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Matthews culminates years of hype, goes No. 1 overall in NHL Draft

 

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The fact that eight TV cameras were in Toronto on July 4 to cover Auston Matthews should tell you something about the 18-year-old from Scottsdale.

Add to the event that is was simply Toronto Maple Leafs prospects running drills (Matthews did four) and it’s clear Matthews is being groomed as a top NHL player, maybe even as soon as the 2016-17 season.

Touted for years as the sure fire top overall pick for the 2016 NHL Draft, Matthews did indeed take the glory June 24 in Buffalo, N.Y., when he was selected taken by the hapless Maple Leafs with the No. 1 pick.

If he was born two days sooner (Matthews’ birthday is Sept. 17, 1997), he would have been eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, but probably would have gone third overall after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

All signs point to Matthews cracking the Maple Leafs lineup this fall and he officially signed with the team in late July.

In Buffalo, even though it was seemingly obvious that Matthews was going to be on stage first at the First Niagara Center, the jitters were still present.

“Yeah, it was a dream come true,” said Matthews. “(My parents have) done so much for me, a lot of sacrifices for me to get to this point. They’ve been a huge part in this, so it was a very special moment. My heart was beating as I was walking up there, but very nerve-racking. Once they called my name, it was definitely a sigh of relief. A lot of excitement. It was a pretty unbelievable feeling.”

Last season, Matthews and his mother, Ema, who is originally from Mexico, moved to Switzerland so he could play pro hockey with the ZSC Lions in Zurich. He had Major Junior and NCAA options, but went off the board in venturing overseas to launch his pro career.

Matthews’ father, Brian, stayed home in Scottsdale with Auston’s two siblings, older sister, Alexandria and younger sister, Breyana.

Once Matthews’ name was called in Buffalo, Brian hugged his son.

“He just said, ‘Congratulations, God bless,’” the younger Matthews said. “I’m sure they’re very emotional. They’re very proud of me. Like I said before, I wouldn’t be here without them.”

Matthews was the seventh American selected first overall. Others include Patrick Kane (2007), Erik Johnson (2006), Rick DiPietro (2000), Bryan Berard (1995), Mike Modano (1988) and Brian Lawton (1983). The 28 American players taken in the first three rounds ties the 2010 NHL Draft for second-most all-time. The record (29) was set in 2007.

A total of 55 Americans were selected at the First Niagara Center, including a record 12 in the first round.

In Switzerland, Matthews was coached by former NHL coach Marc Crawford, who led the Colorado Avalanche to the 1996 Stanley Cup. Crawford has now joined the Ottawa Senators’ coaching staff.

Ironically enough, another Arizona native, Todd Burgess, was drafted by the Senators in the fourth round (103rd overall) in Buffalo.

“Yeah, he was huge,” Matthews said of Crawford. “Just looking at his résumé, he’s won a Stanley Cup, coached some very special players, so I think having him as a coach last year helped me tremendously.”

Crawford also lent some advice to Matthews on playing for Toronto.

“They’re very passionate, very under the microscope, obviously with the media and everything,” said Matthews. “But he said if eventually I go there, it would be a blast. Now that I’m a part of the organization, I couldn’t be happier.”

As a youth, Matthews’ coaches saw his talent immediately.

“I was fortunate to play for some good coaches in Arizona that taught me different things and in the end, it benefited me,” said Matthews. “I mean, Claude Lemieux coached me when I was younger. Brad Bayer let me practice with his team when I was 13 and his team was three years older. Having Boris Dorozhenko here as a skating coach helped me and then having Ron Filion here, he’s done an amazing job with the Bobcats developing kids and I was pretty fortunate to have all that. They all taught me different things that I can take with me and use.

“I think I always knew I had talent and skill when I was younger. I was pretty fortunate to play for the national team and really develop over the last couple years. There’s still a lot of work to do, but I feel pretty fortunate to be in the situation I’m in. I definitely don’t take it for granted. Playing in the NHL is something I’ve wanted since I was five years old.”

Now, Matthews, who skated for the VOSHA Mustangs, Arizona Bobcats, Jr. Coyotes and the Claude Lemieux Hockey Academy as a youth after the family moved to Arizona from the San Francisco area when he was still a baby, is heading to what is perceived to not only be the largest media market in all of the NHL, but maybe in all of pro sports.

“I mean, it’s going to be an adjustment for sure, but it’s something that I feel I can handle well,” said Matthews. “Obviously, over time, we’ll get better and better at it. I’m definitely looking forward to it.”

Matthews also looks to be part of a youth movement in Toronto.

“I mean, those young guys, William Nylander and Mitch Marner, are obviously two pretty special players, so I think it’s definitely exciting kind of looking forward,” Matthews said. “I know everybody there is extremely passionate. They obviously love the Leafs. It’s a great sports town with the Blue Jays, the Raptors. They’re obviously very passionate, and it’s something you definitely don’t want to take for granted. Everybody has told me when they’re winning, it’s the best place in the league. That’s definitely something that I’m looking forward to.”

Matthews is obviously excited in finally getting the chance to play in the NHL, but doesn’t see himself as the answer to all of the Maple Leafs’ recent setbacks, though.

“Well, hockey is a team game, so there’s really no savior,” said Matthews. “I want to be an impact player. I believe I can be a franchise centerman, the No. 1 centerman in the NHL, so that’s my ultimate goal. I just want to win as much as possible. It’s going to be a learning curve. The NHL is the best league in the world, so for me I definitely want to learn a lot, soak in as much as possible, and just try to continue to get better and better each day.”

Matthews has also met Toronto head coach Mike Babcock and can’t wait to share a bench with the longtime NHL bench boss, who will be entering his second season with the Maple Leafs next season.

“I think it will be a huge honor,” Matthews said. “His résumé speaks for itself – Olympic champion, Stanley Cup champion. He’s definitely somebody I look forward to working with. I think I can learn a lot from a guy like him.”

When asked about what it means to have NHL celebrity status as an Arizona native, Matthews takes it all in stride.

“I mean, it’s been a great reception,” said Matthews. “I think it’s been great not only for Arizona, but the whole southwestern region. It’s continuing to grow, and it’s just cool to be a part of it.”

Photo/Dan Hickling/Hickling Images

– Matt Mackinder