About a year before Auston Matthews was born, professional hockey arrived in Arizona.
He took in his first Coyotes game as a 2-year-old, and his gaze never strayed far from the ice.
“From a young age,” Matthews said, “I wanted to be an NHL hockey player.”
Learning to skate might never be a top-of-the-bucket-list item for the youth of the American Southwest, with a prohibitive climate and a scant tradition, but hockey has been on the rise in the Phoenix area since the franchise relocated from Winnipeg in 1996. The team has struggled financially, with attendance at the suburban arena in Glendale frequently landing near the bottom of the league, but the embodiment of the sport’s expansion will be on stage Friday at the NHL draft.
Matthews is expected to be the first pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s what you think about since you were a little kid,” said Matthews, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound center who joined the U.S. national team development program three years ago and spent the past season as an 18-year-old with Zurich in Switzerland’s top professional league.
He could have picked baseball, which his father played in college, but the presence of the Coyotes spawned an admiration of players like Danny Briere and Shane Doan and an appreciation for the Zamboni. Matthews was on a traveling team by age 8, heading to tournaments in Chicago, Detroit and Canada where the game is a well-established pastime.
“A lot of people, when they hear you play hockey and you’re from Arizona, kind of have this mindset where they don’t even think there’s hockey down there,” Matthews said, “but I never really thought about it too much as far as that goes. I always had a goal to make the NHL. It doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”
The state of the sport in his hometown of Scottsdale has been strengthening, year after year.
“The amount of teams that are here now and the quality of coaches and players that are here now are much better than they used to be,” Matthews said.
According to USA Hockey’s annual participation statistics , the number of 18-and-under players in Arizona increased from 2,836 during the 2005-06 season to 3,803 in 2015-16, a 34 percent gain. Neighbor state California, which has had three NHL franchises for nearly 23 years, reported a spike of 54 percent from 7,589 in 2005-06 to 11,680 in 2015-16. National leader Minnesota, by comparison, saw a 10 percent jump from 43,053 to 47,367 over that span.
“It just bodes well for the future now. There’s been so much attention with Auston Matthews,” NHL central scouting director Dan Marr said. “I think you’re going to see a spurt of hockey continue in that area. Everybody’s going to want to grow up and follow in his footsteps.”
Just like “The Great One.”
All-time leading NHL scorer Wayne Gretzky’s joining the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 helped spur interest in Southern California. His partial ownership and stint as coach of the Coyotes opened up another area for his service as an unofficial ambassador.
“There are a lot of great athletes coming out of Arizona and California and Florida,” Gretzky said. “So it’s a matter of knowledge and it’s a matter of showing the kids, `Look, try this game.’ It’s a great sport when you’re 7 or 10 years old.”
Another soon-to-be high first-round draft pick Friday, defenseman Jakob Chychrun, is from the Fort Lauderdale area in South Florida. So is Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere.
“The more people that come to watch the games, the more they fall in love with the game,” Florida Panthers general manager Tom Rowe said.
NHL hockey: Coming soon to Las Vegas.
That’s where Minnesota Wild left wing Jason Zucker was raised, rooting from afar for Pavel Datsyuk and the Detroit Red Wings. Surely a sports-loving youngster or two in Nevada will pick up a stick in the coming years after being inspired by attending a game there and develop into an NHL prospect.
“If you’re good enough,” Zucker said, “they’re going to see you in some capacity.”
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo and AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington contributed to this report.