How Auston Matthews became hockey's hottest prospect
PASCAL MORA/The New York Times
He has followed a road not travelled. After skipping major junior and U.S. college hockey, Matthews is now the likely first overall pick, a superstar in the making, and even the presumed saviour of the lowly Maple Leafs. James Mirtle reports
It's an origin story that makes little sense. An 18-year-old kid from Scottsdale, Ariz. – a place known for its cacti, golf courses and desert nightlife – is the best prospect in hockey and the projected saviour of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But to fully understand how Auston Matthews got to where he is, you need to know that when he was a boy, he spent thousands of hours on tiny rinks – not much larger than an end zone – fighting off two or three other kids, stickhandling in and around masses of skates and sticks to score a half-dozen goals every game.
You need to learn about his skating coach, an eccentric Ukrainian named Boris who made players leap, pirouette and balance on their heels for so long they sometimes couldn't walk the next day.
You have to recognize Matthews as one-of-a-kind.
That the next star of one of the NHL's historic franchises will probably come from the U.S. Sun Belt has made headlines ever since the Leafs won the draft lottery in April to get the top pick. A No. 1 has never come from a warm-weather city.
MARKKU ULANDER/AFP/Getty Images
But what makes Matthews's story exceptional is that growing up in a city with few rinks and little hockey history never held him back. He took a road never travelled, learning the game in creative, new ways. And it paid off.
"It's a pretty amazing story," said Mike DeAngelis, director of hockey for Arizona's Junior Coyotes program. "How does a kid become that good, the best teenager in the world, and ready to step into the NHL, coming out of that type of development schedule? The word outlier comes to mind."
It started at Ozzie Ice.
Built by wealthy oil-pipeline entrepreneur Dwayne Osadchuk, Ozzie Ice was created to showcase a type of cutting-edge synthetic ice that he had patented. The facility had two small rinks – one synthetic and one real ice – with regulation nets and boards.
Auston Matthews was its best customer.
"Auston would just be hanging around, waiting for a team to be short players so he could play," said Sean Whyte, a retired Los Angeles Kings player who ran the facility. "He had 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."
Matthews played with everyone. Kids his age. Kids far older – he could rack up five or six goals a game as a 10-year-old against bantams (13-14 years old). Every game was 3-on-3, which meant more time with the puck, more time in close quarters and a need to find a way through a tight spot.
He loved it.
It helped that the family lived a 10-minute drive away. While other parents were skeptical of the small sheets (which eventually both had real ice when the synthetic version didn't catch on) Auston's father wasn't.
Brian Matthews grew up in Scottsdale playing competitive baseball, a pitcher at a top junior college. He blew out his shoulder early on, but he knew how important development is.
He learned how to stickhandle in a phone booth, then all of a sudden he was put out in a full sheet of ice
What he didn't know was the typical development path for NHL prospects. He saw other parents in Arizona paying more than $20,000 a year for their kids to travel across the country on AAA teams at nine and 10 years old and he figured that there had to be a better way.
Or, at the very least, a more affordable one.
Having his son play on the smaller sheet, for hours on end against all kinds of competition, made sense to the new hockey dad. He thought that it was similar to how so many soccer greats started in the slums and gyms of Brazil with their own makeshift games of futsal, the 5-on-5 version of soccer.
"The score was always like 45-42 or 31-30," Brian Matthews said of 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."
"People thought it was a joke," Whyte said. "They said, 'How do you teach kids hockey without going the full length of the ice? This is ridiculous.'"
Then Auston Matthews began showing up at tournaments as a fill-in player and filling the net. Ozzie Ice started to catch on with parents desperate to find ice time in the desert.
The facility shut down years ago, but Whyte believes that some of the magic Matthews displays on the ice today came from those thousands of 3-on-3 games. "He learned how to stickhandle in a phone booth, then all of a sudden he was put out in a full sheet of ice," he explained. "You've just got that much more time to react and execute."
Matthews's coaches can see that influence too.
"His puckhandling skills are off the chart," said Marc Crawford, who coached Matthews last season in Switzerland's top pro league. "I'm always amazed at the things he can do. And it really translates in a game. His short-area game is at an NHL level for sure – and it's at an NHL elite level. I believe that's a lot of what the game is becoming. Those little plays that you make when you're getting checked. People are pinching up so much more now and there's so much confrontation at the bluelines that you've got to be able to make plays in that five-foot area. You've got to be able to protect the puck and get by people. He does those things exceptionally well."
When Matthews wasn't playing 3-on-3, he was with Boris.
When the Soviet Union was collapsing in the early 1990s, Boris Dorozhenko fled Ukraine in search of a place where he could teach power skating and hockey skills. He wound up in Mexico, where he was tasked with helping build a nascent national program.
In the summer of 2005, while running a skating camp in Arizona, he met Brian Matthews, who had enrolled his seven-year-old son.
Dorozhenko spoke almost no English, but he became fast friends with the good-natured hockey dad, who was fluent in Spanish thanks to his wife, Ema. Within a year, the quirky coach had left Mexico and moved into the family's home after taking a job with an elite local team run by former NHLer Claude Lemieux.
Dorozhenko's methods were unheard of. To the uninitiated, the Boris brand of power skating appeared to consist of players running in their skates and stomping on the ice, sometimes while spinning in circles. He describes it as a focus on edge control, aimed at teaching elite players to balance and manoeuvre under duress.
Arena operators hated the large holes it left in the ice.
"Boris is completely different than anything you have ever seen with power skating," DeAngelis said. "To be honest with you, it hasn't really grabbed on. Some of the parents don't really know if that's the way you should be teaching power skating. But I've got my kid working with him."
"Brian found something off-the-beaten path, investigated it and brought Auston to it," Whyte said. "He wasn't born and raised in hockey so he was a little more open-minded. He said to me, 'You've got to watch this guy; he does some really funky stuff.'"
Auston became Dorozhenko's most diligent student, someone who never said no to any drill – no matter how bizarre. He travelled around the world with him to various camps. He even played for Ukrainian teams, through some of the coach's old-world connections.
"People will say, 'Wow, this kid is coming from Arizona – this is just a miracle,'" Dorozhenko said. "But he was an absolutely normal kid. Athletic. Co-ordinated. He always had a little bit better hands and could surprise everybody with a little bit of puckhandling. But every year his talent was increasing by hard work. He put in very hard work to increase his talent."
"The kid's just got tremendous drive," Crawford added.
Meet the Matthews
Many believe that determination came from his parents.
Brian Matthews met his wife in college while working for an airline in Los Angeles. He didn't want the assignment that day – a Mexican airline needed a hand with something – but then the plane door opened and there she was.
"She spoke no English," Brian Matthews said of his wife, who grew up in a family of nine on a ranch in Hermosilla, Mexico, before becoming a flight attendant. "I spoke no Spanish. I got fluent in about six months."
The Matthews have three children: Auston – or "Papi," as everyone calls him – is the precocious middle child wedged between sisters Alexandria and Breyana. They live not far from TPC Scottsdale, the long-time home of the PGA's Phoenix Open, and Breyana is one of the top 14-year-old golfers in the state.
For years, Brian Matthews tried to keep his son interested in baseball, his sporting love. But after attending a Phoenix Coyotes game as a toddler, Auston fell for a different sport – one that was completely foreign to his family.
"He couldn't stand waiting around," Brian Matthews said of Auston's short-lived baseball career. "If he could bat every two minutes, he would have been in high heaven."
On the ice, Auston Matthews realized that he would have a scoring chance every two minutes. He enjoyed the constant action and quickly earned a reputation as a frequent, deadly shooter. (Crawford predicts that he will lead all NHL rookies in shots on goal next season, comparing his release to that of Hall of Famer Joe Sakic.)
When it became clear that his son was smitten, Brian Matthews tried to pick up as much as he could about hockey. He started taking skating lessons in his late 30s, learning how to stop and turn. "He was so into mastering all of these skills," Whyte said, "because it would help him with his son. I loved teaching him."
However, the financial burden of raising a hockey player in Arizona was a constant. Matthews has a good job – as the chief technology officer with a manufacturing firm – but because ice time is expensive in Arizona, there were sacrifices.
At one point, Ema Matthews worked two jobs – at Starbucks and as a waitress at a high-end restaurant – to help pay for Auston's hockey.
There were two years where he didn't join a travel team and instead skated with Boris or on his own. Explaining to him that he couldn't play the game he loved, the way his friends were, wasn't always easy.
"It was difficult," Brian Matthews said of making the costs work. "… There were times where it was like, 'How are we going to do this?' But you find a way. Our son had a passion and one way or another we found a way to get things done."
An incredible rise
Everyone in Arizona's tiny hockey community always knew Auston Matthews had talent. But because he bounced from team to team, and wasn't always in the high-profile programs, few had him pegged as a potential NHL star.
That began to change when he turned 15. Matthews exploded for 55 goals and 100 points in 48 games with the AAA Arizona Bobcats, gaining the attention of the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Coach Don Granato invited him for a tryout that summer and realized Matthews's potential right away. He became the first player from Arizona to join the program.
A few months later, Granato felt compelled to call Brian Matthews. To warn him.
"Brian, I've never done this before, but I'm going to give you a heads-up here," the coach said. "I've been around hockey a long, long time, and you've got to start preparing for your life to be pretty chaotic."
"What are you talking about?" the alarmed father asked.
Auston Matthews had blown expectations away. Being on the ice every day against elite competition had kindled his competitive nature, and he was getting better and better.
At 16, Matthews played with the under-18 team and produced nearly a point a game. He was doing things with the puck Granato hadn't seen from a player that young. The veteran coach began to believe he had one of the best American players – ever – under his watch.
"Every time Auston touched the puck, the entire bench stood up and leaned over the boards to watch," Granato said. "He has uncanny ability."
The top U.S. college programs began lining up, hoping they could get Matthews to commit. The WHL's Everett Silvertips, who had drafted him, were pressing for him to play his draft year there.
Matthews once again took a path less travelled by signing in Switzerland in order to play at a level as close to the NHL as possible. He turned pro and earned one of the higher salaries in the Swiss league – rumoured to be $400,000 (U.S.) – despite being only 17 when the season started.
Again, he shone. Matthews scored 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games for Zurich – the highest totals in league history for a player under 20 years old.
The future face of the Leafs?
Those who know Matthews well don't worry that the limelight in Toronto – with the expectations that would come with being the franchise's first No. 1 pick since Wendel Clark in 1985 – will overwhelm him. They believe that he has the right disposition – humble, hard-working and disciplined – to excel under that pressure.
"Without a doubt in my mind, he can handle it," Granato said. "Whatever's thrust on him, he'll always expect more of himself."
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As for going to Toronto, a hockey hotbed, that's something Matthews welcomes. "He was excited about how the lottery went," Crawford said. "Trust me. He was very excited."
Back in Arizona, Matthews's former coaches and teammates are rooting for him. If he succeeds the way they expect, it will send a message that kids from the Southwestern United States deserve more attention from the development program and top colleges.
But what Matthews also proves, they argue, is that there is more than one way to become an NHL superstar. It's not all about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment and travel teams.
There is something to be said for taking the road less travelled, for focusing on skills development and having fun instead of short bursts of ice time in game after meaningless game.
There is something to be said for what Matthews has become, when where he is from and the resources he had were supposedly stacked against him.
"This kid grew up in a non-traditional southern market and really had a non-traditional development path," DeAngelis said. "It basically flies in the face of any parent who's spending $150,000 on their child's development to play AAA all over the world. He's really turning it upside-down."