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Time with NTDP helped Auston Matthews develop game

Billet family remembers humble, confident, competitive kid

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- The first time Auston Matthews met Mike Babcock, it was in the Detroit Red Wings' coaches office at Joe Louis Arena.

Matthews was 17, playing for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program about 45 minutes west in Ann Arbor. His coach was Don Granato, brother of Tony Granato, assistant to Babcock in Detroit.

The morning of a Red Wings game, Matthews and teammate Matthew Tkachuk came with Don Granato to watch practice and preview life in the NHL. Babcock had seen them play against the University of Michigan, and he told Matthews, "You're a good player, but you can't let your talent make up for your work ethic."

"It's something that I've always remembered," Matthews said.

Two years later, Matthews returned to the Joe playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs with Babcock as his coach. He forced a turnover in the slot, kicked the puck to his backhand and flicked it past the glove of Red Wings goaltender Petr Mrazek for his 23rd goal of the season and the first of a 4-0 victory on Wednesday.

The Maple Leafs selected Matthews No. 1 in the 2016 NHL Draft. Babcock put him at center instead of breaking him in on the wing at 19, challenging him to excel with and without the puck at a difficult position and declaring publicly, despite the bright Toronto media spotlight, he could be dominant by Christmastime.

Matthews ranks third in the League and first among rookies in goals. He's tied with teammate Mitchell Marner for first among rookies in points with 39 and headed to the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).

How's that for talent and work ethic? How's that for dominant?

"I never, ever dreamed when I was coaching the Red Wings that I'd have a chance to draft him and then have him in our organization," Babcock said. "He's a great kid, and he's getting better every day."

Matthews spent two years in Ann Arbor. The NTDP, now based in Plymouth, Mich., helped him develop as it has many other Americans, like Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, the NHL's reigning most valuable player and scoring champion. Matthews grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and didn't realize how good he was until he tried out for the NTDP and stood out against the best players of his age group in the United States. It gave him top coaching, top teammates, top competition and experiences like meeting Babcock.

It also gave a glimpse of his personality: humble but confident, calm but competitive, unaffected and unafraid, the kind of person who could play pro hockey in Switzerland at 18, play in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 before his NHL debut and star in Toronto without acting much like a star.

"I really enjoyed my time there, thought I learned a lot, really progressed as a player, as a person," Matthews said. "Some of my closest friends kind of come from those two years."

Matthews lived in a suburban subdivision with his billet family: Brian and Heidi Daniels, their sons Cole and Camden, and teammate Luke Opilka. He kept his room clean, brought down his own laundry, made his own breakfast and lunch. One day, the family brought home some mulch. He grabbed a shovel and helped spread it out.

"He's very mature," Heidi Daniels said.

Matthews would go to his billet brothers' sporting events and University of Michigan football games. After school, the boys would do their homework and play football, baseball or basement hockey. It wasn't ministicks. It was real sticks, 2-on-2 with a tennis ball banging the walls. Once, Matthews lost, and he hurled his stick and struck somebody in the ankle.

"I've never met a more competitive kid," said Camden Daniels, now 15. "If he lost, you weren't going to hear the end of it for a couple days."

But you wouldn't hear much about ice hockey.

"Whenever we went out to dinner or anything and some of my friends would be with him … Everyone knew how good he was, and he would just play it off like it was nothing basically," Camden Daniels said. "You would have never thought he was doing what he was doing."

The bond remains, even though Matthews went off to Switzerland and Toronto. When he made his NHL debut Oct. 12 against the Ottawa Senators, the Daniels family was busy but kept tabs. He scored once. He scored twice. He scored three times, and the family's phones started blowing up. They got home and put on the game.

"We said, 'Just wait. He's going to score a fourth one,' " Heidi Daniels said. "And sure enough, he did."

The Daniels family went to Florida to see Matthews' goal and assist against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 29, and Heidi and Camden Daniels got to see Matthews' goal against the Red Wings on Wednesday. When they walked into Joe Louis Arena, they saw all kinds of people wearing the No. 34 Maple Leafs jersey of the teenager who used to live with them, just like they were.

"I'm really proud of him," Heidi Daniels said. "He worked really hard to get where he is, and it doesn't surprise me at all. I think he's taking it in good stride. … He never let it get to his head, that's for sure."

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