Auston Matthews is from Arizona: an Open Letter to John Buccigross

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.

Believe it. 

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

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. 

ALSO WORTH READING: “Bucci, Nobody actually cares if a player acts like he’s from Peterborough”

  • silentbob

    It seems to me that you and Jeff missed the point of his comments in order to be outraged.

    Buccigross isn’t saying that Matthews will be successful in the NHL because he “acts Canadian”, he isn’t saying all his success to this point is because he “acts Canadian”. He isn’t/hasn’t taken away the hard work Matthews has put into his game up to this point or even mention the hardwork he will continue to put into it.

    He is making a comment about how Matthews will be viewed by/accept by Leaf fans as compared to Kessel, who you can’t argue was a divisive figure in Toronto. Kessel lashed out at the media a few times or hid in the back after a lot of games, he is saying Matthew’s won’t (stoicism). He’ll walk to the ACC looking like he is enjoying himself and/or belongs here, Kessel sometimes looked like “the grumpy guy next door” etc…. The optics of/around matthews will be better. His comments are more Matthews v.s Kessel then American vs Canadian.

  • Gary Empey

    The Leafs should eventually pay Austin the highest salary in the league. Salary caps should also be removed. I think he should be making 10 milion USD per year plus bonuses up to 15 million. Canada and Ontario sure could use the tax revenue after what they have done in years past.
    Moreover, the coach should also be paid by number of wins.

  • magesticRAGE

    How Matthews will go about his day to day business will look more like hockey, than where he hails from. He will behave more like a hockey player than an American or Canadian. Hockey (NHL especially) has a distinct culture, very different from other major sports. Generally speaking, they all look very similar if not the same. In the NHL, where you hail from only matters when situations of cultural pride presents itself (World Cup of Hockey). Matthews looks like a Hockey Player

  • Capt.Jay

    I hope he passes as whatever he wants here in Toronto as my issue isn’t with Austin. I wish him well and I’m sure he’ll do amazing. My issue is with people complaining that one of their own is going to Canada when far more Canadians get taken from Canada to play in non hockey markets. That is the true waste in my opinion

  • Gary Empey

    Well I suppose you are correct. Auston Matthews could never pass for a “Good Canadian Boy “. A leopard can not change his spots.

    I don’t imagine he has even heard of “Brass Monkey’s”………. YET!!!!!!!

    Even every “Good Canadian Girl ” has heard of Brass Monkey’s.

  • Capt.Jay

    I think it’s funny that America has no problem constantly taking from everywhere else in the world and selling it, and making it seem like it’s their own and gets pissy when it happens to them occasionally. Suck it up

      • Gary Empey

        That’s not really a good summation of the thesis. Mathews will be a great player, even if he’s not Canadian. But to negate where he’s from us a disservice to him; it wouldn’t talk about him being one of the few first round picks from Arizona if it didn’t matter at all.

        As for noting where Buccigross is from: if the article was written by a Canadian in the Toronto Star, it would be held up and used to mock Canadians for being xenophobic and absurdly protective of hockey – fairly so. But because this is written by an American fetishizing Peterborough, it gains a whole new level of weird.

        • magesticRAGE

          Maybe you’re right re: Cat’s thesis, my ‘I don’t really give two s**ts where you’re from’ is probably my own.

          But if someone held up Bucci’s article and drew inferences about all Canadians or all Americans, shame on them.