No. 1 NHL draft prospect Auston Matthews could be the first breakout star from Arizona’s burgeoning youth ice hockey scene.

Youth on Ice

Written by Craig Morgan Category: Valley News Issue: June 2016
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Auston Matthews attended the Arizona Coyotes’ final home game of the season against Washington on April 2. It was a symbolic moment for the Scottsdale athlete, who played with two local youth hockey associations.

The presumed No. 1 pick in the June NHL Draft won’t be a spectator much longer, and with the rapid growth of Arizona youth hockey, former pros in the local youth coaching ranks and the success local teams are having on international stages, there is hope that Matthews, 18, is at the forefront of an emerging local trend. 

“We haven’t reached the ability where in any given year a different youth hockey association can dominate the state,” says Coyotes captain Shane Doan, who is involved in the youth game and has a son (Joshua, 14) who plays locally. “Every year, we have maybe 10 to 20 kids that are legitimate Tier I players, or the highest level, while other major cities might have 75 to 100. 

“That being said, I’ve been in the Valley a long time and there’s no question it’s grown a ton. There’s more rinks, there’s more kids playing and the simple fact that you have players like Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk coming out of here and going to the NHL tells you things have changed.”

Arizona has long been viewed as a non-traditional hockey market by the NHL’s more established cities, but in its recent annual report on state-by-state participation, USA Hockey reported a 51 percent increase in amateur hockey participation in Arizona last year, from 4,860 participants to 7,329, making it one of the three fastest growing states in the nation. 

Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey’s Assistant Executive Director of Development, says part of that growth is attributable to more uniformity in the state, with associations that previously weren’t under USA Hockey’s umbrella now in the fold. But he says the numbers also indicate real growth. “Everybody is on the same page, including the Coyotes, and you’re seeing some of the product of the efforts they’re putting in,” Kelleher says. “The numbers are impressive; better than they’ve ever been.”

When the Coyotes arrived in Arizona in 1996, their presence created a small increase in youth participation, but years of league ownership after the team went into bankruptcy kept the franchise from nurturing grassroots development. 

That changed when IceArizona bought the Coyotes nearly three years ago. The team’s amateur hockey development manager, Matt Shott, has been a critical liaison with teams and schools ever since. “In the last two to three years when this was all turning around for the Coyotes, Matt came to me and said ‘we’re going to be a lot more involved with youth hockey’ and he’s lived up to his word,” says Sean Whyte, director for the Desert Youth Hockey Association, based out of Tempe’s Oceanside Ice Arena. “They have made huge strides in getting into the hockey community, teaching the game, connecting with kids and trying to build the sport.”

The Valley also benefits from numerous NHL players such as Dave Ellett, Tyson Nash, and Derek Morris, who have retired here and entered the youth hockey coaching ranks. “Just through osmosis they will teach these kids through their experiences, life lessons and top-end skills,” Whyte says.

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Arizona youth hockey is starting to bear fruit with players such as Matthews, who was not available for an interview, and Tkachuk, the son of former Coyote Keith Tkachuk. Local teams are also having success in tournaments. Valley of the Sun Hockey Association director Ron Filion took his Arizona Bobcats team to the Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament, probably the most prestigious youth tournament in the world. The Bobcats defeated Detroit’s famed Little Caesars to win the Triple-A division. “It’s something you remember your entire life and it showed just how far Arizona hockey has come,” says Filion, who had Matthews in his association for three years after he had played for the Junior Coyotes. “It’s not just us. The Junior Coyotes are also doing very well with the Tier I elite league.”

Arizona does face challenges. In order to grow, youth hockey needs available and affordable ice sheets. There are 12 ice sheets across the Valley, and all of them are normally full. The situation is worse in the state’s other major markets. Flagstaff has one rink for a thriving youth program and Tucson has only the part-time ice available at the Tucson Convention Center where the University of Arizona team plays. The ice is melted after the Wildcats’ season ends in the spring. 

Pat Wilde, sponsorship director for the Wildcat Youth Hockey Association in Tucson, says WYHA has more than 100 families involved, but many more make the trek to the Valley three to four days a week so their kids can play. The Coyotes’ likely decision to move their American Hockey League affiliate to Tucson, and Arizona State University’s decision to form a Division I hockey program, could help spur greater growth, but there is also hope that Matthews’ presence in the NHL will raise the profile of hockey statewide.

“You hope he does that not just for the Bobcats but for all of Arizona,” Filion says. “For us to have an NHL kid that comes back here in the offseason and spends time with the players would be amazing. And if the Coyotes were lucky enough to draft him, it would be like a Christmas gift for the whole town for the next 20 years.”