About a year before Auston Matthews was born, professional hockey arrived in Arizona.

He took in his first Coyotes game as a 2-year-old, and his gaze never strayed far from the ice.

“From a young age,” Matthews said, “I wanted to be an NHL hockey player.”

Learning to skate might never be a top-of-the-bucket-list item for the youth of the American Southwest, with a prohibitive climate and a scant tradition, but hockey has been on the rise in the Phoenix area since the franchise relocated from Winnipeg in 1996.

The team has struggled financially, with attendance at the suburban arena in Glendale frequently landing near the bottom of the league, but the embodiment of the sport’s expansion will be on stage Friday at the NHL draft.

Matthews is expected to be the first pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“It’s what you think about since you were a little kid,” said Matthews, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound center who joined the U.S. national team development program three years ago and spent the past season as an 18-year-old with Zurich in Switzerland’s top professional league.

He could have picked baseball, which his father played in college, but the presence of the Coyotes spawned an admiration of players like Danny Briere and Shane Doan and an appreciation for the Zamboni. Matthews was on a traveling team by age 8, heading to tournaments in Chicago, Detroit and Canada where the game is a well-established pastime.

“A lot of people, when they hear you play hockey and you’re from Arizona, kind of have this mindset where they don’t even think there’s hockey down there,” Matthews said, “but I never really thought about it too much as far as that goes. I always had a goal to make the NHL. It doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”

The state of the sport in his hometown of Scottsdale has been strengthening, year after year.

Another soon-to-be high first-round draft pick Friday, defenseman Jakob Chychrun, is from the Fort Lauderdale area.