Who is Boris Dorozhenko? A look at the man behind Auston Matthews’ development

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Photo via Boris Dorozhenko

Draft Day

Though the first round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft was must-see TV in the Toronto area and much of North America, Boris Dorozhenko didn’t see it live.

On Friday, June 24, at approximately 7:18 p.m. EST, Auston Matthews was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first overall pick in the draft. 

Dorozhenko, instructor at Next Generation Hockey schools, primarily based in Arizona, is the self-proclaimed creator of “Most unique & effective hockey player development system in the world”. He has been a coach of Matthews’ in one way or another since 2005. 

But while Matthews was trying on his new sweater, taking photos and being interviewed by just about every reporter that could find their way to Buffalo, Dorozhenko spent his Friday afternoon in a Phoenix Arizona rink teaching a regularly scheduled clinic.

“Someone has to be working,” Dorozhenko said.

Shortly after the selection was made, Dorozhenko found out while at the Arcadia Ice Arena — one of the very few arenas Matthews could truly call home. While it wasn’t necessarily a surprise, Dorozhenko said it was a great feeling to finally see his top pupil go as he — and just about everyone else in the hockey world expected — first overall in the draft. 

Dorozhenko, originally from Ukraine, was briefly interviewed and mentioned in Dave Feschuk’s Toronto Star story on Matthews the day before the draft. But his appearance was mostly told through the words of former NHLer Russ Courtnall and his son, Lawton, a student of Dorozhenko’s, and current commit to Western Michigan University for the 2016-17 season.

Dorozhenko also recently featured in a piece a week before the draft by the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle entitled “How Auston Matthews became hockey’s hottest prospect”, contributing this lone quote about Matthews:

“People will say, ‘Wow, this kid is coming from Arizona – this is just a miracle,’” Dorozhenko said. “But he was an absolutely normal kid. Athletic. Co-ordinated. He always had a little bit better hands and could surprise everybody with a little bit of puckhandling. But every year his talent was increasing by hard work. He put in very hard work to increase his talent.”

The mention in Feschuk’s article and the 403-word Meet Boris section of Mirtle’s story sheds a brief insight into Matthews’ coach, but like any 400 word story, only shows a limited scope of a person.

So let’s meet Boris Dorozhenko, the brainchild behind Auston Matthews’ skating skill. 

It might sound like a lot to put on an 18-year old who’s yet to touch NHL ice, but it’s true: the story of Auston Matthews doesn’t fit the bill of any other hockey player in history. 

Before Matthews, there was never a warm-climate player who’s been drafted as highly as he was, there was never a top-ranked American-born player who went over to Switzerland in his draft year to play pro hockey as he did, and in all likelihood, there’s never been a player who’s come to Toronto with higher expectations from the start of his career. 

In a world of William Nylander and Mitch Marner, the 2016 first overall draft pick Auston Matthews comes into the Leafs’ franchise already sitting in as the #1 prospect for the future- a projected first-line centre very early into his career, some say even as early as opening night on October 12th against the rival Ottawa Senators. 

To get to this point in his career, Auston Matthews has always carved out things his own way- not necessarily because he’s wanted to, but because he’s had to. 

Dorozhenko, like those who know Matthews well often refers to his student as “Papi” – a nod to his Mexican-American heritage, as Matthews’ mother, Ema, was born and raised in Mexico.

Though Auston isn’t fluent in Spanish, Dorozhenko said Matthews has picked up a little bit of the language through his parents — and even carries dual citizenship. 

The “Papi” nickname was embraced by factions of the Toronto fan base when discovered a few weeks prior to the draft. Clearly, Dorozhenko wouldn’t mind if that nickname stuck. And while the peak up to this point of the two’s connection would undoubtedly go back to last Friday, Dorozhenko‘s relationship with Matthews goes back 11 years, when Boris was still living in Mexico.

Boris, Meet Brian

In some ways, Dorozhenko’s story matches many other immigrants: with Ukraine’s shaky relations with the Soviet Union in the 1990s, he took an opportunity out in hopes of building a better life.

In other ways, he was a trailblazer. A former hockey pro himself in the Soviet Union, Dorozhenko made his way to Mexico to help coach and build the national ice hockey program — while working in rinks all across the country implementing his unique approach to developing skating and hockey skills.

With a focus on repetition and a series of drills often involving jumping and running on the ice, Dorozhenko’s coaching tactics were unconventional, to say the least. 

The life in his new country was a comfortable one for Dorozhenko, building up hockey culture in Mexico, while getting accustomed to a new culture. A comfortable salary and a place to live, while free of many of the political and social issues of the Soviet Union, Dorozhenko was happy to stay in his new country.

“I had everything I needed in Mexico,” he said. “I had no reason to leave.” 

But his first series of camps in Arizona in 2005 began the path to change that. 

Seven-year-old Auston Matthews was one of Dorozhenko’s students, learning the ways of his innovative system. At the time, the future prodigy wasn’t touted to be the face of Arizona hockey development — he was just a kid learning the fundamentals of hockey.

It was at this camp where Brian Matthews, Auston’s father, first met Dorozhenko, and the two formed a fast friendship. 

Dorozhenko returned periodically to Arizona to coach, but was still based in Mexico. Brian kept pushing for Dorozhenko to come full-time to Arizona — partially for his son’s hockey development, partially just as a friend. 

In late 2006, the conversations began to get more and more serious between Brian and Boris, with the possibility of Dorozhenko working as a skating and skill instructor being put forward by the staff at the Arizona rink. At one point in their ongoing discussions, Dorozhenko said to Matthews to “give him a month” to think about it.

Two weeks later, Brian called back. 

“I said to him,” Boris said, “‘I told you to give me a month.’” 

But with questions of whether it would be the right move for him, an overwhelming two words popped into Dorozhenko’s head —”Why not?” 

Divorced, but single, without children, and not tied down to any owned property in Mexico, Dorozhenko packed up, and made the move to Arizona. 

Mexico had been memorable and home for nearly two decades, but Dorozhenko went along with Brian and the Matthews family and moved a few hundred miles north to Scottsdale, into the Matthews’ family home

Sorting his paperwork out by early 2007 and coaching at his eventual permanent address in Arizona, with a clear job opportunity in place, the move was a relatively seamless one. 

With Auston playing and starring for various local teams, and often even playing for Ukranian teams that would visit through his coach’s connections, Dorozhenko often found himself behind the bench – right up until 2013-14, when Matthews moved onto the US National Team Development program U-17 and U-18 teams. 

These days, Dorozhenko refers to Brian Matthews as “more than a friend, like his brother.” 

Forming a further bond with Auston, Dorozhenko described the now Toronto Maple Leaf as exactly what you’d expect, and exactly what’s been reported elsewhere: Always at the rink, always willing to skate, and always looking to improve. 

“I guess he’s not my son, because he used to always call me uncle growing up,” Dorozhenko says with a laugh.

The School

Dorozhenko’s — and Auston’s — home arena looks like any other rink, at first glance. But in this 2013 promotional video for Next Generation Hockey, it doesn’t take very long to see there’s something uncommon to most other training schools.

At 0:34, an approximately 15-year-old Auston Matthews steps in — perhaps his first ever endorsement deal. Younger, smaller, but still the same unmistakable Auston Matthews. 

“You become a better skater, you get faster, you really build your leg strength,” Matthews says in the video — nothing out of the ordinary for a hockey interview. 

But at 0:45, the video begins to showcase a bit of Dorozhenko’s drills, with a player spinning, and contorting their body in a way unlike most other coaching technqiues seen in the video. 

Near the end of the video, Matthews comes back, this time giving a testimonial for Dorozhenko. “He uses every single minute on the ice, to help every single person get better,” Matthews said. 

On Next Generation’s website, Dorozhenko outlines the company’s mission statement:

In order to develop a complete player, I utilize a radical, cutting edge techniques I have learned by combining the Russian and European training methodologies (not specifically taught in North America), to develop a “NEXT GENERATION” training program for North American Hockey students. When players with a strong individual drive, passion, and a serious work ethic are combined with these unique training methods, they produce unbelievable results in a manner faster than has been achieved elsewhere.
These teaching methods are built around Innovative drills that MUST be practiced repeatedly until they become second nature. Repetition is the key to success. It allows the player to focus not on skating, stick handling, or shooting. It frees the player’s mind, allowing him to focus on individual creativity that is now the heart of the game.

Less than a week before the draft, Matthews was back in Arizona with Dorozhenko, back on his old ice, much to his coach’s surprise, and delight.

“He’s tired, he’s been playing in Europe, he was at the World Championships,” Dorozhenko said. “But he was skating with everyone, all the kids out there.”

The Chosen one?

Auston Matthews may very well be the most successful hockey player Dorozhenko ever coaches. 

From a pure numbers standpoint, very few first overall picks come from the same programs, and most first overall picks go on to be very successful NHL players. 

But whether it’s in Arizona, his current base, or elsewhere as he travels across the continent and the rest of the world teaching other camps, Dorozhenko’s argument is clear: he wants to make the most out of the talent he has enrolled. 

“I’m not going to have 1000 players to pick from,” he said. “Some years I might only have 20.”

Dorozhenko said he tells all his players the idea that what’s important is not about any given moment in time, it’s about the process and repetitive habits. 

Because while Auston Matthews is poised to be the poster child for years to come for Next Generation Hockey, there’s a story Dorozhenko likes to share about a time when things weren’t going so well. 

He recalled a travel team selection where Matthews was cut, while he was still playing AA hockey, the second highest level available to him (below AAA, where many of the top-level players were playing). 

A group of players from the same AAA youth team in Colorado were picked, while Matthews was upset because he felt he was good enough to make the team, but was passed over by the coach due to where he was playing, not because of his ability.

Despite the cut, Dorozhenko reinforced a focus on skill development and hard work. “Keep working,” Dorozhenko said to Matthews at the time. “They probably won’t even know those guys in a few years.”

Matthews, of course, kept working with Boris and progressed steadily as a player, until he got where he is now – the best player in his NHL draft year. Dorozhenko said he’s not sure what happened to those players from Colorado, but reckons they likely didn’t turn into anything close to what Matthews did.

And whether he’s running, jumping, or simply putting up points on the ice, one thing is clear: everyone in the hockey world now knows Auston Matthews’ name.