This is an article I wrote for my school newspaper at Fitchburg State University in October 2016. Now that I have graduated, I am publishing some of the writing I did during the semester.
Hockey fans will look back on October 12, 2016 and remember it as the day a new era in the NHL began, even if they did not watch it live. After a decade of the league being dominated by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane (with Jaromir Jagr, who won two Stanley Cups before Bill Clinton was elected president, is still somehow playing at a high level on top of all that), it is clear to me that a new generation is ready to take the NHL by storm. Toews and Kane have won three Stanley Cups together in Chicago, and may win it again this season, Crosby captained the Pittsburgh Penguins to a second Stanley Cup last June, and while he has yet to find the same playoff success as his peers, Ovechkin remains must-watch television whenever he steps on the ice, but it will not be long before Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, Patrick Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs begin to take over the highlight shows, podcasts, and Reddit posts that drive hockey discussion in the 21st Century, and while McDavid and Eichel arrived in the NHL last season, the new era truly began on October 12 when Auston Matthews made history.
Matthews, who was selected with the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, scored four goals in his NHL debut on the road against the Ottawa Senators, including scoring on each of his first three career shots. The Maple Leafs lost the game 5-4 in overtime, but he showed that he belonged and that Toronto has a cornerstone piece to build their franchise around going forward. The Leafs, the most consistent punchline in hockey for nearly 50 years, finally have something to be excited about again, and it came from an unconventional place.
While McDavid, Eichel, and Laine come from much more traditional hockey talent pools, (McDavid is from Ontario, Eichel is from Chelmsford, Massachusetts and played at Boston University, and Laine is from Finland), Auston Matthews is from Scottsdale, Arizona, was the first in his family to play hockey, and got into the sport from going to Phoenix Coyotes games as a child. The original Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona in 1996, and Matthews was born in 1997. This is a kid who would be playing college football or baseball this year were it not for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s polarizing strategy of moving NHL teams from cities like Winnipeg, Quebec, Minneapolis, and Hartford to nontraditional markets like Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, and Raleigh (though Winnipeg and Minnesota did eventually get new teams, in addition to expansion franchises in Ottawa, Nashville, Columbus, San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, and Tampa) in the 1990s. Matthews being selected #1 overall back in June is a sign that hockey is growing, that the best athletes from more places are choosing that sport, and the key to the NHL’s growth going forward is not making the game more popular in Canada, (which is why the NHL’s next expansion team is going to be in Las Vegas, not Quebec, as the people of Quebec have not had their own team in 20 years, but still watch the games on TV and buy the jerseys), but to strengthen its influence in the United States.
If there’s any problem I have with hockey’s youth movement, it’s that the best players are stuck in Canada. Coming out of the 2005 lockout, the NHL was able to win back fans because of parity and a high number of competitive teams, but perhaps more importantly, the best teams the last ten years were in American markets. Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Tampa, and San Jose were in the mix for the Stanley Cup more often than they weren’t in a time when the NHL really needed American TVs tuned into their games. Now it seems like the next generation of elite players will be mostly based in Canada, and that could be a problem. It would take the Edmonton Oilers making the Stanley Cup Final for one of Connor McDavid’s games to make it onto NBC, and the same is true of Patrick Laine in Winnipeg. At least Matthews is in Toronto, which as Canada’s largest city and the only Canadian city with teams in the NBA or MLB, is a little more justifiable for American network executives.
All in all, the future of the NHL is bright, and Auston Matthews is leading the way, not just for a franchise that last won the Stanley Cup when there were still only six NHL teams (I know it was 1967 and not 1908, but seriously, the Leafs are the Chicago Cubs of hockey and this doesn’t get talked about enough in America), but for kids playing hockey all across the United States. If a kid who grew up in a state where hockey cannot be played outdoors any time of the year can score four goals in his first NHL game less than a month after his 19th birthday, a lot more kids are going to play hockey thinking they have a chance at the NHL when they otherwise might have stuck to football, and that can’t be a bad thing.