Why Auston Matthews will continue to get better and be the face of American hockey

Auston Matthews showed he’s the real deal. And he’ll only get better.

On Wednesday night, as NHL hockey found its way back to televisions and computer screens, a 19-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona took the ice for his first official game as a member of the league.

He had been drafted first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs four months prior, making him the seventh American selected that high and first since 2007. It also made him the first Mexican American to be chosen at No. 1.

So when Auston Matthews pulled on his Leafs jersey and set foot on the ice to face the Ottawa Senators, he was already making history. Naturally, he then decided to make some more.

In 17:37 of ice time, and with six shots on net, Matthews recorded four goals, the most of any player in his NHL debut. His first three tallies came on his first three shots, including an impressive unassisted effort that gave those watching a glimpse of just how dominant the rookie can be.

Matthews gained possession of the puck by the Senators blue line, knocking it between Mark Stone’s legs before tapping it through Mike Hoffman’s as well to maintain his hold. He then turned back up the ice with the puck and, after a shove from Hoffman along the boards that freed it to travel up the wall, subsequently lifted Erik Karlsson’s stick to reclaim the disc and take it towards the net. Following a few strides, and with Marc Methot sliding on his stomach to try and get in the way, Matthews fired a quick shot around the prone defenseman and beat Craig Anderson to finish things up.

It’s not the first time Matthews has commanded a hockey game, and it likely won’t be the last. Similarly, it’s not the first time he’s left a record in the dust behind him either.

During his 2014-15 campaign with the U-18s of the U.S. National Team Development Program, Matthews blew past Patrick Kane’s single-season points record (102) from 2005-06 by notching 116 on 55 goals and 61 assists in 60 games.

In a (understatement incoming) predominantly white sports league, Matthews’ success from even youth up to this point is so vitally important to growing the game of hockey. There are countless articles highlighting his background as a kid born in California to an American father and a Mexican mother, raised in Arizona to grow up and become the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft. Instead of playing college or junior hockey, he spent last year as a member of the ZSC Lions in Zurich competing against adults.

He’s the first to do this, and the first to do that. He holds this record and that one too, and he’s played in a grand total of one NHL game.

He has already worn the red, white and blue for USA Hockey, however, and made a splash there not only with the NTDP but at World Juniors and at World Championships this past spring.

In the wake of a disastrous World Cup for USA Hockey, Matthews’ play for Team North America (along with fellow Americans Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin, etc.) was a positive because it offered a peek into what the future could hold for the program, at least at levels higher than the NTDP.

The hope is that Matthews and co.’s game sparks a shift in mentality for USA Hockey, one where speed, skill and smarts are favored over players who are selected solely to fill a “character role.”

He’s going to be the face of USA Hockey for years to come and, oddly enough, will be a face of Canadian hockey as well. Already being lauded as Toronto’s savior, Matthews was asked by a reporter Thursday morning if he had been consulted about the parade route at all.

“The what?”

“The [Stanley Cup] parade route, have [the Leafs] talked to you?”

Uncomfortable chuckling.

“A statue?”

More uncomfortable chuckling. “One game.”

And like Matthews said, it has been one game. His hockey resume is long and full of accolades. His story lends itself to a wonderful and heartening account, one that will inspire kids from non-traditional markets and backgrounds for years to come. But he just got here.

It’s easy to forget with all the hype surrounding him, but Matthews is 19. His career has only begun. He’s still learning and developing. He won’t magically fix the woes surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs because he scored four goals (see: Wednesday’s game).

He’s going to have pressure heaped upon him, and while it’s sometimes unavoidable and “comes with the territory,” it doesn’t hurt to remember not to get too carried away. Like, maybe, not asking him if he was consulted about a parade route less than 24 hours after he played his first game, even if it was meant as tongue-in-cheek.

Toronto ended up losing said game 5-4 in overtime, on a goal that Matthews might have been on the hook for, but the result almost didn’t matter. Instead, tweets poured in about his performance. Former players, current players, fans, even people who don’t watch much hockey weighed in.

All anyone talked about was how cool this was or what it meant for the sport. It’s insane to expect that kind of feat from the rookie every night, but the enthusiasm and thrill that Matthews drummed up in just one game is enough to get really excited about where hockey is going.

And that’s the most encouraging reaction of them all: to be excited. Because, with Auston Matthews, there’s a whole lot to be excited about.

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One thought on “Why Auston Matthews will continue to get better and be the face of American hockey

  1. ugh says:

    yeah great, so excited to see the NHL flooded with the children of rich americans. they definitely don’t ruin everything they’re involved in.

    Like

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