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Auston Matthews vindicates NHL expansion efforts in U.S.

BUFFALO, NY – One of the more important games in Toronto Maple Leafs history, as far as myth-building goes, didn’t actually involve the Maple Leafs.

Or maybe it did. Auston Matthews honestly can’t remember.

Matthews was maybe two or three years old the first time he went to a Phoenix Coyotes game, likely in the 1999-2000 season. “I don't really remember much,” the presumptive No. 1 pick said on the Buffalo waterfront, on the eve of the NHL Draft. “I was so young. I just remember it being extremely loud. I don't really remember who they were playing or what the score was, but I just found it very intriguing, just watching it. I started playing a couple years later and just fell in love with it.”

The rest, of course, we know. He dominated the sport basically everywhere he played, such was his work ethic and overwhelming talent. But growing up in Scottsdale, Ariz., one can easily understand that there wasn't exactly a lot of opportunity to play against his peers. So he played pickup games against just about anyone he could, including players a few years older than him, just to get the ice time.

And like a lot of elite hockey players, that also included traveling all over the country for tournaments against other teams who could at least try to match his level. Interestingly, he says a handful of those tournaments took him to California — a place youth hockey would basically exist only in embryonic stages were it not for expansion to San Jose and Anaheim, or the arrival of Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles — and Las Vegas, announced this week as the league's latest expansion destination.

Like seeing a Coyotes game as a child was just the push Auston Matthews needed to start down this path, the Las Vegas team could, in a few years, also be the inspiration for one gifted athlete to try hockey rather than become yet another basketball or baseball player coming from that region.

Could that kid from the Southwest, 15 or 20 years from now, be “the next Auston Matthews?”

The chance increases significantly thanks to the expansion effort.

“For them to get a team I think is unbelievable,” Matthews said of Las Vegas. “It's definitely gonna draw a lot more kids into playing hockey [there] and grow the sport even more. I haven't been there in a while, so I don't know [how much available ice they have]. But I remember going down there and they had a couple rinks we'd play our tournaments at, and I'm pretty familiar with them.”

In a way, all this serves to justify the NHL's grand plan to insert itself into markets where the weather is hot, opportunities for ice time are limited in ways that they simply can't be in cooler climates, and the sport just isn't part of the regional conversation.

It's not like Matthews is alone here, either. As Gary Bettman pointed out in the Las Vegas expansion announcement earlier this week, there are plenty of NHL players in the league who were born or raised in these infamous — and in Canada, derided — “non-traditional” hockey markets. You can rattle off the list pretty easily of guys who learned the game in places where hockey, for a long time, barely an also-ran in terms of youth participation.

USA Hockey statistics show that in 1990-91, before the Sharks or Ducks arrived in California or there were Panthers and Lightning in Florida, or Predators in Nashville, the number of hockey players in markets like this was minimal at best, for a lot of reasons. The “Pacific” region (which also includes Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii) had only about 11,000 enrolled players. The Southeastern region (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.) only had slightly more than 4,400.

This past season, there nearly 47,000 in the Pacific region, an increase of more than 300 percent. And even more stunning, that barely-on-the-radar Southeastern enrollment has jumped more than 1,000 percent, to nearly 49,000. Obviously, that significantly outstrips population growth in those areas over the same period, and it's pretty easy to draw a line between the arrival of NHL teams — and their heavy investment in growing the game in their regions — and increased participation.

“I think it's huge,” Matthews said. “I think you see the kids that are coming out of these areas. Seth Jones from Texas. Matthew Tkachuk was born in Scottsdale, and Jakob Chychrun, another prospect in this draft, is from Florida. I think they've done an unbelievable job in growing the game in these southern areas where people don't really expect you to play hockey. So it's pretty cool to be part of.”

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 23: NHL draft prospect Auston Matthews speaks to the media during the Top Prospects Media Availability as part of the 2016 NHL Draft at the Erie Basin Marina on June 23, 2016 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)

Of course, a lot of those kids, like Chychrun and Tkachuk arguably don't count here. Logan Brown, born in North Carolina and raised in the St. Louis area, might count in that regard as well. They were only in places like this because of their dads, who were themselves long-time NHLers. Hockey was quite literally in their blood, and their family tradition. But guys like Matthews, plucked from families more accustomed to playing other sports and into hockey instead simply because it was suddenly available in their areas, are more rare.

This draft is likely to be an historic one for USA Hockey. There could be a dozen US-born players taken in the first round, which would set a record. Go down the list: Matthews, Chychrun, Tkachuk, Brown, Kieffer Bellows, Luke Kunin, Charlie McAvoy, Clayton Keller, Riley Tufte, Tage Thompson, Alex DeBrincat and Max Jones are all in the mix. More will be taken in the second round. And on and on. Lots of them played in places where hockey almost certainly wouldn't be as big if not for NHL expansion.

“You look at all the guys who are projected extremely high from USA Hockey,” Matthews said. “It's a pretty big honor for all of us, I think.”

Because opportunities are still somewhat limited for elite players living in those areas, USA Hockey takes pains to make sure coaches and players in those areas get as much training from hockey lifers as possible. And even at the highest levels of the sport as those kids grow up, learning opportunities are still available, as players from places without winter as we think of it get to mingle with those from regions where you can still get out on the pond in February and get a few hours of free skating in. They play with them and against them in those tournaments, and the National Team Development Program puts the best of the best in close quarters with their peers, regardless of where they're from.

Matthews, of course, is a special case. It's rare that an American-born player goes first overall — he's likely to be seventh ever to get the honor — but USA Hockey has helped to show him the best way forward. When he played in his first World Junior Championships at 17, Matthews was, not coincidentally, assigned Jack Eichel (a Massachusetts native) as a roommate. And he says he learned a lot about how to conduct himself in his draft year as a result.

“It was crazy. Just so hectic,” Matthews said. “So much going on, especially having the tournament in Canada. I think learned a lot. I roomed with Jack and just to see his mentality and how he was handling everything. He was very professional, he was very focused. I remember him shutting off his phone, all his social media and stuff throughout the tournament, just because that's how focused he was.”

Maybe if you're cynical (or, let's be honest, Canadian), you say the expansion in non-traditional markets, where tens of thousands of people now play the game each year, isn't “worth it” for the sport. But as far as USA Hockey is concerned, there's so much value here. Any efforts you can make as a country to grow the player pool from which you're drawing will increase the number of high-quality players you're developing. That's what leads to a future in which more Americans hopefully top the NHL in scoring and win the league's MVP awards.

Matthews, going to the Mecca of the Hockey Universe in Toronto, has a very good chance to one day do the same. He doesn't need to inspire anyone in southern Ontario to get out on the ice. But if he, the Las Vegas expansion team, or any of the existing warm-weather clubs inspire someone else to go out and lace up a pair of skates for the first time, then that's a big win for USA Hockey, and by extension, the hockey world.

“It's been huge. It's really good for them,” Matthews said. “It just shows how well they're doing growing the sport.”

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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