Arizona hockey community celebrates record debut of Auston Matthews

SCOTTSDALE – When Auston Matthews became the first player to score four goals in his NHL debut Wednesday, the Arizona hockey community celebrated with him.

Matthews, a Scottsdale native now playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, might have finally brought national – and international – legitimacy to a growing effort to stabilize hockey in the desert.

“I know it’s already creating a big buzz,” said Ron Filion, a former coach of Matthews’ who still leads hockey teams in the Valley. “(On Wednesday night), for example, at our rink, it was crazy. I’m sure it was on everybody’s lips at every rink in town. Everybody’s embracing Papi as their own.”

“Papi” is the nickname that people close to him use to refer to Matthews, the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. Filion said he believes Matthews got the moniker from his mother, and that it reflects the family’s Hispanic heritage, yet another rarity – along with the Arizona roots – for a rising NHL star.

The development of Matthews and others can be attributed, in part, to the presence of the Arizona Coyotes. When not at Gila River Arena in Glendale, the Coyotes practice at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, where Matthews once played and which is near where he grew up.

Interest in youth hockey in Arizona has been on the rise in the 20 years since the Coyotes arrived here. In 1999, the first year that USA Hockey broke down numbers by state, there were 3,382 youth hockey players age 8 or older in Arizona who were members of USA Hockey programs. This year, there are 7,510 – a 122 percent increase.

Mike DeAngelis, an 11-year veteran of hockey development in Arizona, is the director of the Triple-A Junior Coyotes at the Ice Den. He said Matthews’ success in the NHL could encourage even more kids from Arizona to take a similar route.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids that have grown up in this state, and I think the number of kids that this state is producing, high-end kids, has rapidly increased, especially in the last five years,” DeAngelis said.

DeAngelis talked with his under-18 team on Thursday after Matthews’ big debut, and told the players that there will be more attention paid to them going forward.

“A lot of the hockey world’s eyes are going to be on this state and the youth kids and wondering when the next Auston Matthews is coming from a non-traditional market,” he said.

Perhaps Arizona hockey players seeking national attention can take a cue from Matthews’ former coaches. Those who know the NHL rookie best said that his breakout from a nontraditional market came from a simple character trait: passion.

“He was extremely skilled. More importantly though, he was very passionate about the game,” said Sean Whyte, the hockey director of the Desert Youth Hockey Association. “His drive was bar-none better than anyone I had ever trained before.”

Filion echoed that description, providing a good piece of advice for the growing number of Arizona youth with NHL aspirations.

“Sitting on the couch is not going to get you (to be) a better hockey player,” he said. “Papi really understood that part of it.”

And when players like Brett Dillon of DeAngelis’ under-18 Junior Coyotes take the ice, they can appreciate the groundwork that Matthews has laid.

“He’s definitely making a name for Arizona kids and snowplowing and creating a pathway for Arizona kids like us to actually make a name for ourselves as good hockey players,” Dillon said.