PHOENIX — Driving down 32nd Street in north Phoenix, it’s easy to miss the large building to the right.
It’s nondescript, the brick painted white, the roofing a greenish-gray. At first glance, it looks like it could fit into any old business park. Then its sign explains the size: Black Rock Bouldering Gym. The marquee on this day is inspiring. It reads, “Resolutions don’t stop in February!”
It was inside those walls, however, long before they were climbable, that one of the best hockey players in the world honed his craft. It’s been years since Auston Matthews, who grew up in neighboring Scottsdale, spent hours practicing on the two mini sheets at Ozzie Ice, which called that building home for about 10 years starting in 2002. It first housed synthetic ice before switching to the real thing, but its smaller size helped Matthews learn how to play in tight quarters and nurture his burgeoning talent.
It also helped set a foundation for Matthews to become a dominant, elite goal scorer.
To become the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL draft.
To become the face of hockey in a state where ice doesn’t stand a chance in the dead of summer.
Hockey in Arizona is currently experiencing the Auston Matthews Effect. It’s been difficult to quantify his impact on the sport because there are a handful of programs specifically designed to introduce hockey to young kids in Arizona, said Kevin Erlenbach, the assistant executive director for membership at USA Hockey. But Matthews’ impact on hockey across Arizona doesn’t need to be confined to statistics.
Since he went first overall in the draft four years ago, bursting onto the scene with four goals in his first NHL game, Matthews has been changing the perception of hockey in the desert and inspiring a generation of players who are hopeful to follow in his footsteps.
“Going to tournaments out East, they didn’t even know that it was possible to have ice in Arizona,” said Johnny Walker, a junior forward at Arizona State, who is originally from Phoenix and who played and trained with Matthews growing up. “It was like they were legitimately confused that we’re able to play hockey here. But it put Arizona and even California and other states down here in the Southwest kind of on the map, that there are hockey players from here, and there’s some good ones, too.”
“It finally told people that we were not a joke,” said Matt Shott, the Arizona Coyotes‘ director of amateur hockey development and an Arizona native.
Matthews did all of it single-handedly, former Coyotes star Shane Doan said. And then some.
Matthews’ development path was critical
One of Matthews’ most important contributions to the hockey community in Arizona turned out to be a byproduct of his commitment to playing his youth hockey in Arizona. Matthews bucked the trend of talented young players leaving Arizona to play for either more competitive, elite or well-known teams in other parts of the United States or in Canada. He didn’t leave Arizona to play until he was 17, when he played for the U.S. National Team Developmental Program in Michigan. He had offers, said Boris Dorozhenko, Matthews’ coach and hockey mentor from age 7 to 16. And no one would have blamed Matthews. His Double-A team in Arizona was “probably … one of the weakest teams in the valley,” Dorozhenko said.
“It was not that big of importance to play for Double-A or Triple-A,” Dorozhenko added. “For him, it was important to put all of his heart into this game, and be successful on any team. And he showed that. He’s become a big leader. I think those years in Double-A were very positive for him because he built his confidence. Yeah, extremely big confidence he built.
“When he started playing in Triple-A, [he was a] star player like right away, and people who played in Triple-A hockey for five, six years were like, ‘Where is this guy coming from?'”
By staying in Arizona as long as he did and by being committed to his teams locally, Matthews established himself as a role model for younger players across the state, Coyotes president and CEO Ahron Cohen said.
“Every person that says, ‘Hey, you’re not going to make it, you’re from Arizona. You’re not from a real hockey place, you’re not from Minnesota, you’re not from Canada,’ he put a face on the contrary to that argument,” Cohen said. “Now these kids growing up can say, ‘I want to be the next Auston Matthews.'”
Matthew’s impact on Arizona hockey was magnified multiple times over because the Coyotes didn’t land the No. 1 pick in 2016 to be able to keep their hometown boy. As crazy as it may sound, for the sake of hockey in the state, some believe it was a blessing in disguise that Matthews went to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I think everyone in Arizona would have loved to have seen the ping pong balls bounce differently and have an opportunity to see Auston Matthews playing in a Coyotes uniform. But I think an Arizona-born player playing in the largest hockey market on earth, and doing what he’s done, has shined a very significant positive, bright light on hockey in Arizona, in the Southwest, in the West,” said Taylor Burke, the son of former Coyotes owner Richard Burke, who moved the team from Winnipeg to Phoenix. “And it’s certainly a question when you’re out traveling in cities with youth hockey programs you get asked as much as anyone because, while in many ways it’s kind of a true unicorn to have a No. 1 overall draft pick and perennial All-Star coming out of Arizona, it also has shown the world that there’s great hockey in nontraditional markets.”
The Maple Leafs declined to make Matthews available for this story.
Longtime Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson has run into Matthews out and about in Arizona during the offseason over the past few years, and has seen Matthews’ local star power firsthand: Matthews is one of the few hockey players who gets recognized in public, Ekman-Larsson said.
“He’s the flag of the whole state,” Doan said. “Like more than anything else, he’s the flag of the whole state. You can’t overstate how important he is to the state.
“I mean, the Coyotes are the reason that Auston is here, and then Auston is going to be one of the reasons why there is going to be more success in the valley, and there’s no way around it. I think that’s a perfect example of why it’s important for there to be homegrown grassroot kids coming from here, because he’s their guy and they’re like, ‘You can make it to the NHL playing in Arizona.'”
A territory on the rise
Of course, hockey in Arizona existed long before Matthews was even born, and it’ll continue to exist long after he hangs up his skates.
Yes, Matthews has made it better. But the Coyotes sped up the growth of the game in Arizona, said Greg Powers, the men’s hockey coach at Arizona State University. In 1995, the year the Winnipeg Jets announced they’d be moving to Arizona, Phoenix had just three sheets of ice. As of now, it has 13 and will add another two when ASU opens its 5,000-seat arena in the next couple of years.
And that’s still not enough ice. Rinks are booked solid throughout the day as participation numbers continue to grow.
In 2014-15, Arizona had 7,329 players registered with USA Hockey, including 3,615 age 18 and under. In 2018-19, there were 8,983 players registered with USA Hockey, including 4,697 age 18 and under. In five years, registration increased 22.6% in Arizona, compared to the national average of 6.51%.
But most importantly, Arizona is seeing vast improvement in the age division that USA Hockey sees as the most critical to a state’s long-term success. In the past five years, registration in the 8-and-under division has increased 38.6%, and jumped by 61% for girls age 8 and under.
Erlenbach said Arizona ranks in the top 10 of fastest-growing markets in the country, as “a lot of our ‘traditional’ hockey markets are stagnant or shrinking in growth.”
The two Ice Den locations in Arizona — one in Scottsdale, where the Coyotes sometimes practice, and in Chandler, both of which are owned by Burke — are home to 1,435 players on 82 teams in youth hockey, and another 850 adult players. The ice sheets at both locations are booked from about 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Friday, and 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. on the weekends. And it’s not cheap. It costs the Ice Den between $300,000 and $400,000 each year to maintain the ice, Burke said.
However, there are pitfalls to the growth and a lack of ice. The Kachinas, the girls’ hockey association run by the Coyotes which has about 1,000 players across nine teams, Shott said, can’t find ice time to practice at the same rink and at favorable times because the better ice times tend to go to teams and associations from those rinks.
A recipe for success
There are a variety of reasons for hockey’s rapid growth in Arizona, among which include the Coyotes’ recent success, the birth of ASU’s Division I team, improved coaching, migration and concerted efforts from the Coyotes to increase grassroots efforts.
“I think we’re crucial to it because we’re a very high level of hockey that is realistic for kids,” said Powers, who led the Sun Devils, an independent and the West Coast’s only D-1 team, to their first NCAA tournament in the fourth year of the program. “I mean, it’s still really hard to play Division I hockey.”
Arizona has become a destination for former NHL players to retire, and then they eventually begin coaching around the Phoenix area, including the likes of Ray Whitney, Derek Morris, Jeremy Roenick, Darcy Hordichuk and Doan.
“One of the most important parts of the game is understanding the game,” Doan said. “You can have people teach you the skills of the game, like you can be a pretty skilled player, but if you don’t understand the game and understand how the game works, it doesn’t seem to translate as well.
“And I think having the players that understand the game, just the knowledge of the game, just being around talking about the game, and then there’s a belief that if my coach could make it and he’s totally a normal guy, that is exactly the same as me, and he made it, well then maybe I can make it. I think that’s huge.”
The Coyotes have implemented their grassroots street hockey program at 650 schools around Arizona, training about 1,200 teachers in the process. From 2010 to 2018, about 277,000 people moved to Arizona from Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan — all hockey hotbeds — according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The influx of a transient community leads to more parents who grew up with hockey wanting their kids to play, except for millennial parents, Erlenbach said. They have a tendency to not have played hockey while growing up but want their kids to have that opportunity, according to USA Hockey research. And as the Coyotes fare, so do hockey numbers in Arizona, Erlenbach said.
“When the NHL club does better on the ice, it gives more awareness and we see more growth,” he said. “I can point to every time there’s a Stanley Cup victory or even something as easy as an All-Star game, you can see a bump in growth that next year. So, the fact that the team is doing well is helping them.”
The Coyotes have 68 points as of Feb. 19, and are fighting for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Of course, the Coyotes haven’t always been able to commit to growing the game locally. From 2009 to 2013, the club was dealing with bankruptcy and trying to find a new owner, a time when, even though they went to the playoffs three straight seasons, “it was more survival mode,” Doan said.
“It’s well documented the Coyotes have had their ups and downs and changes and turnover and all that stuff,” Cohen said. “And one of the repercussions of that is you’re not focused on long-term planning, you’re not focused on investment in the future. You’re just focused on what’s right in front of your face.”
With the Coyotes finding success again after being bought by Alex Meruelo last year, they’re doing their own advertising.
“If the Coyotes are more successful, then they get more airtime,” Doan said. “When they get more airtime, more people see how great the sport is. When more people see how great it is, it just kind of grows from there.”
Big growth already, with more ahead
To appreciate where Arizona is now as a hockey market, one must look at where it came from.
When former Olympian Lyndsey Fry, now the manager for marketing strategy and special projects for the Coyotes, was born 27 years ago, 18 women played hockey in the entire state. When ASU’s Johnny Walker started playing when he was young, there were three boys at his school playing. When Shott first started fielding girls’ teams to play for the Kachinas, there were three teams total, and all of them combined into large age groups, including a team that featured 14- to 19-year-olds, and a team with 14-year-olds down to 10-year-olds.
A decade ago, Dorozhenko, a Ukrainian native who spent 15 years in Mexico City building that country’s national hockey program, said the start-up Mexican teams were on par with Arizona’s talent level.
The Arizona of back then is quite different than the Arizona of today, and it has Auston Matthews and the Coyotes to thank for that.
“I think it will continue to grow,” Erlenbach said, “but it’ll probably slow until we get more ice, because I think it had some rapid expansion. … I always find despite ice availability people find a way to make it happen, to get kids out there and do it right.
“So, you know, I think it will continue to grow, especially because the Coyotes have a great base of talent to keep going.”