Auston Matthews’ impact in his debut, and hopefully throughout his rookie NHL season, is like throwing a large stone in the middle of a lake. There’s the initial splash – four goals to set an NHL record – and then there are the ripples.
But those ripples splash over the border and trickle down deep into American hockey cities where ice is more typically found inside a plastic bag at 7-11 than inside an arena. And it’s here that the Auston Matthews Effect is already being felt.
Ron Filion is the head coach of the Arizona Bobcats AAA elite team in Phoenix, and he told AZCentral.com that Matthews represents the hockey community there just as much as the Coyotes do:
“Most kids in the Valley have seen him, spoken to him, so he’s definitely the big attraction,” Filion said. “Obviously, we need our Coyotes to keep doing what they’ve been doing with the community with the new ownership. … They’re pretty much in the same boat, those two teams. A lot of quality young guys but with Auston obviously, he’s a hometown product. He represents all of us, not just the Bobcats, but everybody that plays hockey in Arizona. It’s only going to grow the more success he’s going to have.”
“He came from Arizona. Now he’s in the NHL and scored four goals in his first game so I think kids are like, ‘Maybe I can do that,’” said Aiden Coupe, a player with the Arizona Bobcats.
The NHL’s newest star first took shape at the Arcadia Ice Arena. He was first as a Mustang then became an Arizona Bobcat, where he gained the respect of younger players. Many also dream of becoming a professional hockey player. “Some of the kids have worn both jerseys and to see him be successful, it makes what he’s doing a tangible possibility for them,” said Cammielle Becker, hockey mom and Bobcats administrator.
“He’s really hardworking and I want to be like him,” said Caden Proefrock, Arizona Bobcats player.
Since the NHL’s aggressive expansion into “non-traditional markets” in the 1990s, we’ve seen professional players emerge from unlikely places. Shayne Gostisbehere, currently electrifying the league with the Philadelphia Flyers, is a product of the Florida Junior Panthers program. We famously saw Emerson Etem break through after growing up in Long Beach, California, learning the game on roller-blades. Seth Jones is a Texas native who grew up in Colorado.
That two of these NHLers we mention are players of color is as significant as their geographic origins, because that’s also part of the Auston Matthews story. From One Nacion on ESPN.com:
Matthews’ mom, Ema, who is from Hermosillo, Mexico, and his father, Brian, made considerable sacrifices to help their son in his chosen career. Ema worked two jobs to help pay the hockey fees for his early teams. It wasn’t easy getting ice time for a child growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona. Ema even moved to Switzerland in 2015 to live with Auston while he played a season in a league there before the draft. She cooked some of his favorite meals there, such as tortilla soup. His eldest sister, Alex, joined them on a break from college to help Auston keep up with his online studies.
Two Bums and a Calculator (great name) looked at this aspect of the Matthews Effect back in July:
As Auston Matthews comes into the league, he might not seek to promote the game to racial minorities, but his performance will be pivotal for interest among these groups. While all non-Caucasian groups are underrepresented in the NHL, Hispanics are even more so than blacks. While there are around 30 African-American players in the league, there are only 3 Hispanic players currently on a roster. [Ed. Note: This counted the since-retired Scott Gomez.] On the other hand, Matthews’ interest came despite his environment, rather than merely his ethnicity. Being in Arizona, Matthews had to pursue hockey on his own, rather than it being the norm, like in Canada and northern states. Matthews looks to do what very few before him have done: be a star in the NHL as a racial minority.
Diversity has unfortunately become a divisive word in American culture. Some bristle when it’s forced. Some rage when it’s not enforced. Say what you will about how to achieve it in something like the entertainment industry – and make no mistake, that’s squarely where professional sports exist – the fact is that it must be achieved.
Representation is crucial for growing hockey in the United States. That goes for superficial things, like having announcers and commentators that sound like us – rather than sounding like they just sucking down a SteamWhistle at a bar in Moose Jaw – talking about the game. That goes for more salient things, like the women playing hockey professionally in the NWHL and the women who are finally being invited to join the executive levels of NHL teams. And that goes for the Mexican-American kid from Scottsdale who, overnight, has become popular enough to be a lead story on the TODAY SHOW. The last time that happened for hockey might have been the Bertuzzi incident.
There are many barriers for kids in non-traditional markets to get into hockey: Cost of equipment, available ice sheets, available teams, qualified coaches. But a primary one is cultural: Kids want to aspire to be something achievable and relatable. Being that Jewish kid in 1950s Brooklyn who picked up a baseball for the first time because he saw Sandy Koufax pitch, for example.
Kids also want to do what their friends are doing, which means the NHL has to find ways to make new hockey fans. (One of the reasons why adding additional Canadian franchises would mean increased revenue but wouldn’t create new fans, which is why these annual clarion calls from Canadian media are shortsighted.)
Putting teams in non-traditional markets is one way to stoke fandom — looking at you, Las Vegas — and having a player to look up to would be another. And all it takes is one friend saying they’re trying out hockey to get four more doing the same. (Ah, sweet glorious peer pressure!)
We’ve long said that the Unites States has the best hockey players in the world. The problem is that they’re not playing hockey. They’re playing football and basketball and soccer and running track.
Auston Matthews is the kind of generational talent that could make a young athlete pause and say, ‘Hey, I want to do what he does’ like Matthews did when he watched Shane Doan and Danny Briere play as a child. He can make them pause and say, ‘Hey, he’s from a place like where I’m from’ or ‘Hey, my mom wasn’t born here either.’
With four goals in one game, Auston Matthews has Toronto fans dreaming about the seemingly impossible. Our hope is that he does the same for young American athletes.
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