TORONTO – Auston Matthews is not yet 30 games into his NHL career and he already has an origin story that is taking on the feel of folklore.
He’s the kid from a baseball-loving family who grew up in the desert wanting to play hockey. The one who was taken to an Arizona Coyotes game by his uncle and was first mesmerized by the Zamboni, and later by the slick moves of Danny Briere.
The one who, on Thursday night in Toronto, will face the Coyotes for the very first time.
“It definitely means a lot,” Matthews said this week. “It’s where I grew up, it’s the team I watched.”
He is, in some ways, the first true offspring of the organization.
Three others have made the NHL after being born in Arizona, but none have local hockey roots that run quite as deep as Matthews. In fact, had the Winnipeg Jets not moved south in 1996 – a year before Matthews was born – there’s virtually no way he would have picked up the sport in the first place.
“It’s one of the things that has changed a little bit in the southwest,” said Wayne Gretzky, the man who sparked hockey’s first boom in California and later coached the Coyotes. “The best athletes at eight, nine, 10 and 11 played baseball, tennis, golf … and now some of the best athletes like Auston are saying ‘You know what, I want to play ice hockey.’
“And so that opens doors for a lot of other kids and gives everybody opportunities and exposure. What he’s done is really something special.”
It will be in full view when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Arizona next week for their final game before the Christmas break, but Thursday’s meeting carries significance as well.
The Coyotes have not had an easy time of it. They fended off an attempted move to Hamilton in 2009 and were bought out of bankruptcy court by the NHL and have seen a couple different ownership structures since. They’re still working on plans to get an arena built closer to where the majority of their fanbase resides.
On the ice, they have a losing record over 19 seasons and are currently 29th in the NHL standings.
They’ve been an easy target for those questioning the logic behind southern expansion — particularly those in Canada — and then along comes a Scottsdale-raised teenager who is on the fast-track to becoming the biggest Maple Leafs star since Mats Sundin.
A young man who grew up with Coyotes posters on his bedroom walls.
“(When I was a kid) it was everything – mini-sticks, jerseys and everything,” he said. “I’ve still got some in my closet. I played for the Jr. Coyotes program growing up a little bit so I have a couple of those old jerseys and stuff hanging around.”
It’s an upbringing that sounds typical of most NHLers, really.
Not a week goes by where you don’t have some player talking about his excitement to face the Habs or Leafs or Oilers after going to watch them play as a kid. Those words just haven’t been spoken much about the Coyotes before now.
Matthews was able to meet guys like Shane Doan and Briere at community events when he was a kid and has actually gotten to know them on a personal level in recent years.
He would occasionally skate at the team’s practice rink, the Scottsdale Ice Den, while growing up and always believed the NHL was within his reach.
“To me, I don’t think I ever doubted myself,” said Matthews. “I knew I was always talented. So I just worked hard, put my head down and didn’t really focus too much on everything going on around me and being from Arizona. I never really thought about that until the last couple years.”
As far as he’s concerned, he wasn’t doing anything all that different than Mitch Marner or Connor Brown were in the GTA. His mid-winter practices simply came with a twist.
“I was still waking up at 6 in the morning, but it was about 65 (degrees Fahrenheit) and sunny outside,” said Matthews. “I was walking outside in shorts and flip-flops. To me it was just normal growing up there.”
“It’s a great story,” said Gretzky.
Matthews will have parents Brian and Ema in attendance on Thursday night – just as they have been for a number of games during his rookie season.
For the family, this is another milestone of sorts.
The 19-year-old centre still smiles while recalling some of the games he attended at the building now known as Gila River Arena in Glendale, where he watched NHL stars and dreamed of one day joining them.
“I was able to watch the goal where (Alex Ovechkin) scored on his back and then the one where (Sidney) Crosby was falling down on his backhand and was able to roof it,” said Matthews. “It was always fun going to those games; even though you were rooting for the Coyotes, secretly you wanted to see something fun happen from those really special players.”
It’s a feeling the next generation of hockey players in Arizona will come to understand well.