How Auston Matthews went from small ice to the big league

First it was Mitch Marner, who in 2016, dominated junior hockey en route to a Memorial Cup. Then it was first overall Auston Matthews. Together, they headline the Maple Leafs' youth revolution.

When Auston Matthews goes home to Scottsdale, he’s not the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft. He’s not the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s just a big, fit teenager walking around the mall.

Does he ever get recognized in his hometown, aside from at the rink?

“Not really,” he says. “I guess it’s a good thing, sometimes. It’s easy to get away and hang out with your buddies. It’s not like here in the hockey centre of the universe—you have to lay low a little bit. It’s nice to have a little bit of both [worlds].”

For so many years, the Leafs have needed a saviour. Toronto is the Vatican of hockey, as since-fallen high priest Brian Burke once called it, and it makes sense that the chosen one would come from its own congregation—from a region where more passion, time and money is devoted to elite minor hockey than in any other place in the world. Where the double-shifting starts early, and there’s always a bigger and faster kid gunning for your spot. Where, starting in Grade 4, kids can spend their mornings on the ice and their afternoons at school, forgoing the joys of recess, gym and goofing off at lunch for extra time working on their edges and mastering their puck control.

All of this time and effort can pay off in a big way. This was the church that raised Connor McDavid, a youth star in the ultra-competitive Greater Toronto Hockey League who attended a hockey academy for three years before moving to Erie, Pa., for junior and eventually to Edmonton for missionary work.

It also raised Mitch Marner, who grew up the Toronto way, playing 100 games a year in peewee and attending Hill Academy in Vaughan, Ont., before suiting up with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights. Marner may yet complete the virtuous circle as the No. 4 pick by the Leafs in 2015 and become a potential tent pole for Leafs president Brendan Shanahan’s faith-driven revival.

But for the moment, the man-child charged with leading the Leafs out of the hockey desert is Matthews, who sprang forth not from the sport’s hotbed but from the actual desert as a fast-thinking, fast-skating, six-foot-three wall of teenaged muscle.

Matthews honed his skills and bolstered his imagination playing hundreds of games of 3-on-3 house league on a mini rink at Ozzie Ice in northwest Scottsdale. Sean Whyte, a native of Sudbury, Ont., used to run the place after he retired from a career spent primarily playing for minor pro franchises in the U.S. southwest. He remembers Matthews showing up to play as a wide-eyed nine-year-old, so eager that Whyte eventually gave him a jersey for every team in the league. Whenever a roster was short, Matthews would fill in, soaking up the extra ice.

“He didn’t look like a prodigy by any means, but he was the kid who stood there with his gear on and no jersey,” said Whyte. “Every roster had nine players and a goalie, and I said if there were fewer than six players who showed up, you can play for that team. And he would sit there in the dressing room counting the players who showed up. As soon as [it looked like] a team had just five or four players, he’s looking at me, and I’m like, ‘OK, go get your blue jersey.’”

It wasn’t like there was no elite youth hockey in Phoenix, but it was expensive and involved extensive travel. Matthews played some spring tournaments, but most of his time was spent playing shinny, supplemented by hours of power skating and skills sessions. He was a keen student, learning from Whyte and the small community of former pros who settled in Phoenix in retirement.

“I have 11 ex-NHL players coaching in our program,” says Mike DeAngelis, who runs the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes, one of two top competitive programs in the Valley of the Sun.

With his vast potential becoming evident, Matthews started elite travel hockey as a bantam and was dominant enough to gain the attention of the USA Hockey development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. He trained there for two years, putting up 181 points in 104 games with the under-18 team before turning professional and playing in Switzerland last season.

It’s a hockey-hero path unlike any walked before, but it may have offered advantages that growing up in the epicentre of hockey culture doesn’t.

“I can tell you, in all my travels across the U.S. and Canada in youth hockey over the past 10 years, one thing I hear consistently from junior scouts is that the kids from [non-traditional hockey markets] have a creativity and looseness to their game they really like,” says DeAngelis, who grew up in Kamloops, B.C., before retiring to Phoenix after a long European pro career.

“Kids growing up in Canada [are told]: ‘You play hockey this way.’ Down here it’s just, ‘Go play,’ and you’re flipping pucks over kids’ heads and stuff, freewheeling.”

And according to DeAngelis, the emphasis on fun and play is hardly hurting interest in the game. “Hockey in the southwest United States is booming,” DeAngelis says. “The doors are bursting open, and Auston is at the front of it.”

Matthews is proud of his role in his sport’s growth back home. “It’s exciting to be part of it, just seeing how many programs are popping up and how many little kids are picking up a stick and starting to play hockey—it’s definitely pretty special for me,” he says.

“You run into kids at the rink and they’re really excited [to meet you], and parents and whatnot. It’s a good feeling to see the hockey community up and coming.”

But as he gets set to lead the Leafs to the promised land—losing his anonymity along the way—Matthews’s greatest gift to the centre of the hockey universe might be proving that reaching your hockey potential doesn’t mean reaching for the moon as a kid, and that sometimes the best way to exceed expectations is to never have any placed on you at all.

“There was nothing really going on there,” he says when asked about how he learned the game so far from the heartland of the sport. “I just played hockey and did my thing and skated. I had a lot of good resources at the time and still do. It’s different than growing up here, but I loved it. I wouldn’t change a thing.”