Dubois of Cape Breton in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Patrik Laine of Tappara in Finland, Alexander Nylander of Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League and Matthew Tkachuk of London of the OHL.
What is Matthews most eager to see?
"Everything," he said. "I'm looking forward to everything. I like kind of picking out specific players and watching what they do, whether it's in pregame skate or warmups or in the game. Obviously there's a lot of players to pick from on both teams."
Matthews listed some of them: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins; Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau of the Sharks.
What will he ask if he gets the chance?
"I'm just going to keep my mouth shut probably."
"They're busy trying to win the Stanley Cup."
Matthews is a special player at a special time in his life and career. He comes across as a normal person but he's taken an abnormal path. He has the talent and experience to be confident and comfortable with where he is now and where he is going, and yet he's still so young that everything's new and exciting. He seems to appreciate how cool and crazy all of this is.
He was born not far from here in San Ramon, Calif., less than an hour up the freeway north of San Jose. His parents moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., when he was about 2 months old, and his father and uncle started taking him to Coyotes games when he was about 2 years old. He played other sports growing up, but his passion became hockey. He loved the speed, the stickhandling, the shooting. He loved watching Coyotes like Shane Doan and Daniel Briere.
Fast forward a few years and he's skating with Doan and other Coyotes in the summer. He's playing for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program with future NHL players like Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin and Dylan Larkin. He's breaking the program scoring record set by Patrick Kane, the last American to be picked No. 1 in the NHL draft (2007). He's playing in Switzerland against men.
It has been a blur lately. After Zurich was eliminated from the National League A playoffs in March, he came home to Arizona and went to a couple of Coyotes games. Then it was off to Florida for two weeks of training. Then it was off to Michigan for two more weeks of training. Then it was off to Russia for the World Championship. As the youngest player on a team full of NHL players, he kept quiet in the dressing room but made a statement on the ice.
"I don't know if it's nervous or just kind of like … you don't want to step on any toes I guess," he said. "But I think when it comes to practice and games, everybody's a hockey player out there. You want to do what you do best and play to your abilities. As far as that goes I don't think that's really a problem for me.
"I think I learned a lot just playing against Canada and Russia. Their rosters are filled with NHL studs and All-Stars. I felt I held my own pretty well against them. I thought I got better each game."
Four days after returning from Russia, Matthews was at the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo, going through interviews and physical testing. He flew home from Buffalo to Scottsdale on Saturday, and then was off to San Jose and the Stanley Cup Final.
You never would have known he was 18 as he walked into the hotel by himself or sat down at a café with a coffee Sunday. He has gotten to do some things regular kids get to do. Last year he went to the prom for Ann Arbor Pioneer High, the school the NTDP players attend. He had a blast. But he has gotten to do some things regular kids can't even imagine.
And Monday he will go behind the scenes at the Stanley Cup Final. And in less than three weeks he likely will go No. 1 at the NHL draft. And in September he will play for Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey as the youngest on a roster of 23-and-under stars from the U.S. and Canada. And in October he likely will make his NHL debut.
It's a dream in the process of coming true.
"I think sometimes you kind of just want to be a regular kid I guess," Matthews said. "But I think at the same time you kind of like work for this. You want to be in this situation that you're in now. I don't think you can ever take that for granted.
"You can't wish that you were a normal kid if your dream is to play in the NHL. You've got to do whatever you can to get there, and if or when you get there you've got to enjoy it. It's what you wanted."