TORONTO – Before Auston Matthews made it to the world’s biggest minor hockey tournament, he first had to prove his worth to the Ukrainian team that took him there.
That was the deal skills coach Boris Dorozhenko struck after receiving a call from the Druzhba-78 Kharkov organization wondering if he knew any 1997-born kids who might be worth adding for the Quebec International Pee-Wee Tournament back in February 2010.
He instantly had one prized pupil in mind.
The only hitch was that the invitation required the 12-year-old to fly cross-country from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., for an exhibition game in New Jersey that basically amounted to a tryout. Dorozhenko recalls it taking a couple days for Auston’s father, Brian, to consent to the arrangement.
Once that happened?
Well, Auston held up his end of the bargain and ensured the Ukrainians would make a spot for him on the bus to Quebec City.
“He scored three goals in one period against New Jersey,” Dorozhenko told Sportsnet in an interview. “The deal was done.”
The story is but one example of the lengths the Matthews family had to go to give their son an opportunity to develop into an elite hockey player.
At that time, he wasn’t even a regular member of any team. His on-ice work was largely built around sessions with Dorozhenko where he could focus on improving individual skills – a schedule that was supplemented with the occasional guest appearance at a tournament.
The chance to play against the world’s best 13-and-under players in Quebec was simply too good to pass up. Everyone from Connor McDavid to Wayne Gretzky to Mario Lemieux has competed at Le Colisee over the years.
“It was a test for him,” said Dorozhenko.
A test in more ways than one.
For starters, he was by himself with a group of people from an entirely different background than his own. He was a long way from home.
“They speak Russian, but they all spoke English,” said Matthews. “I remember my first couple times … playing with them: I had no friends, homesick and stuff, that was kind of my first time away from home.”
However, like any kid who has ever gone away for camp, the friendships started forming quickly.
There wasn’t yet any hype building around Matthews, but he was instantly identified as one of Kharkov’s top players. He would produce six points in three games at the Quebec tournament, including this impressive goal in the opener against Richelieu Eclaireurs that looks eerily similar to something he might do for the Toronto Maple Leafs today:
(Check around the 6:35 mark)
Years later, Matthews remembers his experience in Quebec with a remarkable amount of clarity. He instantly rhymes off the number he sported on a yellow and blue Kharkov sweater – No. 8, rather than his usual No. 34 – and bemoans a 5-4 quarter-final loss to Detroit Compuware that saw his team surrender two goals in the final 2:09 of regulation.
“It was kind of a heartbreaking loss,” said Matthews. “Late goal, I remember it pretty well. I think they lost one game all year. They were kind of the world’s top team and I think they ended up winning the tournament.”
Ask him who starred for Compuware and you get a list of guys he would later call teammates at the U.S. National Development program: “Nick Boka, who I played with at the NDP and is at [the University of] Michigan. Gordie Green, who is at Miami of Ohio. Brody Stevens, who is playing in the USHL and he’s committed to Western Michigan.”
“They had a bunch of guys,” said Matthews. “They had some guys that when you’re 11, 12, 13 and you maybe develop a little faster, and they had a lot of studs like that. Still good hockey players now – they’re playing juniors and stuff, but especially back then, when you’re 12 or 13 and you’re six foot tall and can just walk around everybody.”
It’s not a stretch to imagine that he’ll probably go down as the best pro to have played in the 2010 Quebec Pee-Wee Tournament.
Looking back, it’s amazing how far below the radar he was at that point. Dorozhenko still chuckles at the memory of Matthews being interviewed by a French-Canadian reporter there who asked: “Where did you learn to speak English so well?”
The fact is the Ukrainians allowed him to get a foot in the door. He would go on to play for Kharkov again a small handful of times, including a tournament in Chicago, and is still in touch with some former teammates.
Meanwhile, with the 2017 Quebec Pee-Wee Tournament now underway – the Arizona Bobcats are back after winning last year – Matthews had this advice when asked what he’d tell participants.
“I know when I played it I was pretty nervous,” he said. “That was my first time in front of the big crowd. It’s pretty eye-opening, for sure. I think just have fun with it. It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It’s such a big tournament, there’s so many teams there from everywhere all over the world, and for me it was just kind of try and enjoy the whole thing and take as much in as possible.”