The old school mindset in hockey was that most highly touted NHL Draft picks would come from Canada as well as the Midwest and New England areas of the United States. Slowly, this is beginning to change. With expansion and success in some “non-traditional” markets, hockey is continuing to grow in places many thought it never would. Each generation sees the sport gets stronger and the children in the area grow up with hockey in their blood. This is the case of Auston Matthews of Scottsdale, Arizona, who is already being projected as a first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. Matthews comes from one of the most non-traditional areas there is in North America when it comes to hockey, the desert.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” said Matthew. “It’s not really a place where people think about hockey a lot, but it’s definitely been growing.”
It’s obvious that having a pro team in the area is important to help development the game for youth. NHL teams are highly involved in the community, especially in those markets that haven’t always had hockey around. From a young age, Matthews has been surrounded by hockey.
“They were definitely a big influence,” said Matthews on the Arizona Coyotes. “They got me into hockey. I would go with my uncle to games because he had season tickets. That’s basically how I got into it.”
With still over a year until he’s eligible for the draft, Matthews is currently playing with the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP), an organization that helps mold some of the best American prospects. The program has helped develop the likes of Patrick Kane, Jimmy Howard, Seth Jones and Colin Wilson. Since its inception in 1996, the USNTDP has continued to become an organization devoted to finding the elite prospects in the United States. Not only does the team play a schedule in the United States Hockey League (USHL), they also travel to play other under-18 teams around the world.
“It’s an honor wearing the United States’ sweater,” said Matthews. “You get to go overseas and play countries like Russia and Sweden. You get those moments that you really look back on and realize how special they are.”
For these 17-year old players, travel can sometimes be difficult, but Matthews doesn’t see it that way. It’s a good opportunity to see different rinks and soak in rich traditions in hockey.
“There have been a lot of fun places to play,” said Matthews. “The big DI colleges like Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, those kinds of places are fun. Obviously the USHL teams have some really good rinks too like in Waterloo and Omaha. I think there have been a lot of nice rinks with a lot of fans that come out to watch us play.”
Head coach Don Granato took over coaching duties for the USNTDP in the 2011-12 season. He’s continued to help develop the young players and prepare them to take the next step in their careers, whether it’s college or major juniors. Granato has worked with Matthews to turn him into a more complete player, which is one of the reasons the top prospect for the 2016 entry draft is getting so much attention.
“He’s done a lot for me in just helping me become a complete player,” said Matthews. “He’s helped me become a two-way player and to be responsible in your defensive zone. Coach has also encouraged me to be creative and make plays in the offensive zone. He’s really helped me with that in the past year and a half.”
Recently, the 6’2″ 194-pound forward competed with Team USA at the World Junior Championship in Toronto and Montreal. Last year, he won gold with Team USA in the IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship in Laappeenranta, Finland. This season, throughout USHL and international play, Matthews 56 points (28G-28A) in only 33 games. With only eight penalty minutes and goals while on both the power play and penalty kill, the two-way player that Matthews wants to become is beginning to show.
“I just try to be a complete player,” said Matthews. “I think I have really good hands and good vision. I just try to make my linemates around me better, too. I try to model my game after Jonathan Toews or Anze Kopitar. They’re two-way, big, power centers. Those are definitely guys I look up to.”
Both Toews and Kopitar are excellent role models to have for a player still working to perfect his game. While the team is currently focused on the season and the World Championship, the pressure is already mounting for Matthews. The path after the USNTDP hasn’t been chosen yet, but he still has time to decide.
“I haven’t really decided yet,” said Matthews on his future. “I’m still deciding between major junior and college. Right now it’s not really too big of a focus for me. I just want to focus on the rest of this season the U-18 Worlds. What comes after is still up in the air.”
The buzz around the Arizona product is continuing to grow, and rightly so. If taken first overall in 2016, it won’t only be good for hockey in America, but also for the game in areas that need support for their NHL clubs. With more hockey players getting invited to USA Hockey camps from areas like Florida, California, Tennessee, Texas and Arizona, it’s showing how much the game has changed. There are hockey players all over the world, they just need to discover the game.
Photo credit: NHL.com