This won’t be a popular opinion in Arizona. It may start another border war of words between Canadian hockey fans and their apparently backwoods American brethren.
We’ll write it anyway. When the Toronto Maple Leafs draft Scottsdale product Auston Matthews in June, it will be good for hockey.
If you need a moment to choke back your bile or tears, we understand. It would have been a storybook ending if the Coyotes had won Saturday’s NHL Draft Lottery and earned the right to draft the hometown kid.
It might have cast a spotlight on the enormous growth of the youth game in the Valley — growth that has been driven largely by the NHL team outsiders love to ridicule.
It might have provided validation for the core of Coyotes fans that feel dissed by every fan base in the country (OK, maybe not Florida or Carolina).
It would have marked the rare return of a hometown star to a local pro team — a local player the caliber of which has not been seen here since Shadow Mountain High School product Curt Schilling pitched for the Diamondbacks.
“This was a more emotional one because of the presumptive No. 1 pick,” Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said after the Lottery. “I’d be lying if I said we didn’t want to get the No. 1.”
It didn’t happen, but at least Edmonton didn’t win again. At least Matthews won’t be centering a line with former Coyotes draft pick Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg. At least Matthews isn’t going to Quebec, because, as Coyotes fans love to remind them, Quebec doesn’t have a team.
Toronto, the team with the best odds, won the lottery and will almost certainly draft Matthews despite recent chatter about the rise of Finnish forward Patrik Laine. Franchise centers and franchise defensemen are the hardest two pieces to find in the NHL; the pieces around which you build a team. Matthews is a center; Laine is not.
“It’s nice to have a bit of clarity,” Matthews told NBC after the Lottery broadcast had ended.
Now comes the challenge for Matthews. With apologies to Montreal, Toronto is the hockey capital of the world. Matthews will likely have more endorsement opportunities there than he would have anywhere else, and he’ll get to learn under one of the best coaches in the game in Mike Babcock, but he will also face more intense scrutiny than he would have in any other market.
Toronto bottomed out this season, selling off parts to begin a massive rebuild. The Maple Leafs already have talented prospects Mitchell Marner and William Nylander in the pipeline. Nylander played 22 games with the team this season, but Matthews is still the linchpin of team president Brendan Shanahan’s overall plan.
Toronto has bungled its way through the league for years. The Leafs have the longest current Stanley Cup drought, last having won in 1967 (we’re giving them the edge over expansion teams born the following year). That is why Matthews is so important, and that is why it’s such a good thing that he is playing in Toronto.
Regardless of how you feel about the franchise, when Toronto is successful, the league benefits. The Leafs draw widespread interest in Canada and better ratings up north. They bring an aura of tradition to the postseason as one of the league’s so-called-but-not-actually Original Six teams.
It’s like having the Yankees successful in baseball, or the Cowboys in football, or the Celtics and Lakers in basketball. You may hate those teams, but you still watch them if only to spew the aforementioned bile.
Some have suggested that Matthews would have helped market the game in Arizona. To that we say: he still can. Canadians probably won’t view Matthews as proof that the game has a foothold in Arizona. Until more Arizonans make their way into the NHL, Canadians will probably view Matthews as an anomaly and they’ll be right.
But Matthews is a start; a seed perhaps better planted there than here. The bigger his name grows and the wider his notoriety spreads, the better off the hockey world will be, including Arizona.
It takes a full generation to embed a new sport in a city — a fact few seem to grasp when critiquing the so-called non-traditional markets. Kids must grow up rooting for a team. Those same kids must become season-ticket holders and put their kids on skates.
When all of that is finally in place, a select few of those kids can realize their dreams of becoming NHL players. For the first time in this state’s history, Arizona kids have a legitimate poster boy. And he’s skating in the heart of Canada.
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