Who are the best NHL players today – at the end of the 2020-21 season? It seems pretty clear that the mantle of the best current NHL hockey player has to be draped upon the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid. He’s the best player in the game.
But who’s the second-best? That’s a tough one, and certainly different NHL fans will have different choices. I personally believe Auston Matthews has emerged to the position of number two.
At least a great case can be made that Matthews, who’s going to win the Rocket Richard Trophy for his goal-scoring prowess this season, is right up there. He’s either second-best now or elbowing others out of his way as he ascends towards the top. He’s the best sniper in the game by far, and he’ll likely continue to be for games to come.
How Did Auston Matthews Get So Good, Given that He’s from the Desert?
How did Matthews get so good so young? More interestingly, how does a kid who grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, where there’s neither snow nor ice ever become such a good skater and stick-handler? It’s an incredible story really.
During some recent research for writing my Maple Leafs’ posts, I came across an article written in June 2016 about Matthews by current The Athletic writer James Mirtle. This was before Mirtle was a writer for The Athletic and the article was written for the Globe and Mail. (from “How Auston Matthews became hockey’s hottest prospect, James Mirtle, The Globe and Mail, 17/06/16).
The article chronicles Matthews’ strange hockey beginnings and offers insight into the foundation of some of the amazing skills he’s shown since he burst upon the NHL scene by becoming the first player in modern history to score four goals in his first NHL game, against the Ottawa Senators in October 2016.
Arizona’s an Odd Place to Develop a Hockey Superstar
Scottsdale, Arizona, is known for cactus and golf courses, but not for hockey rinks. In fact, when Matthews was growing up and wanted to play hockey, he had little choice where he could play. There were only a few rinks around the Phoenix area. Furthermore, not a single first-overall draft choice had ever emerged from a warm-weather city like Phoenix.
As Mitle’s 2016 article suggested: “It started at Ozzie Ice.”
Ozzie Ice was created by and built by oil-pipeline entrepreneur Dwayne Osadchuk. The thing about Ozzie Ice was that, at first, the two small rinks there didn’t use ice at all. Instead, Ozzie Ice was a tiny arena that Osadchuk created to house two very small sheets of synthetic “ice.”
The facility was created to showcase a cutting-edge synthetic ice Osadchuk had patented. These ice sheets were about one-third or one-fourth the size of the ice where Canadian youngsters typically learn to play. Osadchuk built the facility’s two small rinks differently: one had the synthetic “ice” and the other real ice. However, both were equipped with regulation nets and boards. But each was very, very small.
In Those Close Quarters, Matthews Honed His Game
At Ozzie Ice Matthews learned the game. Sean Whyte, who had played 21 games for the Los Angeles Kings in the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons but had never scored an NHL goal, ran the facility for Osadchuk. After his brief stint with the Kings, Whyte had found his way to the Phoenix Mustangs where he played for four seasons. When he retired, he managed Ozzie Ice.
Whyte remembered that “Auston would just be hanging around, waiting for a team to be short players so he could play. He owned every colour of Ozzie Ice jersey we had. He had 10 or 12. As soon as teams said, ‘We need somebody!’ he’d be looking at me.”
Whyte remembered that Matthews played against everyone. He played against kids his age but he also often played against kids who were far older. Whyte shared that Matthews could score five or six goals a game playing as a 10-year-old against kids who were 13-14 years old.
Tight Spaces Developed Elite Hockey Skills
Because Ozzie Ice was so small, every game had to be a 3-on-3 game. But, even with only six players on the ice, the room to maneuver was tight. There was seldom any open ice. However, those 3-on-3 games meant that each youngster had more time with the puck, had to learn to stick handle in close quarters, and needed to learn to find the tiny holes and seams defenders had momentarily allowed to open. That became Matthews’ game.
Matthews’ father Brian owned a home only a 10-minute drive away. Other parents were skeptical that their kids could learn to play hockey on these small sheets of ice, but not Auston’s father Brian. When Brian saw other parents spending big money – sometimes more than $20,000 each year to send their 10-year-olds across the country to play for distant AAA teams, the elder Matthews found Ozzie Ice closer and more affordable.
There son Auston played on these tiny ice sheets for hours on end against all the levels of competition. It was like playing in a shoebox, but there was lots of opportunity. Father Brian noted that “The score was always like 45-42 or 31-30.” There Matthews played thousands of these 3-on-3 games as a youngster.
Brian noted that, at Ozzie Ice “you couldn’t go anywhere on the ice where someone wasn’t within 20 feet of you. You had to learn how to use your hands, how to think ahead, where the puck was going to go, who was coming, how to turn, how to get away from traffic, create space – all of that stuff – in such a small little window of ice. A lot of kids here developed a lot of really good skills there. They were forced to.”
From Ozzie Ice to the First-Overall Draft Choice
To make a five-year journey a bit shorter, after Ozzie Ice Matthews began to showcase his hockey skills more widely. At first, from Arizona he started to play at hockey tournaments as a fill-in player. His reputation grew; and, by the time of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the Maple Leafs did something never done before. The organization chose a number-one draft pick from Phoenix.
Ozzie Ice shut down many years ago, but Mirtle’s article quoted Whyte as saying that he believed “some of the magic Matthews displays on the ice today came from those thousands of 3-on-3 games.”
Specifically, Whyte noted that Matthews “learned how to stickhandle in a phone booth, then all of a sudden he was put out in a full sheet of ice. You’ve just got that much more time to react and execute.”
Where’s Ozzie Ice Today? It’s Now a Thrift Store
As part of my research for writing this post, I looked back over the years at some of the local Phoenix internet “chatter” found in those “What to do in Phoenix this week?” on-line pamphlets. Here’s what I found out about Ozzie Ice.
One person reported that, “After the rink closed … it was replaced by the Golden 8Ball pool hall. The Golden 8Ball moved … (but) … the building is still there and is a thrift store.”
If that’s accurate, Auston Matthews – one of the best players in the NHL today – learned his hockey skills in what now is a Phoenix thrift store – and a small one to boot.
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf