MONTREAL (AP) The idea to play pro hockey with the Zurich Lions was sparked in April when Auston Matthews led the U.S. team to a gold medal in the world under-18 championship.
The 17-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona, and his advisers liked what they saw and decided it was a better option than playing in college or for the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips.
Matthews, likely to go first overall in the 2016 NHL draft, opted to sign a one-year deal with Zurich, where he will play in the Swiss National League A under former NHL coach Marc Crawford.
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”The idea came when he was in Switzerland,” agent Pat Brisson said Friday. ”We felt he was ready to play in the NHL this year, so we looked at different options.”
The decision was criticized by some who felt the teen was simply looking to pick up a pay check or perhaps force Everett to trade his rights. Brisson said it was a hockey decision.
It’s certainly an unusual route for a teenage prospect, but Matthews is an unusual case.
His birthday is Sept. 17, two days after the cutoff date for eligibility for the 2015 draft, where scouts say he would likely have gone second or third overall behind Connor McDavid.
Matthews and his entourage spoke to Crawford and other team officials, looked at the schedule, league and working conditions and decided it was the right fit.
Rather than endure long bus rides and a heavy schedule of games in the WHL, Matthews will be in a league with a shorter schedule, more practices than games and few bus trips longer than three hours. There are no overnight excursions.
In the Swiss League, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Matthews will be skating in a higher paced game than junior hockey, against older players, some of whom played in the NHL.
His Zurich teammates include former NHL defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron as well as former Ottawa and Vancouver center Ryan Shannon and Columbus forward Dan Fritsche.
”We felt it was best,” Brisson said. ”He made it clear he wanted to be there and we decided to go for it.”
Matthews’ family was all for it too. His mother, Ema, has moved to Switzerland with him.
He is already skating with the team, but will miss the first four games because his Swiss work visa only kicks in when he turns 18.
Brisson said Matthews’ decision isn’t a knock against either the WHL or college hockey, which both have proven track records in developing top talent. But he added Matthews is an exceptional case due to his ”late” birthday that kept him out of the NHL draft a year later than contemporaries like McDavid.
And it likely won’t start a stampede of junior-age players to Europe because only a very few skaters that age have the size, skill and maturity of a player like Matthews.
”He’s playing in a men’s league, at a faster pace,” Brisson said. ”He’ll get more practices and more time to develop. But if you can’t play at that level, you can’t benefit from it. We believe the CHL or the NCAA are the right route for most players.”
Matthews will be available to play for the U.S. at the world junior championship in Finland in December and IIHF world event in May.
He scored eight goals at the 2015 under-18 championship, leading the U.S. to a second straight title. He was selected the MVP and the tournament’s top forward.