Through almost four NHL seasons, it did not take long for Auston Matthews to establish himself as one of the premier goal scorers in the NHL. The 22-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs center burst onto the scene in 2016 with four goals in a memorable NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators. Since 2016, he is second only to Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin in goals and leads the NHL in even-strength goals with 121.
While Matthews is currently playing at the center of what many consider the world’s hockey mecca, he was certainly not raised in that scenario. Although he is one of the elite scorers in the NHL, Matthews’ playing abilities are not the only thing making waves in the hockey world. His unique heritage, childhood, and path to the NHL have made impacts in the wider hockey community and will likely have lasting effects for years to come.
Matthews’ Early Years in Scottsdale, Arizona
Although Matthews was born in 1997, the story of him becoming an NHL player from Scottsdale actually began in 1996 when the Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona to become the Pheonix Coyotes. His uncle was a season ticket holder and took him to his first hockey game as a young child. It did not take long for Matthews to fall in love with the sport he went on to make a career out of.
Since ice time was hard to come by in Arizona, Matthews grew up playing 3-on-3 hockey on smaller sheets of ice, which many credit to be the source of his nearly unmatched puck protection and stick handling skills. He would hang around the rink all day waiting for teams that needed an extra skater and play against all sorts of age groups.
His early years of development on these small rinks give credence to some minor hockey associations’ decisions to split ice sheets in half for young kids. This drastically reduces costs for ice time and promotes skill development at a younger age, but that is a whole other discussion.
A big boost to Arizona’s minor hockey program was Matthews’ decision to stay in the Arizona system all the way through, until moving to the US National Development Program in Michigan at age 17. Players often move from non-traditional markets to hockey hubs for better exposure and competition, but Matthews proved staying put in his hometown is a viable option as well.
Arizona Hockey Participation on the Rise
While it is difficult to directly quantify the minor hockey participation increase that Matthews sparked in Arizona, it is obvious there has been a more aggressive increase in participation relative to the rest of the nation.
From 2014 to 2019, ice hockey registration in Arizona increased 22.6%, well above the national average of 6.51%. Arizona also saw a crucial jump in participation in their eight-and-under division over the same time frame, with overall registration increasing by 38.6% and 61% for girls under eight years old. It is clear having a homegrown NHL star has impacted the way kids view hockey in the desert.
Matthews’ Hispanic Roots
If raising a number one overall NHL draft pick in Arizona wasn’t unique enough, Matthews’ Mexican heritage definitely is. Throughout the history of professional hockey there has been a lack of Hispanic representation. The further south you head, the climate understandably makes hockey far less accessible.
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A few players of Latin American descent have made their mark in the NHL. Scott Gomez, although born and raised in Alaska, comes from a mix of Mexican and Colombian Ancestry. He is believed to be the first NHL player of Hispanic ancestry and carved out a terrific NHL career with 1,079 NHL games played and 756 points. Other notable players of Hispanic descent include Bill Guerin, Raffi Torres and Al Montoya.
While these players started the path for Hispanic players in the NHL, Matthews is likely the player most connected to his Hispanic heritage. His mother’s family is from Hermosillo, Mexico and they would go visit their ranch when Auston was a kid. While he recognizes it is a difficult sport to popularize in a climate like Mexico, he believes the NHL could gain new fans in Mexico mentioning how the sport’s fast-paced excitement is easy to sell.
With a player as talented Matthews representing the Hispanic community in hockey, it would be no surprise to see a growth in interest from non-traditional Hispanic hockey markets and families.
Matthews’ Decision to Play in Europe
Aside from his decision to play for the US National Development team, pretty much everything about Matthews’ path to the NHL was non-traditional. Typically, North American players take one of two paths, major junior or the NCAA. Matthews decided to blaze a new trail for North Americans by signing a one-year deal with the Zurich Lions of the National League, also known as the Swiss elite league.
Matthews was the first ever high-profile North American prospect to take this route, and many believed the opportunity to play against grown men and seasoned professionals rather than other teenagers like him would benefit his development. This decision also gave him the opportunity to play under renowned coach and Stanley Cup champion Marc Crawford, who Matthews credits in having a key role in his transition to professional hockey.
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Matthews dominated play as a rookie in Switzerland, putting up 46 points in 36 games. He won Rookie of the Year in the National League and finished second in M.V.P. voting next to Pierre-Marc Bouchard who recorded 67 points in 49 games with EV Zug.
While many players at 17 or 18 years old may not have the physical stature necessary to take the same professional hockey path as Matthews, it will be interesting to see if other more physically mature players decide to take a similar pre-draft route.
Through almost four NHL seasons, Matthews has clearly established himself as one of the marquee goal scorers on the planet. With some work on his two-way game, we could see his puck protection skills and deadly wrist shot land him atop Hart Trophy voting in the not-so-distant future. He has already impacted the game in so many ways, and Maple Leafs fans hope the next step in his progression is bringing the elusive Stanley Cup back to Toronto.