TORONTO—Back when Daniel Briere was putting up 283 points over 364 games as a dynamo centre for the Phoenix Coyotes, a young boy named Auston Matthews was one of his biggest fans.
Today the 19-year-old Matthews, who was born the year after the former Winnipeg Jets landed in the desert and were relaunched as the Coyotes, is the first real byproduct of the sun-splashed hockey community to make the NHL.
His childhood was not the hockey life of a kid growing up in Ontario or Alberta, but Matthews, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ emerging centre, said it wasn’t far off either.
“I was still waking up at six in the morning, but it was about 65 (Fahrenheit) and sunny outside. I was walking outside in shorts and flip-flops,” Matthews said after practice on Wednesday afternoon. “To me it was just normal growing up there.”
Matthews will face his favourite childhood team for the first time in Toronto on Thursday night before heading back home next week for his first NHL appearance at Gila River Arena, the rink he used to attend as a Coyotes fan.
He’ll get to face off against long-time Arizona captain Shane Doan, one of the players he used to root for as a kid.
Some of Matthews’ best memories from those days actually didn’t involve the Coyotes at all, but their opponents. He remembers watching Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby with awe, recalling with precision a pair of special goals both scored in Glendale.
Matthews was there rooting for the Coyotes, “but secretly you wanted to see something fun happen from those really special players.”
Briere was the hometown hero though, the player Matthews just couldn’t get enough of as a kid. He particularly loved the goal celebrations of the second-ever pick of the Coyotes franchise (Dan Focht was first), how he’d get down on one knee with an emphatic fist-pump. Playing alongside one of Briere’s sons growing up, Matthews actually got to know the two-time all-star.
“It’s just funny kind of looking back at pictures with him when I was six, seven years old and then just how fast the time’s flying by,” said Matthews.
Maybe the most meaningful congratulatory message following Matthews’ historic four-goal NHL debut came from Briere, who posted to Twitter: “Wow. Absolutely incredible. Congrats #AM34.”
“Just to get a nice little shout-out from him was pretty nice,” said Matthews, represented by the Creative Artists Agency that also used to rep Briere.
Though the Coyotes franchise has endured a pair of turbulent decades since moving from Winnipeg in the mid-1990s, Matthews suggests the market has potential to attract kids to the sport and perhaps one day produce NHLers. California is now a bona-fide hotbed for young hockey talent after Wayne Gretzky’s move there in 1988 drew eyes and eventually skates and sticks to the ice.
Matthews, a contender to become the first American Calder trophy winner since Patrick Kane in 2008, could be a similar source of inspiration for youngsters in a place known most for its red-hot sun.
The Coyotes were what drew Matthews to hockey, and now perhaps he can help lure in others.
The only other NHL players ever born in Arizona were Ty Conklin, who grew up in Alaska, Jim Brown, a defenceman who played three games for the Los Angeles Kings in 1983, 24-year-old Philadelphia Flyers centre Sean Couturier and Calgary Flames 18-year-old Matthew Tkachuk.
Couturier was born in 1992, before the Coyotes even existed, and spent his formative years in New Brunswick. Tkachuk’s dad Keith was traded from Phoenix to St. Louis when Matthew was only three.
Matthews, meanwhile, played for the Jr. Coyotes minor hockey program and was a long-time fan of the local NHL team.
If there’s one thing he now misses about life in Arizona it’s the weather. Toronto has turned bitterly cold in recent days making next week’s trip (just in time for the holidays) all the more special.
“I mean home’s home,” Matthews said, “so it’s always nice to be there.”