USA TODAY US Edition
Arizona produces hockey phenom
Matthews projected to be No. 1 pick in June
Hockey wunderkind Auston Matthews’ mother is from Mexico. His father was born in California. The Matthews family lives in Arizona. He’s playing in Switzerland. That’s not the geographic background you would expect for a player projected to be the No. 1 pick in June’s NHL draft.
It was Matthews’ late uncle, Bill, who launched his hockey career by taking him to then-Phoenix Coyotes games before he started kindergarten.
“He would take me and my dad, and we would go watch (Danny) Briere and (Shane) Doan and all of those guys back in the day,” Matthews, 18, told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s how I got into it. I started playing when I was 5 or 6.”
The Matthews story is evidence the NHL’s foray into nontraditional markets is having an impact on the game.
“To have the top talent in the world born and raised here almost seems like a validation of having a team in Arizona, in the desert,” Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. “There is tremendous hockey here, very good youth hockey.”
Two days short of being eligi- ble for last June’s draft, Matthews, a 6-2, 205-pound center, signed with Zurich in the Swiss national league. He’s earning an estimated $400,000 and is tied for the league lead in goals with nine in 11 games.
“This kid even practices hard,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “He’s hard to practice against. He has that compete level, work ethic, and he has been able to go over to Switzerland and have an impact. But don’t think anyone is surprised by this.”
The scouting consensus about Matthews is that he is on par with NHL rookies Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, who are considered potential superstars. Matthews projects to be the first American to go No. 1 overall since Patrick Kane went first to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007.
“If he was in that last draft, I thought it would have been a three-man race,” Maloney said.
Last spring, USA Hockey coaches gave Matthews the opportunity to play in an exhibition game with the U.S. national team, a squad made up primarily of NHL players, and Matthews scored in a 4-1 win against Austria. He also scored in his first game for Zurich.
“He does everything very, very well,” Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager Ryan Martin said. “He is a big, strong kid, really smart, very confident in his ability. He’s not afraid to try things on the ice, and most of the time he’s successful. I think that makes him very unpredictable.”
Playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program last season, Matthews registered 117 points, shattering the program record of 102 set by Kane in 2005-06.
“When you get a guy that is big and powerful and can think the game and is also capable of doing the moves that you see from so few players, he becomes really hard to defend,” Martin said.
Matthews missed a few games in the Swiss league because he had to wait until he turned 18 on Sept. 17 to sign a contract. USA Hockey national teams director Jim Johannson said he watched live streams of Matthews playing in Switzerland and he appeared confident and poised.
“He looks fast and strong,” Johannson said.
Matthews doesn’t seem to be bothered by the lofty expectations of being the projected No. 1 pick or the pressure of being one of the most talked-about players in the Swiss league.
“It’s a very competitive league, and the fans are really into it,” Marr said. “Everyone has the (team) hats and scarves. There are songs, chants. Fans get involved. It’s a fun league … but fans hold their teams accountable. If you bring in a high-profile guy like Matthews, they expect him to deliver.”
Matthews’ background probably has helped him prepare to play hockey across the ocean.
“When I was young, we were always traveling to Detroit, Chicago or Canada to find competition,” Matthews said.
Matthews said he never worried about whether he would get noticed in Arizona.
“I knew it was up to me to just prove I could play at a high level,” he said.
One of the draws of playing for Zurich is the team is coached by former NHL coach Marc Crawford. Matthews’ agent, Pat Brisson, said Matthews went to Switzerland to learn, not have a good time. His mother, Emma, and a sister are in Switzerland with him.
“He is very mature,” Brisson said. “He meant business going there. He’s not there on a picnic. He’s very demanding on himself. He continues to progress.”
One of the traditions of the Swiss league is the top scorer on each team wears a gold helmet and a jersey designating him as the offensive leader.
“We talked early on, and I said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised by the end of the season that he would be wearing that gold helmet,’ ” Brisson said. “But it only took him a month.”