LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Auston Matthews, the talk of the 2016 NHL draft class, ended months of speculation when he officially announced he'd play this coming season for the Zurich Lions of the Swiss National League A.
"I'm really excited. I'm really fortunate for the opportunity to go over there and play for the Zurich Lions," he said. "Playing for an NHL coach and playing against older competition, they're going to push me to raise my level each game."
The 17-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona, spent the past two seasons with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, obliterating scoring records and helping the United States win gold at the 2014 and 2015 IIHF World U-18 Championships, but with a birthday just two days after the cutoff for this year's NHL draft, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound center was left with a big decision to make in terms of where to play in his draft year.
The Everett Silvertips owned his CHL rights and he had narrowed his list of potential NCAA options to six schools -- Boston College, Boston University, Michigan, North Dakota, Denver and Wisconsin -- but would have had to accelerate his senior year of high school during the summer to even be eligible. After seeing him put up 15 points in seven games for USA at the U-18s in Zug, Switzerland, in April, Zurich presented him with a third option -- sign a one-year contract and play for the Lions.
It's certainly uncharted territory as Matthews will be the first North American to play in Europe during his draft year, but he's entering a good situation with a team that's been very good recently -- winning the league in 2012 and 2014 -- and has former NHL coach Marc Crawford behind the bench.
"I think it's going to be awesome. He's obviously won a Cup and the guy knows what he's doing and I'm really excited to be working with him," said Matthews. "I want to continue to be an all-around player and not just [focus on] one specific thing, but anything I can do to be a complete player and just get better."
The Lions have just started their preseason, with their first regular-season game on Sept. 9, but because he is ineligible for a work permit until he is 18, Matthews will not be able to play until Sept. 18, the day after his birthday. He and his mother plan to move to Zurich within the next week and he will practice and work out with the team until he is eligible to play. The Lions host Fribourg-Gotteron on Sept. 18.
Matthews has spent the past week in Lake Placid at the evaluation camp for the USA Hockey National Junior Team's 2016 squad. Zurich has already granted him permission to participate in this year's World Junior Championship to be held in Helsinki, Finland, starting Dec. 26.