Dear John Buccigross:
We need to talk.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of spending time talking to Auston Matthews’ youth coach, Pat Mahan, from here in Arizona – for a profile I did for the Arizona Coyotes on the growth of hockey in the desert.
When Matthews started playing hockey, there weren’t enough kids to make up one tier I junior team; now, there are enough for two. When Matthews started playing hockey, more kids played inline than ice hockey – in the amount of time it’s taken him to go from mites to the pros, the number of ice sheets in Phoenix has grown from two to eleven.
When Matthews started playing hockey, Jim Brown was the only Phoenix-born player to have been drafted in the NHL; when Matthews is selected with presumably one of the top three picks at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft this summer, he’ll be the second player raised in Arizona to be picked in the first round alone. Add in Sean Couturier, who was born in the desert, and that’s three guys – and that’s not looking at players like Zac Larazza, drafted out of Arizona in later rounds.
Phoenix now has a DI NCAA hockey program, tier I junior hockey, and a women’s ACHA club hockey program to go with their NHL team. The AHL team for the Coyotes is projected to be moving to Tucson for the start of the 2016-17 season. The USNTDP saw three kids from Arizona invited to selection camp (which invited 48 of the country’s top players in the 2000 birth year) this year.
So let’s talk about this:
This — the implication that Auston will do well in TOR because he’ll “pass” as a Good Canadian Boy — is gross. pic.twitter.com/m5ajZOqQtd
— Becky (@beckalin) May 4, 2016
I’m a transplant in Arizona; my first jersey was actually a Leafs jersey. I’m a ‘good Canadian kid’ who grew up with cousins who worked for the Maple Leafs and a mom and uncle who played ice hockey and a grandfather who taught me to skate when I was three.
I’ve been around ‘Ontario’ hockey culture, and now I’m in the desert – and I’d like to know what, exactly, you were thinking when you decided that Matthews would succeed in Toronto because he somehow ‘can pass as a kid from Peterborough, Ontario, and not Scottsdale, Arizona’?
Look. For starters, this completely misses that the hockey culture in Arizona is something completely new and foreign to most hockey fans. The players here are coached by former NHLers and minor leaguers. The chain of hockey pro shops in the valley is run by former Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers goalie Randy Exelby. Sometimes, if you’re good enough at beer league, you can play rec against Derek Morris. Lyndsey Fry coaches girls clinics in the area. Mike Modano shows up to ASU games sometimes ‘just because’. The Arizona hockey culture isn’t made up of players who attach spurs to their skates and ride horses up to the rink; grow up.
What makes Auston Matthews the potential next ‘captain serious’ has nothing to do with whether he can pass as a good old Canadian boy.
His coach, Pat Mahan, told me that Matthews was always the player looking to refine something in his game, even as the best player on the ice. He was the kid who treated every practice like the most important practice he’d ever attended. He was always asking how he could get better – and when that meant joining the US Development Program and then heading overseas, he did it.
That’s called work ethic, not being Canadian.
Hockey in the desert is, by and large, mocked. Even a DI NCAA team, two tier I junior programs, a women’s ACHA program, an NHL first round pick, an Olympic silver medalist, and now an NWHL free agent pro haven’t legitimized the region’s hockey presence in the minds of those who haven’t seen it or experienced it. Players who grew up in Arizona and succeed are subject to desperate reaches for narratives by writers like you who need a reason to validate their talent; the region they’re from doesn’t ‘count’ as a good hockey community, so how could they possibly be ‘good Arizona boys’ or girls?
Let me make this clear: if the Toronto Maple Leafs draft Auston Matthews, they’re potentially in for a Jonathan Toews. He’s a solid skater, responsible in the defensive zone, and creative with the puck. He’s a well-rounded package and an absolute workhorse.
He’s also a product of the unique – and very valid – development system here in Arizona, though. Don’t get it twisted.
Hope this helps clear things up.