A Las Vegas gamble and the arrival of Arizona-bred Auston Matthews would herald a new era for the NHL.

By Alex Prewitt
June 24, 2016

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.

NHL
NFL, NBA watching NHL's Las Vegas expansion vote

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.

NHL
Auston Matthews blazing his own trail to NHL stardom
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.

via QuantHockey

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.

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