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From Desert to Tundra: Auston Matthews and Hockey’s New Frontiers




On June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York, Phenom-prospect Auston Matthews was selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.  This comes roughly a year after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were selected first and second overall, respectively.  Being selected in the first round is an honor in and of itself, but as we have learned from years’ past, sometimes success at junior or other lower-level hockey does not always translate to success in the NHL.  But for a player being drafted within the top 3 of that year’s draft class, there is an inference that such a player will at least have a good career, if not that of a superstar.  The pressure is extremely high for such a player to perform.

As if the weight on Auston Matthews’ shoulders wasn’t enough, being drafted first overall this summer carries greater implications than just making an impact with the Leafs, a team in rebuild-mode.  Matthews represents a bigger picture, one that has implications for the future landscape of the NHL, and even the rest of the world.  First and foremost, Matthews is American.  Since the NHL Amateur Draft began in 1963, only seven first overall picks hailed from the United States.  The last time an American was drafted first was Patrick Kane in 2007.  A record twelve American-born players were selected in the first round this year.

Auston Matthews was born in America, but his mother was not.  Ema Matthews is originally from Mexico.  This puts Matthews on a short list of players of Hispanic or Latin American descent and opens the door to an entire untapped potential prospect pool.

There were no frozen ponds for Auston Matthews to skate on growing up.  Not only is Auston Matthews American, but he hails from the American southwest.  He is the first player selected first overall from this region of the United States.  Twenty years ago, the Winnipeg Jets relocated to the desert and became the Phoenix Coyotes.  Matthews grew up watching the ‘Yotes.  Twenty years later, along with McDavid and Eichel, Matthews represents a new generation of hockey players.  Twenty years later, the relocation to the desert produces the 2016 first overall draft pick, proof that expansion/relocation into non-traditional hockey markets will no doubt grow the game of hockey over time.

How fitting it is that on Saturday, T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas completed its construction of the ice hockey rink.  The Las Vegas expansion is set for its first season in 2017-18.  The U.S. desert gets another team.  Maybe in twenty years, players from Nevada will be drafted in the first round.

While most players choose the Canadian Juniors as a path to the NHL (the Ontario Hockey League boasts the most representation of players at the draft year after year), or even opt to go to American colleges and play NCAA ice hockey, Matthews chose instead to play in Europe before being drafted in the NHL.  In 36 games with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League A, Matthews posted 46 points (24 goals, 22 assists).  But before playing in Zurich, Auston played with the US National Team Development Program where he was outstanding at all international tournaments (Matthews is a two-time Gold Medalist at the Under-18 World Junior Championships).  Most recently at the Under-20 World Junior Championships, Matthews played with and against the best in the world of his age group and lit the lamp seven times and had four helpers (11 points) in just seven games.

In 2000, Canadians made up 54.8% of the NHL and Americans accounted for only 15.9%.  For the 2015-16 season, Canada’s make-up dropped to just below half (49.7%) while Americans’ representation improved to 24.2% (Source:

So what does this all mean for Auston Matthews?  Along with Jack Eichel, Sonny Milano, Noah Hanifin, Matthew Tkachuk, Clayton Keller, and other top American prospects drafted in the last few years, Matthews represents the next generation of American-born hockey players – and there’s more of them now than ever before.  They are the crème de la crème of American prospects and Matthews is the cherry on top.  This season will see a renewed rivalry between the Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres as both are so geographically close together and are in the midst of rebuilding.  It will be Mike Babcock vs. Dan Bylsma, two former Stanley Cup-winning coaches; two brothers will be opponents with William vs. Alex Nylander; but most importantly, Eichel vs. Matthews.  Toronto vs. Buffalo: the War of Niagara.

Not only is it important to the Leafs to see Matthews make an immediate impact this season, but Matthews’ success paves the way for players from non-traditional American markets as well as non-traditional markets all over the world.  Matthews represents North American players who choose to develop their game outside of North America.  Matthews represents players of Hispanic or Latin descent.  If it wasn’t evident before, it’s certainly evident now – we’re living in a brand new hockey world.  Hockey is no longer “Canada’s Game”; it’s the world’s game.  Case-in-point, just a year ago, Islanders’ drafted Andong Song, the first Chinese-born player to be selected at the NHL Draft.  Therefore, if the game of hockey is to continue its growth worldwide, but especially here in the good ole US of A, it is imperative that Matthews make a huge splash in his rookie season.  I have no doubt he will, and I am very excited to see what the 6’2”, 216-pound kid from the desert can do.  He’s tall enough, and big enough to make it in the NHL.  He’s got incredible two-way hockey sense and has an elite way of not only cashing in on opportunities, but creating scoring chances out of thin air.  I’m ready for Auston Matthews.  Are you?

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Evan is the Hockey Editor for He provides coverage of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers, as well as some league-wide content.

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