Desert Bloom: Vegas expansion, Auston Matthews point to new era
This story appeared in the June 27, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
Although the NHL has been moving into warm-weather markets for almost 50 years, no team has yet shared a marquee with magicians, ventriloquists and Carrot Top. Still, when the proposed Las Vegas franchise, which became official at a meeting of the league’s Board of Governors on June 22, debuts in 2017–18, it shouldn’t feel too out of place. After all, Quebec native Celine Dion, who sang “O Canada” at the 1992 All-Star Game, performs several times a week 1-1⁄2 miles away from the yet-to-be-named team’s home, T-Mobile Arena.
Putting hockey on Las Vegas Boulevard is sure to add glitz to the league (imagine those rookie dinners) and a nice chunk of change to the league’s coffers. The ownership group, led by local businessman Bill Foley, is paying the NHL $500 million in expansion fees, more than six times what it cost Minnesota and Columbus each to join the league 16 years ago.
Vegas is the latest destination in the NHL’s southern strategy. Tampa Bay, Florida and Anaheim came aboard in the early 1990s, followed by Nashville and Atlanta. In between, Winnipeg and Hartford relocated to Arizona and North Carolina, respectively. In becoming the first major North American sports league to put a team in Sin City, the NHL had to shun the bid of a former league member, Quebec City.
Now the first generation of Sun Belt babies is coming of age, raised in the shadow of NHL arenas. Take, for instance, the blue line on Team North America’s under‑23 roster for the World Cup of Hockey, which begins Sept. 17 in Toronto: Among four Canadians and one Michigander are the Flyers’ Shayne Gostisbehere, from South Florida, and the Blue Jackets’ Seth Jones, who was born in Texas when his dad, Popeye, played for the NBA’s Mavericks. “Look throughout the Sun Belt at all the kids who are starting to make it,” says forward Chris Brown, a native of Flower Mound, Texas, who is in the Rangers’ organization. “Something’s got to be clicking.”
It certainly is for 18-year-old Auston Matthews. Assuming the Maple Leafs follow consensus opinion at the June 24-25 draft, Matthews will become the seventh U.S.‑born player to go No. 1 overall, the first since the Blackhawks took Patrick Kane in 2007 and the first from a warm-weather region. Between Matthews’s heritage—his mother, Ema, is from Mexico—his Phoenix-area roots and his decision to play last season in Switzerland, no one has traveled a road like Matthews has to the draft.
Matthews, who also made the under‑23 World Cup team and starred for the U.S. in the 2016 world championships, grew up attending Coyotes games on his uncle’s season tickets. “The next morning Auston would play hockey under the table with two pencils and a bottle cap,” says his mom. When Auston got a Coyotes jersey on his sixth birthday, Ema told him that if he worked really hard, he could get a college scholarship for playing hockey. “He looked at me and said, ‘But I want to play in the NHL,’” says Ema.Matthews skated with local teams until he was 16, when he moved to the U.S. national development team program in Ann Arbor, Mich., a step taken by many of the country’s most promising talents. When it came time to choose between college and junior hockey routes—the WHL’s Everett (Wash.) Silvertips owned his rights—Matthews signed with the Zurich Lions. No other North American prospect had done so. “It was never really about being a pioneer,” Matthews says. “There’s not one way to make it.”
Indeed, there have never been more ways to make it. According to USA Hockey, the total number of youth and adult players over the past decade in Florida has leaped 42%; in California, 75%. Next fall Arizona State will begin its first season as a Division I program. The lure of milder winters has many former NHLers retiring to the region, where their protégés are growing the sport’s talent base. Such is the case with former Panthers teammates Olli Jokinen, Tomas Vokoun and Radek Dvorak, who earlier this year opened the South Florida Hockey Academy.
American NHL players by birth state
In the history of the NHL, players from 37 states have skated in the league. Here are the most notable of the present and past. All stats are from QuantHockey.com as of the end of the 2015-16 season.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Phil Housley. Hall of Fame (Class of 2015) defenseman with 1,232 points ranks second all time behind Mike Modano on NHL's career scoring list of American-born players.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Mike Modano. Hall of Fame forward is highest-scoring American-born NHL player of all time (1,374 points).
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Joe Mullen. New York City product grew up playing roller hockey with brother Brian and both went on to long NHL careers. Joe scored 502 goals, won three Stanley Cups and inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Chris Chelios. Hall of Fame defenseman was an 11-time All-Star who played 26 seasons until age 48, winning three Stanley Cups and three Norris trophies.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Lee Norwood.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Mike Richter. Second round pick in 1985 had a superb, 14 season career with the New York Rangers, winning 301 games and backstopping the team in 1994 to its first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Gary Suter. Offensive defenseman, the nephew of Miracle On Ice member Bob Suter and uncle of Wild backliner Ryan Suter, was the NHL's rookie of the year for 1985-86 and won the Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Chris Drury.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Bryan Smolinski. A first round pick by the Boston Bruins in 1990, journeyman forward played 15 seasons in the NHL with eight teams.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Bryan Berard. Defenseman, the first pick in the 1995 draft, won the Calder Trophy in 1997 with the Islanders and went on to a 10-year NHL career that was cut short by a serious eye injury.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Pat LaFontaine. Hall of Fame forward
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Brian Lawton
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Scott Gomez.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Tim Jackman.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Mike Eaves. Center was a seventh round choice by the St. Louis Blues in 1976. Broke in with the Minnesota North Stars in 1979 before playing in six full NHL season
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: T.J. Oshie. First round pick (#24) by St. Louis in 2005, undersized two-way forward is still active with the Washington Capitals, having played eight seasons. Had a career-high 26-goal campaign in 2015-16.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Deron Quint. Defenseman was a second round pick (#30) by the Winnipeg Jets in 1994. As a rookie in 1995, tied NHL record by scoring twice in four seconds against Edmonton. Went on to play in 463 NHL games for six teams in a span of 10 seasons.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Donald Brashear. Feared enforcer spent 16 seasons in NHL with Montreal, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Washington and the New York Rangers from 1993 to 2010 when he was 38 years old. Rarely hit double digits in goals, but racked up 2,634 minutes in the sin bin, including a league leading 372 in 1997-98.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Danny Bolduc
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Brian Leetch. Hall of Fame defenseman
was first round choice (#9) in 1986 by the Rangers, with whom he won the Calder Trophy (1989), two Norris Trophies (1992, '97) and the Conn Smythe during New York's epic 1994 run to the Stanley Cup.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Dallas Eakins.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Eric Weinrich. Journeyman blueliner was a second round pick by New Jersey in 1985. Played in the NHL until 2006 with the Devils, Whalers, Blackhawks, Canadiens (briefly serving as captain), Bruins, Flyers, Blues and Canucks, appearing in 1,157 games.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Jeff Halpern. Former center attended Princeton before being signed by the Capitals as an undrafted free agent. Played in NHL from 1999 to 2014 for seven teams.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Jere Gillis.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Steve Konowalchuk. Tenacious two-way center was a third round pick by the Capitals in 1991. Became a fourth line mainstay in Washington until 2003 before concluding his NHL career with two seasons for Colorado.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Tyler Arnason
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Patrick O'Sullivan. Center was a 2003 second round pick by the Wild. Played 334 games across seven NHL seasons for five teams. After retiring in 2012, he wrote his heartbreaking story about suffering horrendous childhood abuse at the hands of his father.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Ty Conklin. Career backup goalie with Oilers, Blue Jackets, Sabres, Penguins, Red Wings and Blues (2001-12) was born in Phoenix but grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and played at the University of New Hampshire.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Mark Mowers. Center starred at University of New Hampshire before being signed by Nashville as a free agent in 1998. Played in NHL with Predators, Red Wings, Bruins and Ducks until 2008 when he departed for Europe.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Aud Tuten. Roughneck defenseman was born in Enterprise, Ala. but raised in Saskatchewan. He spent most of his pro career in the minors, but when World War II drew many players off to fight, he got a shot at the NHL and appeared in 39 games for the Blackhawks (1941-43). Later became a referee.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: John LeClair. Second round pick by Montreal in 1987, he won the Cup with the Canadiens in '93 and later became famous for playing left wing on the Flyers' Legion of Doom line with Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg, scoring 32-40 goals in five consecutive seasons (1995-2000).Five-time All-Star spent 16 years in the NHL.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Kevyn Adams. Fourth-line checking forward and penalty-killing specialist was a first round pick (#25) by the Bruins in 1993 but later signed with Toronto in '97. Went on to play in 540 games for six teams until 2008, winning the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Jed Ortmeyer. Center started career with Omaha Lancers of USHL in 1997 before starring at the University of Michigan. Signed as a free agent by the Rangers in 2003, he played eight seasons with New York, the Predators, the Sharks and the Wild, his career hampered by a knee injury and blood clots.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Guyle Fielder. Though his career lasted 20 years, he spent only four seasons in the NHL with Chicago and Detroit, wrapping up his last stint there on a line with Gordie Howe in 1957-58. Won numerous MVP and All-Star honors in the minors.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Mark Eaton. Big defenseman, the first hockey player to be named his home state's Athlete of the Year, played at Notre Dame and was signed as a free agent by Philadelphia in 1998. Skated in the NHL with the Flyers, Predators, Penguins and Islanders until 2013, winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009.
ALL-TIME NOTABLE: Scott Clemmensen. Eighth round pick by New Jersey in 1997, he spent most of his 14-year NHL career on the bench as a backup, playing in a career high 40 games with the Devils in 2008-09. Saw 30 or so games worth of action per season season while splitting time with the Panthers (2009-14) before returning to New Jersey to wrap it up in 2015-15.
It has taken the southern strategy a while to bear fruit. The on-ice products have been consistently successful—four of the past 11 Stanley Cup champions are from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and this season’s playoffs featured all three California clubs, both Florida teams, Dallas and Nashville. But Sun Belt TV ratings generally rank in the league’s lower half, as do attendance figures. Last November, when Forbes released its list of franchise values, the bottom six were Tampa Bay, Nashville, Columbus, Carolina, Arizona and, last, Florida.
But Vegas is a land of hopes and dreams. Even before the NHL’s executive committee reportedly recommended expansion there last week, season-ticket presales had passed 14,000 and every luxury suite at the privately financed arena was booked. But what matters most, of course, in attracting eyeballs and keeping them is a competitive product. Only certain species take root in the desert.
“What you’re looking for early on is, Does the sport itself become attractive in the marketplace so youth-hockey participation becomes first relevant and then strong?” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says. “At the end of the day, it’ll be a function of how many NHL players those markets start producing.”
With prospects like Matthews, that day is coming soon.