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Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews Learned to Play Hockey Without “Ice”

How did the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews get to be such a good hockey player without having read ice to skate on?

Just so you know, the title has a bit of a trick. It’s not as if the Toronto Maple Leafs’ star center Auston Matthews didn’t learn to skate on “ice.” It just wasn’t “real ice” – as in the frozen water kind.

Instead, he learned to skate and perfect his abilities as a youngster on synthetic ice – in a small Phoenix-area arena that was called Ozzie Ice. Just to be clear, the ice surface itself wasn’t called Ozzie Ice. Instead, Ozzie Ice was the place where the synthetic ice was installed. It was the name of the building.

What’s Ozzie Ice, Anyway?

Ozzie Ice was a small building – which has now changed hands and is – according to my research – currently a thrift store in the Phoenix area. But, in its day it was a small arena that was built and used to show off a cutting-edge (pun intended) synthetic ice that was patented by oil-pipeline entrepreneur Dwayne Osadchuk.

In fact, in the arena that was called Ozzie Ice, at the beginning, there was no real ice (the frozen water kind) at all. It was just two small rinks that housed two small sheets of synthetic “ice.”

Here Matthews learned to skate as a youngster. These synthetic ice sheets were about a third the size or a fourth the size of the ice surfaces where Canadian youngsters typically begin their playing. Eventually, entrepreneur Osadchuk installed one sheet of his synthetic “ice” and one sheet of “real” ice, but it started out both synthetic. Both synthetic ice surfaces had regulation nets and boards; but, they were very tiny.

At Ozzie Matthews Learned His Puck-Handling Skills

Scottsdale, Arizona, is known for golf courses, not hockey rinks. Matthews was a kid who wanted to play hockey, but had little choice where he could play. There were few rinks around Phoenix. But Ozzie Ice popped up at the perfect time.

Former NHL player Sean Whyte (who played 21 games for the Los Angeles Kings in the early 1990s but never scored an NHL goal) had come to play with the Phoenix Mustangs for four seasons after his short NHL stint. When he retired, he managed Osadchuk’s arena.

He remembers young Matthews well. Whyte recalled “Auston would just be hanging around, waiting for a team to be short players so he could play. He owned every colour of Ozzie Ice jersey we had. He had 10 or 12. As soon as teams said, ‘We need somebody!’ he’d be looking at me.”

Matthews played against everyone – other kids his own age but also often played against older kids, too. No surprise, even as a 10-year-old, he’d typically score six or seven goals playing against teenagers (even 14 or 15 years old). He was good even then.

Ozzie Ice Always Played Three-on-Three Games

Because Ozzie Ice was tiny, the games were always three-on-three. Even with only three players on a team, there wasn’t that much room to skate. Finding open ice was tough. It was tight.

As it turned out, it was a great training ground for Matthews. He had tons of time carrying the puck, and he had to learn to stick handle with other players on him constantly. He learned to find holes in the defense, and he seized any moment that was presented.

In fact, that became Matthews’ game. Those three-on-three games meant each player had more time with the puck, learned to stick handle in tight quarters, and learned to find the spaces defenders momentarily allowed to open.

Matthews’ Father (Brian) Thought Ozzie Ice Was Perfect: He Was Right

The Matthews’ family lived only 10 minutes away from Ozzie Ice. Other parents who had the funds spent thousands of dollars to send their 10-year-olds across the United States to play for distant AAA teams, Matthews’ father Brian thought Ozzie Ice fit Matthews’ needs. Plus it was close and much, much cheaper.

Matthews played on these tiny sheets of synthetic ice for hours against all the levels of competition. His father remembered that game scores were “always like 45-42 or 31-30.” At Ozzie Ice, Matthews played thousands of three-on-three games in that wonderfully cramped space.

Brian also recalled that, at Ozzie Ice, because the kids played so close together, his son “had to learn how to use (his) hands, how to think ahead, where the puck was going to go, who was coming, how to turn, how to get away from traffic, create space – all of that stuff – in such a small little window of ice. A lot of kids here developed a lot of really good skills there. They were forced to.”

Leaving the Desert and Landing in Toronto

To make a long story short, as he grew older Matthews began to show his hockey skills more widely in Arizona and then further away. He’d show up and play at hockey tournaments as a fill-in. His legend grew. When the Maple Leafs picked him first in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft it was the first time anyone from the desert had been drafted number-one.

Interestingly, although it isn’t completely true that Matthews didn’t skate on real ice, his time at the small shoe-box arena called Ozzie Ice – where for the longest time there wasn’t really any real ice at all – is one reason that Auston Matthews became the player he’s become.  

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