Out of the Sunshine, Into the Fire
Out of the Sunshine, Into the Fire
Ever since the boy from the desert first laced up skates, Auston Matthews has been chasing challenges. He's about to face his biggest yet.

When Auston Matthews walked into Don Granato’s office in the spring of 2015, something was clearly on the young man’s mind. His question offered no specific context, but Granato knew exactly what his player was talking about when matthews closed the door behind him and said, “So, what do you think?” Matthews had just been in Switzerland at the under-18 world championship, where his MVP performance led Granato’s outfit to gold. His stay in Europe had been extended when USA hockey’s men’s program asked him to stick around and fill an empty roster spot for a world championship warm-up game in Austria. Matthews, all of 17 years old, scored in a 4–1 win over the host country.

With another full season to go before he could be selected by an NHL club, Matthews—who missed being eligible for the 2015 draft by two days—was mulling options, and Granato sensed playing professionally in Europe was one of them. True to his mentor status, the coach flipped around the query. “I remember real clearly. I said, ‘Auston, what do you think?’”

Not exactly a born self-promoter, Matthews stumbled a bit while explaining he didn’t really want to play major junior because he’d be facing kids, and that he’d already proven what he could do against NCAA competition by scoring 15 goals in the 13 contests the U-18 squad waged against college teams that year. The burgeoning talent had also had a bit of a moment at the rink in Austria, where a number of nations had gathered to play exhibition games before the 2015 worlds. “He told me he was taping his stick in the hallway and he turned around and there was Sidney Crosby doing the same thing outside Team Canada’s locker room,” Granato says. “And it clicked in right there: ‘I want to play right now at the highest level.’”

That line of thinking is consistent with the mindset Matthews has demonstrated since his earliest days. The Arizona product has the kind of drive that causes people who’ve crossed his path to preface their praise with: “I know this is a cliché, but with this kid, it’s really true.” That will serve Matthews well now that he appears destined for a region where hockey permeates every soul and sidewalk crack. If the Toronto Maple Leafs call Matthews’ name on draft day, it’ll be in hopes he’s the kind of do-it-all centre around whom championship clubs orbit. And for a young man from a non-traditional hockey market who has a history of taking on ever-larger challenges, his next task will also offer the opportunity to render decades of sporting misery meaningless.

The Man
Matthews has been scoring big goals for USA Hockey since he was 15, like this one against the Czechs

Roughly 12 months after his chat with Granato, Matthews was back with the U.S. men’s team, this time as a lead horse at the 2016 World Championship in Russia. Also at the tournament was 18-year-old Patrik Laine, the only other player who’s been mentioned as a possible No. 1 pick—sometimes by Laine himself. And while the big Finnish winger made a stirring case for himself by leading the event with seven goals in 10 games, it almost certainly wasn’t enough to close the gap on the American front-runner. In the quarterfinals, Team USA knocked off the favoured Czechs thanks to the exploits of its youngest and most dangerous player. Early in the second period, Matthews scored his side’s only regulation-time goal when he took a feed from Frank Vatrano, swooped around defenceman Radim Simek and tucked a backhand between the pads of Dominik Furch. On his shootout winner, Matthews made Furch think he was employing a similar move, then sucked back his blade like it was spring-loaded and snapped a forehand shot that hovered a quarter of an inch off the ice, hit the bottom of Furch’s pad and went into the net.

Confronted by a harem of reporters after the game, Matthews did what he could to talk them out of “hot-prospect hero of victory” headlines by deflecting praise to teammates. But American defenceman Chris Wideman—perhaps conscious of the chatter surrounding the less-demure Laine—was happy to provide his synopsis. “He’s going to be the first-overall pick in the draft,” Wideman said. “And you just saw why.”

Relative to Granato, Wideman is actually late to the party. The former first saw Matthews in 2012 when the U.S. National Team Development Program had potential recruits for the following season’s under-17 squad head to Ann Arbor, Mich., to skate with the existing crew. After one viewing, Granato turned to his co-workers and asked why the then-15-year-old Matthews’ services hadn’t already been secured. And when Matthews became part of the program that fall, Granato immediately began thinking about him in terms he’d never applied to any player he’d coached, including 2015 No. 2 pick Jack Eichel. “I remember telling my brother [former NHLer Tony Granato] and [USA Hockey’s] Jim Johannson that we may have the next first-overall pick,” Granato says. “That was within the first month of his first year.”

By the end of his second and final season, Matthews had established a new development-team record with 117 points in 60 outings, breaking the old mark of 102 in 58 games set by Patrick Kane. Riding shotgun on Matthews’ line that season was Matthew Tkachuk, another player expected to go in the first five picks of the 2016 draft. “Playing with a guy that good and that determined was breathtaking,” Tkachuk said last summer. “He’s just so skilled, so smart, and his work ethic, above all else, is his biggest attribute.”

There are definitely a few close seconds. At six-foot-two and nearly 200 lb., Matthews has the size and strength to consistently win puck battles on the boards and make opponents pay if they leave him unmarked in open ice. Combine that with his skill set, and you get natural comparisons to dominant all-around pivots like Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and Aleksander Barkov. As for his competitive nature, it stands out whether you’ve spent seasons with Matthews or just a few weeks while playing together at the World Championship, as was the case for Nick Foligno. “I don’t think you can question-mark anything about Auston Matthews,” says the Columbus Blue Jackets captain.

That’s especially true after Matthews posted 46 points in 36 games this past season for Zurich in the Swiss league, then added six goals and nine points in 10 showings at the World Championship to tie Dylan Larkin for the team scoring lead. Had he been born just a few days earlier, Matthews’ freshman NHL season would already be in the books. “He’s a natural,” says Granato. “As natural an athlete-slash-hockey-player as you’re going to see.”

“He’s a natural. As natural an athlete-slash-hockey-player as you’re going to see.”

The fact this can’t-miss kid pushed his way up from the American Southwest doesn’t surprise Granato. While some are still trying to accept warm-weather locales giving rise to future hockey legends, Granato says it’s simply an outgrowth of the tutelage youngsters in the U.S. receive now versus when he and his siblings—sister Cammi Granato is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame—were growing up in Illinois during the 1970s and ’80s. “We didn’t have ex-NHL players coaching us at every level,” he said, noting that league expansion has led to retirees settling in places like California, Arizona and Florida while staying involved in hockey.

Matthews—whose mother, Ema Matthews, is originally from Mexico and managed to pass on a little bit of Spanish to her son—started attending Phoenix Coyotes games when he was three, often with his dad, Brian, and uncle, Billy. “That kind of gave me the bug to play, and I’ve just kept going,” he says.

One of his first high-level teams was assembled by former Coyote Claude Lemieux. (Other members of the club included Lemieux’s son, Brendan, and former NHLer Louie DeBrusk’s son, Jake, who were drafted by NHL teams in 2014 and 2015, respectively.) Also involved with the squad was Montreal-born Ron Filion, a childhood friend of Claude Lemieux’s, whose long and winding hockey path led to a two-year stint as coach of the ECHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners. Eventually, Filion established the Arizona Bobcats, a AAA program that attracted some of the top players from surrounding states.

Desert storm
A product of Phoenix, Ariz., Matthews caught the hockey bug when he started going to Phoenix Coyotes games at age three

On the ice in those adolescent years, Matthews stood out as the best of the bunch. In the dressing room, on bus trips and in hotel rooms during travel tournaments, however, he simply blended in as one of the boys. “‘Papi’ was always the centre,” says Filion, using the nickname Matthews got from his family. “He’s not an all-star on the side. He’s truly part of the group.”

Around the age of 12, Matthews played in a spring hockey league at the same time he was involved with another sporting passion, baseball. The two schedules would sometimes overlap, and one particular conflict was a window into the boy’s heart. “He showed up in the fifth inning, hit a grand slam in his first at-bat, then hit the game-winning home run in the seventh inning,” says Granato, relaying a story from Matthews’ father. While the dugout was ecstatic, the smiles quickly dried up when the senior Matthews had to inform the baseball coach that his son was headed back to the rink and wouldn’t be able to play the next game. “The coach went crazy,” Granato says. “He said, ‘Your kid just hit two home runs in three innings and you’re not bringing him back?’”

That day serves as a poignant microcosm of the Matthews story. His dad was a ballplayer; his great uncle, Wes Matthews, played for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in 1966. Matthews could have excelled in either of their chosen sports. Yet here he is, already having made a significant impact for USA Hockey and about to emerge as maybe the most intriguing player to ever hit hockey’s biggest market. “He’s a superior athlete, and we got him to play hockey,” Granato says. “And you can thank the NHL for that, the Coyotes and everybody else who put hockey in that market. When you see how talented he is, [it’s clear] he would have made it in baseball or golf or something else. He’s that different than the average person or other kid. He’s that different than the average good hockey player.”

When the Maple Leafs won the draft lottery, some Buds backers were hoping the presumptive first-overall pick would start doing backflips while watching in the wee hours of the morning from his hotel room in Finland, where he was preparing for the worlds. Instead, the cameras captured a subdued Matthews talking about mixed emotions. The easy explanation is that the young man would have been over the moon to play at home had the Coyotes had their number called, just as Connor McDavid would have been thrilled to play in Toronto had fortune smiled on the team he grew up rooting for. But more than a month before the lottery balls bounced, Filion had a conversation with his former charge about where, given his druthers, he might want to start his NHL odyssey. “He said Toronto and Arizona,” Filion recalls.

What awaits on the shores of Lake Ontario will require all of Matthews’ ability and focus. When the organization made the outrageously overdue decision to rebuild from the ground up, this is the player it hoped could be the centrepiece in that long process. Leading hockey’s woebegone franchise out of the woods feels like the kind of job that’s crying out for a square-jawed, broad-shouldered type—and Matthews certainly looks the part. “There’s a new picture I was sent on my Facebook of ‘Papi’ and I,” says Filion, “and, my goodness, I never thought I was so small.”

If he seems big now, wait and see what happens if this whole thing plays out the way it’s supposed to.

Photo Credits

Blair Bunting
Getty Images