Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Auston Matthews, No. 1 with a bullet

By Larry Wigge

Scottsdale, Arizona and this little kid who wanted to play hockey: Who wouldn't say no?

Auston Matthews has followed a road not travelled. After skipping major junior and U.S. college hockey, an 18-year-old kid from the Sunbelt known for its cacti, golf courses and desert nightlife, chose Zurich in Switzerland to become the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft.

"Zurich is a really good fit, a good place to develop," Matthews explained.  "The skill level is very high. It's a pro atmosphere."

While in Switzerland, Matthews put up 24 goals and 22 points in 36 games, won the league's Rising Star award and was second in voting for Most Valuable Player.

One year earlier, playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program, Matthews registered 117 points, shattering the program record of 102 set by Kane in 2005-06.

Matthews became the first No. 1 overall pick to come out of the Southwest, but he was first seventh American-born player selected first in the draft since Patrick Kane to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007 ... but also the first player starring in Europe to go No. 1 since Alex Ovechkin to the Washington Capitals in 2004.

The 6-2, 205-pound Matthews became the first No. 1 pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs since Wendel Clark in 1985.

Like Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, Alexander Ovechkin in Washington, Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago, and, more recently, Connor McDavid in Edmonton, Matthews is that once-in-a-generation prospect capable of raising up a moribund franchise and banishing decades of futility and angst in the blink of an eye.

That is certainly the hope of long-suffering Toronto hockey fans.

On Friday night, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock called Matthews an "elite player" with an "elite drive train."

"He can be Auston Matthews, a real good player who is going to be a dominant center for the Leafs playing with or without the puck," Babcock said. "He'll be a championship-style center."

"Coach Babcock's resume speaks for itself. Olympic champion. Stanley Cup champion ... I think I can learn a lot from a guy like him," Matthews said of his new coach.

There have been four great Leafs centermen in my lifetime: Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin. All in the Hall of Fame. And now a new day. A new name. A new possibility to build around.

"At times Auston reminds me of Anze Kopitar and at times, Jean Beliveau because of his reach and seemingly effortless stride," said Marc Crawford, the Zurich coach who held the same job in the NHL for 15 seasons. "His puckhandling skills are off the chart. 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."

Matthews says his game compares to Kings center Kopitar and Chicago's Toews. Both players have five Stanley Cups between them.

And now comes the best part of this story.

Auston comes from a very athletic family ... not just hockey.

"I was really into baseball because my dad and grandpop played it growing up," he remembered, telling me that his father was a former college pitcher. "I really enjoyed hitting the most and that was really my strong suit. I enjoyed catching as well."

His uncle, Wes Matthews, played for the Miami Dolphins in 1966 where he finished the season with one catch for 20 yards. Auston's 14-year-old sister Breyana is one of the top 14-year-old golfers in the state.

This, you must remember, was a kid who wanted to learn about everything.

As a two-year-old he attended his first NHL game with his Brian, his father, and his uncle, Billy Matthews, a Coyotes season-ticket holder.

The young fan was captivated by the Zamboni machine that cleaned the ice during intermissions.

"I remember it being really loud," Matthews recalled.

Shortly after his sixth birthday, Matthews surprised his father by stating a desire to play hockey. His father has videotape of Auston's first trip around the ice.

"He had a very big grin on his face," Brian Matthews said. "I remember seeing that smile and thinking, Dang! This is going to be an expensive sport."

"I think he loved baseball," Brian Matthews said, "but there was too much standing around for him. If he could have batted every 15 seconds he would have loved it. Waiting around for the pitcher to throw the ball, it wasn't active enough for him."

Growing up in Scottsdale, Auston's favorite players were Shane Doan and Daniel Briere.

Matthews first expressed a desire to play hockey shortly after his sixth birthday and began playing with the Arizona Bobcats minor hockey program.

"When I was young, we were always traveling to Detroit, Chicago or Canada to find competition," Matthews said.

Brian is the chief technology officer for an east-coast firm, and Ema, his mom, is a former flight attendant from Hermosillo, Mexico, who has also worked in real estate and education. The two met at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Auston was born a bit north in San Ramon, just outside San Francisco, though he was raised in Scottsdale.

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 Mexico, before becoming a flight attendant. "I spoke no Spanish. I got fluent in about six months."

Matthews himself said he didn't go to Switzerland to be any sort of pioneer. He just wanted to play and get better.

"I felt like I was ready for the next step in pro hockey and in my development ... to prepare for the NHL," he said.

Under the terms of his work visa, he couldn't play until he turned 18, so he watched Zurich's first 12 games from the stands. On September 17 a Swiss television crew came to Zurich's practice rink with a birthday cake with 18 candles. Ema Matthews and the stadium crew whipped up a Mexican dinner for the team.

"I love mom's chicken tortilla soup," said Matthews. "She made it for the team for my birthday in Zurich, and afterwards the wives of almost half the players were asking for the recipe."

Emma served as the parent-figure for Auston in Switzerland. When Auston isn't playing hockey, he's on his computer taking classes online, spending a few hours each day in the evening.

"Alex (his sister) helps tutor Auston with some of his classes he takes online," Ema Matthews said. "She didn't take the entire semester off, so she has some college classes she's taking online as well. When she's not tied up with Auston, she'll help me around the house."

Ema never thought twice about packing her bags and joining her son to help live out his dream. At one point, she worked two jobs – at Starbucks and as a waitress at a high-end restaurant – to help pay for Auston's hockey.

"The whole family felt it was important for Auston to have family support in another country," she said. "It was a relatively easy decision for all of us. We understood the sacrifices we were making, and any of them would have done the same for the others if asked.

"I cook every day ... typically breakfast and dinner. I don't have to make lunch that much as Auston will go out with teammates after practice.

"Every now and again we'll go out to eat, but mostly I'm cooking to make sure he gets the nutrition he needs."

The trip to Switzerland became an accounting trip. How could the Matthews make hockey work?

"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."

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.

Lou Lamoriello, Toronto's GM, says, "He looks fast and strong. He's not your typical franchise centerman who can do everything. He competes at both ends. He has the size and strength to play a 200-foot game."

Auston Matthews has made a long journey to be the No. 1 pick in the draft -- from Sunbelt to Toronto.

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