Projected No. 1 pick Auston Matthews ready to show his talent to the world

Auston Matthews talks Swiss League, World Juniors (2:43)

Craig Custance speaks with top prospect Auston Matthews about his experiences playing in Switzerland this year and being more comfortable in his second year playing in the World Juniors. (2:43)

The support came in the form of calls and texts. A call from Keith Tkachuk. Another one from Shane Doan, extra special for a kid who started playing hockey in the Coyotes practice facility at 6 years old.

Patrick Kane reached out. So did countless others.

A 16-year-old Auston Matthews had just broken his leg. He was hundreds of miles from the Arizona home where he grew up, away from home the first time in his life to pursue his hockey dream -- a pursuit that would eventually take him much, much farther away.

He was at the hospital recovering from the break to his left femur that happened in just his second career game with the U.S. National Development Team Program.

There was a moment in this hospital room when Auston's father, Brian, could sense his son needed time alone. He needed some space. So, Brian went downstairs and grabbed a bite to eat.

When he returned to the hospital room, the frustration from a bad break -- suffered during a knee-on-knee hit -- had been replaced by determination. His son, with his left leg immobilized by pins, was already up on crutches.

He saw a fire in Auston's eyes that hadn't been there previously.

"A lot of kids take for granted they're just bulletproof," Brian Matthews said. "It's not until something like that happens, you respect the blessings of life."

Coupled with the support coming from a hometown star like Doan and other American hockey royalty, this was the moment Brian looks back at and can say he started to realize something special was happening with his son.

Tkachuk, we now know, orchestrated some of the calls of support. His son Matthew played with Auston, and Tkachuk knew the devastation that can come with a serious injury early in the development cycle.

The hockey community jumped to action. Longtime Coyotes equipment manager Stan Wilson quickly relayed a message from Tkachuk to Doan to make a call. Tkachuk reached out to others and the messages started coming.

"Phone calls, texts -- the list was enormous," Brian said.

Said Tkachuk: "I just wanted to let him know it wasn't the end of the world."

As it turns out, it wasn't even close. At best, a small footnote.

"He came back quicker than anybody I've seen come back from that," Tkachuk said. "It was remarkable."

Since then, Auston Matthews' star has risen and now begins the moment where the once-occasional spotlight becomes permanent on hockey's next big star.

To put into perspective just how good this kid from Arizona is, had he been born a few days earlier he would have been eligible for the 2015 draft. The conversation there would have been less about Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, and more about McDavid and Matthews vying to become the No. 1 overall pick.

It's no knock on Eichel, a great player in his own right. It's just that Matthews projects to be even better. One Eastern Conference talent evaluator didn't hesitate when asked this week if Matthews would have gone No. 2 in the 2015 draft behind McDavid.

"I would have taken him ahead of Eichel, for sure," he said.

On Saturday against Team Canada, Matthews and Team USA begin their quest for their first gold medal in the World Junior Championship since 2013. Last year, an American group with a 17-year-old Matthews, Eichel and Dylan Larkin fell disappointingly short in Montreal, and that chagrin is still fresh in the minds of the Americans.

It's also the tournament that will reinforce what everybody in Switzerland, where Matthews is playing professional hockey this season, already knows:

He is the best player in the world not playing in the NHL.

An instant attraction

Matthews is sitting in a conference room of a Boston boutique hotel, carrying himself with the maturity of someone years older. The only hint he's just 18 years old is that an interview is delaying a trip to the mall across the street.

But he's patient and when asked to start at the beginning, to tell about how a kid born in the desert started playing hockey, there's no hint of annoyance or frustration to retell a story he's probably already told a million times.

"I fell in love with hockey right when I started playing," Matthews began.

Matthews is Exhibit A of the importance to the growth of the game in the United States for the NHL to have a place in non-traditional markets. His love of hockey started in a house league at the Coyotes practice rink, the Ice Den, when he was 6.

His dad grew up playing basketball and baseball but enjoyed watching Kings games while living in Los Angeles. His mom, Ema, couldn't have been more removed from the sport. Born in Mexico, one of eight siblings, her knowledge of the sport was about as limited as can be.

"The only thing I knew about hockey is that it was a sport," she said with a laugh. "That's all."

And when Brian watched Kings games on TV, she wasn't impressed.

"I thought it was crazy, some guys just playing with the puck," she said. "To me it was not that great. I got into it when Auston got into it." And Matthews most certainly got into it.

He might have been a more gifted baseball player, but hockey was his love and he grew up in an Arizona hockey scene that is better than people realize. His youth teams didn't always beat those from Michigan, New York or Minnesota, but they won their share.

Along the way, the Matthews family officially became a hockey family.

"I don't watch anything else," Ema said. "It's amazing how hockey is bringing us to love this game."

It would also take Ema to yet another new country.

Changes of scenery

One of the byproducts of being raised in Arizona is that Matthews didn't grow up a die-hard fan of any major U.S. colleges. He wasn't a Boston kid deciding between Boston College and Boston University, or a Detroit kid pulled between the University of Michigan and Michigan State when the time came to make a college choice after breaking Patrick Kane's scoring records at the U.S. National Team Development Program.

Nor did he feel any allegiance to the Everett Silvertips, the WHL team that drafted him.

As fate would have it, the 2015 U-18 World Championships were held in Zug, Switzerland, sparking the idea of Matthews taking a non-traditional route in his draft year.

"My agent, Judd [Moldaver], kind of brought it up. We were talking on the phone and he brought it up and said, 'What if you played in Europe for a year, played in a good league in Sweden or Switzerland?' We didn't have anything made up, we were just thinking of ideas," Matthews said. "I said, 'Yeah, you know, maybe, we'll see.'"

The seed was planted.

Conversations continued at CAA between Matthews' representatives Moldaver and Pat Brisson, as well as at home between Matthews and his family.

"This was a thoughtful, detailed process that had many conversations and discussions to make sure it was in Auston's best interests," Moldaver said. "The credit goes to him and his family. They were strong through this process."

The idea was to have Matthews play one season with Zurich in the Swiss league, in part because of the presence of former NHL coach Marc Crawford, now in his fourth season in Zurich.

Already in Switzerland to watch Matthews play in the World Championships, the Matthews family met with the management in Zurich and both sides left impressed.

"We showed them the city, the facility, went to our president and everything," said Zurich GM Edgar Salis. "It was a new situation. He is, by far, the youngest import ever in that league."

Brian was convinced.

"The Lions, from top to bottom, it was just a class organization from Day 1," he said. "It had to be this team. There was no other option."

It's worked so well that Matthews has been presented as a trailblazer, creating a route for other high-end hockey prospects to take to the top of the draft, even if that was never the intention.

Even Sidney Crosby, the biggest name in the game, has noticed the success. He wonders what it might mean for other high-end prospects moving forward.

"When you're that good, there's so many options," Crosby said. "As long as you're playing the way you want to play, getting the opportunity you want to get, I don't think it matters where you play. The fact that he gets to play against men is a bonus."

As is the fact that he's been able to develop his game at such a high level without the intense scrutiny that followed Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel so closely last season.

That changes this week.

Let the hype begin

Watching the World Junior Championship tournament is a Canadian holiday tradition that has seeped south to hockey fans in the United States. At the American training camp in Boston last week, Team USA players talked about watching the WJC games while growing up, perhaps the first generation of American players to do so with the tournament now regularly shown in the States on NHL Network.

It also marks the beginning of the real hype that surrounds the top players in the draft. Matthews' game will be scrutinized closely by fans and scouts in the coming weeks, scrutiny that will intensify as the Draft Combine gets closer and then peak at the draft.

Those watching him closely have found very little to dislike. In his first 22 games with Zurich, he has 14 goals and 25 points, pretty ridiculous production for a teenager playing against men. Matthews has made it look remarkably easy.

"He's jumped in right away. I thought that by the end of the year he would be a top guy and he was good right away," said Crawford. "He's arguably the best player in the league. From a pure dynamic standpoint, he is the best player."

Team USA coach Ron Wilson found a complete player in Matthews when he made the trip from Switzerland to Boston for Team USA training camp last week.

"There's really no weaknesses in his game," Wilson said. "I can't remember anybody quite like this; this is going to be really exciting to see."

Under Crawford, Matthews has rounded out his game on both sides of his ice with a focus on positioning and playing without the puck.

It's the kind of professional development he might not have received playing major junior hockey in Canada or even college hockey.

"A lot of times, he was so good, he could pick pucks away from people because he had a long reach and good sense of anticipation," Crawford said. "As you keep going up the next level, people protect the puck better. They can spin off you better, now it becomes important that you play the game with an offensive edge but do it educated. Stay on the right side when you try to pick the puck, so if you miss it, they have to come through you. It's awareness when you don't have the puck."

Crawford also isn't sheltering Matthews.

If he plays him against poor competition, it's simply because he's trying to expose a matchup during the course of the game in order to win. And he's not afraid to share his displeasure when his young prodigy messes up.

Matthews remembered a goal being scored on the Lions after he lost his guy at center.

"I was shaking my head and I looked up and I saw [Crawford] staring at me," Matthews said. "He pointed me over and said, 'Don't you ever make that mistake again.' He said some other stuff, too. It was my fault. It's a learning process. I think I've come a long way since the beginning of the year."

That progress is confirmed by NHL scouts and executives, who have heard the comparisons between Matthews and Jonathan Toews or Anze Kopitar, and believe they're completely warranted.

"It's a fair comparison in terms of projection and upside," said a Western Conference executive. "He does have an even higher-end skill than those guys, but you're still waiting to see how the body develops and how he can deal with the grind of an NHL season. What makes Toews and Kopitar so good is they are doing it against top competition night in and night out. That's the question you have with Matthews."

At this point, it might be the only question. Besides, of course, where he will end up playing next season.

He's going to be the No. 1 overall pick in June and nine teams are within three points of the bottom spot in the standings. One of those teams just happens to be the Arizona Coyotes. The hometown team. The reason he's playing hockey.

Matthew's dad is quick to say the family will support any team that selects Matthews. But c'mon, his mom is from Mexico. He even speaks a little Spanish. He was raised in Arizona. The promotion possibilities in Phoenix would be endless.

It would be perfect.

Matthews gives a little laugh of acknowledgement.

"We'll see what happens," he said.