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From Arizona to Switzerland, Auston Matthews' life shaped by family

After impressing Team USA coaches stateside, Auston Matthews opted to spend a season playing pro hockey in Switzerland. Sparta Prague/Champions Hockey League/Getty Images

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The father of the projected first overall draft pick in next June's NHL draft has been back in Arizona for a couple of days now. Brian Matthews is a little jetlagged, perhaps, but is already planning a return trip to Switzerland in about a month, this time with an added bonus for the Swiss-based part of his family.

Visitors were instructed not to tell anyone, but since it has already happened, it can be reported that Matthews was planning on bringing along his youngest daughter Breyana, 13, as a surprise visitor for older brother Auston, older sister Alexandria and mother Ema.

Such is life for a family from Scottsdale that finds itself at the eye of a tantalizing hockey storm, one that will carry into next summer and beyond and has tossed the family topsy-turvy into separate realities in Zurich and also the scorching heat of the Arizona desert.

Exciting? Of course. Easy? No one said it would be easy.

"It has its moments," Matthews admitted over coffee.

When the sometimes-torturous negotiations that ultimately allowed super-prospect Auston Matthews to join the Zurich Lions of the Swiss Elite League were completed, it was decided that Ema and Auston's big sister Alexandria, who is studying at Arizona State University but took a semester off ostensibly to help her younger brother keep up his studies, would join Auston in Switzerland.

Brian would stay at home with Breyana so she could go to school and continue her passion for golf, and the family would muddle through as best as possible.

There is Skype and email and all of the other ways technology shrinks our world and helps shorten long distances, but the reality of time changes and practice and game schedules mean each day's window for face time is limited.

"It's hard right now," Brian said. "But we would do the same thing for Breyana's golf or Alexandria's schooling. Kids first."

As for Auston, the hockey prodigy has been a moving target for the past three years or so anyway.

"With Auston, it seemed he was never home anyway," his father said with a laugh.

Auston was actually born in the San Francisco Bay area, but two months later the family was in Arizona, where they've remained since. Brian is the chief technology officer for a manufacturing company based in New Jersey, so once a month he is there to work and the rest of the time is telecommuting from Arizona.

When the kids were younger, they were given the choice of playing two sports. Auston chose baseball and hockey. "Baseball was his best sport but it wasn't where his heart was," Brian acknowledged.

Auston's incredible hand-eye coordination made him a natural as a hitter. But he hated the slow pace of the game. Hockey? That was a different story. As a youngster, Auston would sometimes attend Arizona Coyotes games.

His favorite two things? The Zamboni and the ticket drop, when radio-controlled devices would float above the seats and drop prizes during intermissions.

And while much has been made of the fact that Auston missed joining Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in the seminal 2015 draft by two days, well, it was his own fault. "He was late," his dad recalled.

Poor Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, who ended up 29th overall in the standings last season, just two points ahead of last-place Buffalo, but ended up with the third overall pick. If only Ema had eaten some eggplant lasagna in the week before Auston's due date, the entire future of the franchise might look different today. It is a moot point but not the only birth element to the Matthews' story (legend?).

All of the Matthews children were large babies in excess of nine pounds.

When it came time for Auston's younger sister, Breyana, to be born, it was decided that Ema would be induced on a specific date. That date, however, coincided with Auston's first-ever skating session. So his sister's birth was delayed an hour or so to allow for what turned out to be a pretty important first step for one of America's most promising young hockey players.

"She understood," Brian says of his wife with a laugh. "What was another hour?"

The game and Auston seemed a perfect match pretty much from the get-go.

"He fell in love with it right away," Brian said of Auston.

At one point, he wanted to play goal. What young hockey player doesn't? That experiment lasted about 15 minutes. Off came the pads, and Auston was back racing up and down the ice. A natural leader from the start, Auston was known to his young teammates simply as 'Papi.'

One day at the rink, Auston's parents couldn't find him and began asking his friends and teammates, all of whom shrugged their shoulders until they found out it was 'Papi' they were looking for.

"Nobody even knew his name was Auston," Brian recalled.

As Auston grew older and his prowess at both baseball and hockey grew, there were natural conflicts. At one point during a baseball weekend, 13-year-old Auston missed the first of three baseball games so he could play hockey. He arrived for baseball and was not in the starting lineup. When he did get in the game, he hit a grand slam to end the game. Then he shucked off his ball gear and headed for the parking lot to make it back for hockey.

Later, the baseball coach called to say some of the parents were complaining that Auston was regularly missing practices and games and that it was time to make a choice between the two sports. Auston didn't hesitate.

"Hockey," he told his father.

After being asked to come out to Michigan to work out at the National Team Development Program, Matthews immediately impressed by making plays against bigger, older boys.

"I think even Don was a little surprised," Matthews said of NTDP Under-17 coach Don Granato.

It wasn't all straight lines for Matthews. He broke his leg in his second game with the Under-17 team. But apart from that, the whole NTDP experience "was spectacular," Brian said.

When Auston went in for surgery with the broken leg, Granato was on hand and spent the night, as did other team staff.

"It was that kind of specialness," Brian said.

When Auston returned to action, he picked up where he left off, and it was around that time Granato took Brian aside and warned him: this is going to get nuts. He wasn't wrong. Granato, a longtime NHL scout and minor pro head coach, told USA Hockey officials early on in Matthews' time with the NTDP that they were looking at the next American-born No. 1 overall draft pick.

His colleagues might have been skeptical watching a raw, 15-year-old kid from Scottsdale, but nothing that has happened since has given Granato pause to reconsider his belief.

"I've watched hundreds of players over the years," Granato said. "You just know. It's the way he carried himself."

Granato's brother, Tony, was a longtime NHL player and has been coaching in the NHL for years, and was likewise wowed when shown video of Auston's early workouts with the NTDP.

Don Granato lists off the game's elite players: Jonathan Toews, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic, Sidney Crosby, all united by their skill, presence, determination. Auston Matthews?

"He has those qualities," Granato said. "The kid is incredible."

In his last year with the development program, Matthews had 117 points overall, Granato said, 20 more than Jack Eichel had in his last year playing roughly the same schedule.

Against Division I college teams, Auston played 10 games, missing three during the World Junior Championships last winter. He had 10 goals, and Granato points out Auston did not score against the lower-ranked University of Alabama-Huntsville, whom the NTDP squad played twice. Matthews did have success against some of the top college programs in the United States, including Michigan, University of Miami (Ohio), Providence, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"And he was a junior in high school last year," Granato said. "Think about that."

It seems to go without saying, but it's worth noting that players such as Matthews, for all their innate talent and will to succeed and internal compass, do not exist in a vacuum. Neither do they evolve and develop in a vacuum. With the great ones, family is almost always part of the equation.

Granato certainly believes this to be so with Matthews' family, having told Brian a couple of years ago, "let me reassure you that you've raised him the right way."

He explained to the family that their lives were going to change, but that they should have the confidence to sit back and enjoy it, "because your son will take care of it. Your son has all the attributes to take care of it," Granato said at the time.

Having watched literally hundreds of young boys pass through the NTDP, and throughout his long career as an assessor of talent and character and people and where they come from, Granato admits he's "hyper-sensitive" to what kind of impact family has had on young players.

The Matthews family? Off the charts, he said. "The family dynamic is incredible."

Granato recalls a number of instances when Auston scored highlight-reel goals -- including one where he batted a fluttering puck over a defender, raced by him, caught the puck on the other side and scored -- but celebrated in the most understated of ways with a subtle fist-bump with teammates.

"He's very, very responsible to the team, his teammates, trainers, coaches," Granato said. "He's a very special person. And those are values that were instilled in him long before he got here."

Along with the challenges of playing in a new league far from home, there is also the building anticipation for the draft and Auston's expected coronation as the top overall pick.

It's hard for the family not to imagine being at the eye of the storm, as McDavid and Eichel are this season, but there is something to be said for being able to play somewhat away from the fray. Auston got a taste of the North American spotlight playing at the World Junior Championship in Montreal and Ottawa last winter, so he understands on some level what the future will bring.

"I think it was kind of eye-opening for him what he's going to have to expect," Brian said.

It will be hard not to look ahead to the draft, and then to training camp and the start of next season in the NHL. Already in the early going of this NHL season, you hear talk of the "Matthews Sweepstakes" and which teams are in the hunt for that prize.

Toronto Maple Leafs? Carolina Hurricanes? What about the hometown Coyotes, who are off to a strong start but figure to be a factor in the race for the top pick when the dust settles?

"Would I love him to be here? Where I could see half his games at home? What parent wouldn't want that?" the elder Matthews said with a laugh.

But there's too much road to travel, too many variables -- including a more complicated draft lottery system designed to prevent teams from tanking -- to worry much about what might happen a year from now. Instead, it's about enjoying the moment.

"June will get here fast enough," Brian said. "We're just trying to push that all out of our mind."

And there are lots of landmarks to enjoy between then and now, such as Auston's first game as a pro.

"It was almost surreal," Brian said.

The home crowd, dizzy with anticipation having to wait for Matthews' first game, went crazy when he won a faceoff. Auston had to wait until his 18th birthday to begin playing games in Switzerland; in late summer, he was Zen about the waiting and enjoyed working with head coach and former Stanley Cup winner Marc Crawford.

Crawford told us he was looking forward to working with a talent such as Auston, and the fit has been dynamic, as Matthews has ripped up the Swiss Elite League with nine goals and three assists in 11 games.

"We know Marc's doing a phenomenal job with him," Brian said.

On the ice, there seems to have been little issue in adapting to tougher competition. Perhaps more importantly, Auston continues to impress his coaches and teammates by working diligently at practice. Like the other rookies, he is helping pick up pucks after practice sessions during which he's often among the last off the ice.

When he fulfills media requests -- and there are lots, even in Switzerland -- Auston ensures they don't draw undue attention to himself in front of his teammates.

"He doesn't want to be perceived as a media whore or something like that," his dad said. "That's not him."

It is a sensitivity that reminds us of Crosby, who has always taken great care to try to ensure the incredible demands on him off the ice do not effect his teammates or his role on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The highlight of Matthews' first visit was a homemade Mexican feast -- a family favorite -- including tortilla soup and fajitas to celebrate Auston's birthday. They invited teammates and some of the coaching staff to the event held at the rink near the family's residence. The image of guests, including Crawford, trying to bust open a piƱata with a hockey stick is a keeper.

"I think it kind of brought everyone closer together," Brian said.

Via text, Crawford joked that he couldn't get at any of the candy, even though he had a couple of good swings with a hockey stick.

"I'm not as fit as I once was," he quipped.

And so as much as the family keeps one eye on the future and the promise of greatness and dreams fulfilled, there is satisfaction and more with the here and now. And until next June, that will have to provide enough sustenance to the family whether they wake up in Scottsdale or Zurich.

"We don't want to take anything for granted," Brian Matthews said. "We feel blessed to be in a good spot. When we hear his name called [next June], we'll probably believe it then."