Matthews’ journey from Arizona to Hart Trophy serving as inspiration

Just ask Cutter Gauthier.

The left wing is ranked #3 in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American skaters eligible for the 2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft and is expected to play Thursday (7:00 p.m. ET) at the Bell Center in Montreal at the standing on top of the first round; ESPN, ESPN+, SN, TVAS).

Born in Skelleftea, Sweden, Gauthier moved to Scottsdale, Arizona with his family when he was 2 years old. His path mirrors that of Matthews, the #1 forward drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2016 NHL Draft, who was born in San Ramon, California and moved to Scottsdale with his family when he was two months old.

For Gauthier, Matthew’s win of the 2021-22 Hart Trophy, voted the NHL’s Most Valuable Player, is an added incentive for young players in the Sun Belt. It shows that they too can aim to be the best in the game one day.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” Gauthier said. “It shows that it doesn’t really matter where you come from as long as you work hard. And if you work hard every day, good things will happen. Especially Auston Matthews. He was born in California and played most of his hockey growing up in Arizona and that’s pretty cool.

“There aren’t a lot of resources out there, especially at a young age, if you want to play in the National Hockey League while you’re in Michigan or the East or Canada. So it’s pretty cool to see how hard his work paid off. It’s great to see.”

On June 21, Matthews was also named a recipient of the Ted Lindsay Award, presented annually to the most outstanding player as voted on by members of the NHL Players’ Association. The only other US-born player to win either the Hart or the Lindsay was the Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kanewho both captured in 2015-16.

“He was the guy I grew up with, so maybe this generation of kids will look at me the same way,” said Matthews, who had 106 points (60 goals, 46 assists) and also won the Rocket Richard Trophy for a second season in Consequence as the NHL’s top scorer. “Thing is, where I’m from has never really been a thought for me when it comes to gaming. I loved it and had fun doing it.

“When children from markets I come from see my success as a motivation, that’s cool. As long as they enjoy it.”

Don Granato trained Kane and Matthews. He coached Matthews with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program during the 2013-14 season and was an assistant for the Kane-led Blackhawks from 2017-2019. The current Buffalo Sabers coach is quick to point out a significant difference between the two players.

“Patrick is from around here in Buffalo, which is hockey crazy,” Granato said. “Auston’s journey into the NHL where he grew up, we haven’t really seen a lot of stories like his. Maybe we’ll see more now.”

Though Kane has been a mentor to NHL hopefuls like Matthews for more than a decade, Granato said the awards won by the Maple Leafs center will impact more than just young American players trying to make it.

“You have to understand that USA Hockey has hundreds, even thousands of people working across the country, from coaches to volunteers to those who run hockey camps, you can run the whole line,” he said. “These people put in so much work and ask little in return. Imagine the motivation for some of these people, especially in non-traditional markets in places like Alaska and Arizona, when they see what Auston has accomplished. All of a sudden they look at him and say, ‘Hey, maybe we can help create the next NHL superstar, even from the market we’re from.’

“It drives people on because they’ve seen it happen before.”

Video: Auston Matthews wins Hart Trophy as NHL MVP

How much has Matthews’ rise to the top of the NHL affected interest in the Arizona grassroots?

USA Hockey offered the following statistics: In 2009-10, there were 3,339 players (2,739 youth) registered in the state. By 2015-16, the season prior to Matthew’s call-up, those numbers had risen to 7,501 (3,803). In 2021/22 they had swelled to 9,232 (4,732).

While Matthews cannot be fully credited for the surge in attendance, USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said he believes the center has played a significant role in Arizona’s positive development and that its recent accolades only keep it going will.

“First of all, we’re really looking forward to Austin,” said Kelleher. “He certainly deserved the Hart and had an incredible season.

“For USA Hockey, that means we certainly have a number of superstars in the league, but now we have the biggest in the league, at least for the last year. And his story of growing up in Arizona, a place that’s what we now call a newer hockey market — we’re trying not to use the traditional … we’re just saying newer hockey market — of being introduced to the game in a non-hockey family , falling in love, growing up, evolving to the national team development player level, then the NHL player level, and now reaching the MVP level is an incredible story, and hopefully it will be one that one day being emulated by others from different parts of the country, these newer hockey markets.”

Kelleher said he expects that to happen.

“With all of our grassroots youth hockey programs across the country, the focus is on the question, ‘How do we get more kids into the game?’ And there’s no single way to do that,” he said. “What makes Auston unique is his history and background. He’s of Hispanic descent, [and] This is an interesting story as we try to make the game more welcoming and inclusive. So it’s great to have someone from a different background than the traditional hockey background.

“I think the growth of the game is another possible reason for someone to fall in love with hockey. They might look at it and say, ‘You know what, this player is from where I’m from, a market like Arizona or even Texas or Florida.’ Or they look at it and they’re like, “You know, I have some Hispanic roots, and jeez, so does this guy.”

“And in the end, it creates more excitement in all of these markets that an American-born player can literally reach the top tier of the National Hockey League and be the league’s most valuable player. Any way you look at it, it’s good for the sport.”

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