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Arizona is key for the growth of U.S. hockey

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The road to United States hockey supremacy goes through the Valley.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships starting in the Czech Republic next week, we are reminded that—while the United States remains a perennial contender in national competitions—the red, white and blue are still in the shadow of neighbor Canada when it comes to international play.

It certainly is frustrating for a country that has so many elite players, such as Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Jonathan Quick and many others. But what can the U.S. do to stand on even ground with Canada on a national level?

While the IIHF tournament is not necessarily on par with Olympic standards, it is still a prominent national showcase. Thus far, 17 players have been officially named to the U.S. roster, including three Arizona Coyotes—defensemen Connor Murphy and John Moore, and forward Mark Arcobello. Some other big names include Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, Carolina Hurricanes blue liner Justin Faulk, and NCAA standouts Jack Eichel (Boston University) and Jimmy Vesey (Harvard).

But as far as the future of U.S. hockey is concerned, perhaps the most glaring potential growth point for U.S. hockey can be seen living in Scottsdale. Local 17-year-old Auston Matthews is predicted by many to be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL draft, and he has a tough decision to make.

In fact, Matthews scored two goals on Saturday to eliminate Canada in the semifinals of the U18 World Junior Championships. The U.S. has won five of the last seven U18 titles, but still seem to fall short in the men's tournaments.

Since his draft year is 2016, Matthews has one more year of amateur hockey left before an NHL team has the opportunity to draft for his rights. And, for elite prospects like Matthews, there's a decision to be made where that one season will be played; a major-junior team in Canada, or with an NCAA team in the U.S.

Although Matthews is American, the allure of playing in the CHL still far surpasses that of the NCAA. Leagues like the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Western Hockey League (WHL) and the Québec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) play a much longer season than the NCAA and have many of the best prospects in the sport—both of which go a long way with NHL talent evaluators.

They are also generally considered to be more competitive that college hockey in the U.S., and that's presumably why players in this year's draft like Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse and others spent their last several months skating in the CHL.

And for Matthews personally, there's no real pull for him to go play for an NCAA team next season, as the closest fully participating Division I NCAA school is in Colorado, and Arizona State University—who this year became the 60th school to join NCAA Division I ice hockey—will be playing a hybrid, transition season in 2015-16, which means the Sun Devils play roughly 50 percent NCAA D-1 schools and 50 percent ACHA (club hockey) teams. Despite the local flavor, Tempe is not a place where Matthews can advantageously showcase his talents.

And so, Matthews—considered to be one of the best U.S. hockey products in years—will likely end up playing in the OHL, WHL, or QMJHL.

And that is exactly why the U.S. is still behind Canada on a national level.

The solution

I mentioned Arizona State recently became an NCAA Division I school, and that's the first step in making hockey a true coast-to-coast game in the United States. Perhaps if Matthews was just one year younger, the Sun Devils could be a potential destination for his talents, but the timing is not to be. Just some more bad luck for Arizona sports.

However, if Arizona State is able to trigger a reaction across the West Coast—perhaps even spawning a Pac-12 conference at some point—the U.S. could finally be in position to stand toe-to-toe with its neighbors to the North.

If the NCAA had hockey powerhouses like Boston College or Michigan traveling to the West Coast for competitive hockey games against Arizona State—or even Southern California or Stanford, should they follow the Sun Devils—it would exponentially increase interest for perspective prospects in both the U.S. and Canada to play in the NCAA instead of leagues like the CHL. After all, who wouldn't want to spend winters in Los Angeles or Phoenix?

In turn, this would create a larger, stronger NCAA presence in hockey as a whole. That will create more elite hockey players in the U.S. and beyond. Most importantly, the U.S. will have more claim of top prospects that are currently drawn to elite Canadian amateur programs.

From a professional standpoint, the Coyotes also play a role in this storyline. As Fox Sports Arizona's Craig Morgan has reported, Coyotes' ownership could exercise its out clause in its arena lease agreement in the event the team accumulates more than $50 million in losses by 2018.

And, with rumors of expansion to potential cities like Las Vegas and Seattle, it's understandable for hockey fans in the Valley to experience some nerves—especially since the Coyotes ended up with the worst-case scenario in this year's Draft Lottery, and with the futures of Shane Doan, Dave Tippett and upper management uncertain as the Coyotes' offseason gets underway.

However, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the rumors on Friday, stating that—while he couldn't say anything about potential expansion cities—"I can tell you our current franchises are going to be where they are."

This should calm the nerves of Coyotes fans, but more importantly it's noteworthy for the league to show verbal support for its struggling franchises, despite the fact the Coyotes, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and others are still losing money. According to Forbes, there are multiple teams with less of an operating income than the Coyotes, including the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are located in what can be considered a cold-weather market.

With that said, if the league were to pull out of Arizona and reinvest the money in and around the Ohio-area, or in another traditional hockey-playing market without an NHL team such as Milwaukee, it would be counterproductive to the national growth of the sport.

Throwing resources at an area with an already-alive hockey culture just to sustain an NHL franchise is not as beneficial to U.S. hockey as investing in a new, untested region and trying to grow the sport from scratch. The more widespread it becomes, the more potential it has.

The real potential lies in the Western states, and the league needs to continue to invest in un-tapped markets to grow the sport.

Pulling Weight

Auston Matthews grew up a Coyotes fan. Now, imagine if the league never invested in Arizona and hadn't decided to prop up the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996. Matthews might have chosen a different path, played a different sport and the 17-year-old could have never even stepped onto an ice rink. Scary, I know.

This being said, it's vitally important for the Coyotes to pull out of the mess they are currently in. To put out a successful team in consistent Stanley Cup Championship contention will not only help the hockey culture in Arizona, but in turn help the game transform into a true coast-to-coast pastime in the U.S.

California has already gotten a jump start on this, with the league recently announcing its AHL expansion to the Golden State. That's fantastic.

But make no mistake: The road to a better, stronger U.S. hockey culture goes right through the Valley. And it's largely up to the hockey going public to help sustain it.

With next year's presumptive first overall selection hailing from the Grand Canyon State, and Arizona State initiating what could be a huge chain reaction, Arizona is positioned to be the next Western state to follow up on this cultural growth—but it needs the Sun Devils and Coyotes to pull their weight along the way.