Secret behind Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews' skating prowess is a Ukrainian via Mexico

How Auston Matthews' youth coach created a star (3:01)

Boris Dorozhenko, the youth coach of Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews, discusses his unconventional training methods and how he pushed Matthews to be the best. (3:01)

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Even in 2004, eight years after the Coyotes moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix, Boris Dorozhenko's arrival in Arizona was revolutionary.

A Ukrainian national raised in the former Soviet Union, Dorozhenko was an unconventional hockey mind in search of opportunity as the new Ukrainian republic struggled economically following the Soviet collapse of the early-1990s.

He fled the Ukraine in search of a place where he could teach power skating and hockey skills. He wound up in Mexico, of all places (his family had connections with a state-owned Soviet company that had built power plants in Mexico), where he was tasked with helping build a national hockey program -- and remained there for more than a decade.

In 2005, Dorozhenko held a skating camp in Phoenix that proved to be fortuitous. Among the students in his clinic was a 7-year-old named Auston Matthews.

The parents of the kids who skated with him were impressed with Dorozhenko's methods and suggested that he bring his training regimen to Arizona full time. No parent was keener on the idea than Auston's father, Brian Matthews.

"I flew back to Mexico," remembered Dorozhenko. "Two weeks later, Brian calls me. 'Are you coming?' he asked. 'The kids need you.'"

Dorozhenko spoke almost no English, but bonded immediately with Brian, who was fluent in Spanish thanks to his wife, Ema, a native of Mexico. Since he was relocating quickly and had nowhere to stay, Dorozhenko moved in with Auston's grandparents, Bobby and Beverly Matthews. He ended up staying with them for two years, establishing a special bond with Bobby that helped develop one of hockey's best, and least likely, phenoms.

"It was so hard to say goodbye," Dorozhenko said of the day he left the Matthews' house. "It was like leaving family."

Now 75, Bobby Matthews still enjoys recounting how his grandson discovered hockey, even before Dorozhenko entered the picture. It happened at an area skating rink, where Brian Matthews set his son aside and asked him to stay put until mom and dad were done enjoying a few laps.

"Next thing you know, there's someone flashing up and down the ice, and it was Auston. He didn't know how to stop," Bobby remembered. "He told his dad he wanted to play hockey. He was maybe 5 or 6."

Even though he grew up in a nontraditional hockey market, it's not surprising Auston gravitated toward sports so young. His great-grandfather coached football at Oklahoma's Muskogee Central High School, where Bobby competed in football, basketball and track. Bobby's younger brother, Wesley, was a wide receiver at Northeastern State University before playing a season with the Miami Dolphins.

A math teacher who worked as a computer programmer after moving to Arizona in the early-1970s, Bobby Matthews couldn't have possibly predicted how his family's sporting legacy would someday include the Soviet-turned-Ukrainian-turned-Mexican Dorozhenko.

After earning his university degree in applied math, Dorozhenko spent his first year in Mexico City teaching math and coaching hockey. Before long, he dedicated himself fully to developing his unusual skating regimen.

Initially ridiculed by his peers, Dorozhenko's training requires players to spend hours developing strength on all four edges of the skate blades. That means spinning around and around while balancing weight from edge to edge in a jaunt resembling a dancer's waltz more than a sprinter's stride. As players improve, they're taught to synchronize their hands and feet in a furious shimmy. By every traditional definition, it barely even looks like skating, but it works.

"Boris is the greatest skating instructor I've ever seen," said former NHL player Russ Courtnall, whose son, Lawton, trained with Dorozhenko.

"It's teaching kids the connection between legs and hands and moving your feet all the time," said Courtnall. "It's the reverse of what we commonly learned as skaters."

Dorozhenko's methods draw inspiration from various disciplines, including his background in mathematics and his mother's career as a music teacher. A classical guitar player himself, Dorozhenko watched his mother spend hours each day pushing her students.

There's another quirk to his methods that typically infuriates new students.

"No pucks," said Dorozhenko. "I give them the pucks as candy only as they start to produce."

Few players responded to these methods like Auston Matthews did. Between the coach's disciplinarian tactics and grandpa's nurturing, Boris and Bobby became opposites balancing on a family fulcrum that molded the prodigy into a future No. 1 overall NHL draft pick.

Boris was adopted by his "American dad," and Bobby inevitably became a fixture at training sessions, providing water and snacks -- along with kindly reminders to kids to pay attention to Dorozhenko.

"It's like father-son," Bobby Matthews said of his relationship with Dorozhenko. "We're really close."

Before long, Dorozhenko earned the attention of former NHLers Courtnall and Claude Lemieux -- as well as then-Coyote general manager Mike Barnett, whom Boris once boldly told, "Remember this name: Auston Matthews."

As his hockey circle expanded, Dorozhenko was invited to camps and tournaments across the globe. He'd attend on one condition.

"I'd say, 'Yeah, can I bring my player?'" Dorozhenko said.

Joined occasionally by Brian or Bobby Matthews, Dorozhenko escorted Auston across the hockey landscape, adding him to whichever team needed players. It didn't matter if the team was from Russia, Ukraine or Canada. Matthews played, and he usually starred.

The unusual arrangement got hairy when Courtnall invited the pair to a camp in Canada. Dorozhenko had arranged for Matthews to fly home alone from Vancouver while he flew to Switzerland for a separate camp.

What could go wrong?

"The [airline] said, 'We can't send unaccompanied minors,'" said Dorozhenko. "My flight is in half an hour and they won't board him. The kid is 11 years old and alone in Vancouver. What do I do? It was so stressful." At the last minute, Dorozhenko found an acquaintance who was boarding the same Phoenix-bound flight and agreed to escort Matthews back home.

"I'm not even sure if I told his parents about this," Dorozhenko admitted.

Dorozhenko took a step back from Matthews' development in 2011 when Auston joined Arizona's Bobcats youth program, which had been recruiting the budding local star for two years. When Dorozhenko began working with the Ukrainian national team and spending six months a year in his homeland, Bobby Matthews again stepped up by assisting with home schooling Auston.

Fast forward two years. After a stint with the United States national team development program and a pro season in Switzerland before he was drafted first overall in June, Auston Matthews is being hailed as a savior by tortured Toronto Maple Leafs fans everywhere. And the two former math teachers continue to provide their own particular brands of encouragement.

"I've worked with him for so long. I consider him family," Auston said of Dorozhenko when the Maple Leafs visited the Coyotes in December for Matthews' first NHL game in his home state. "It's been a lot getting to this point and he's been a great teacher, a great friend to have throughout the years."

Throughout Matthews' maiden NHL voyage, especially during a 13-game goalless drought earlier this season, his grandfather has sent positive texts.

Dorozhenko's texts have carried a different, though no less motivational, tone. After he was named to play in the All-Star Game, Matthews sent Dorozhenko a photograph showing an 11-year-old Auston holding a homemade Stanley Cup molded from tin foil.

Dorozhenko's response?

"I want a real one."