TAMPA – “They said we could be a bit casual tonight,” explained Auston Matthews, showing off a monogrammed blazer, an unbuttoned white shirt, and a gold chain he wore to the 2022 NHL Awards, which he tidied up in just over a few minutes before.
“I don’t like wearing a tie, to be honest with you. Hot. I’m trying to be casual tonight. Let your chest breathe a little.”
Matthews’ laid-back nature is a staple of his brand at this point in his young career. And it doesn’t stop at his clothing choices.
On the face of it, at least, the Maple Leafs shooter had the highest-scoring season in the NHL in a decade with relative ease, earning himself a place among the league’s modern-day royals while breaking the franchise’s record books. 100 years of existence in progress.
Of course, it wasn’t as easy as he imagined.
Matthews is known for his relentless off-ice training, and his meteoric rise is largely due to his innate need to take his game to greater and greater heights year after year. But in fact, the 24-year-old does not show such horror in public. Despite being in the middle of hockey’s hottest market and saddled with soaring generational expectations, Matthews exudes a level of calm that few can replicate in his circumstances.
That cool-headed yet focused demeanor has been more evident than ever this season.
As milestone after milestone piled up on his mantle, Matthews refused to let his personal accomplishments get the better of his ever-present drive for team success. Of course, this hunger remained unsatisfied at the end of the year – only to become more insatiable, until it was finally satisfied.
But for Matthews himself, being the first maple leaf to get his hands on the Hart trophy in nearly 70 years is as much a welcome consolation prize as any. Even if it’s a consolation prize, nonetheless.
“I would be lying if I said there was not a single bit of anxiety,” Matthews admitted, standing on the home field of a team that finished its season ahead of schedule a few weeks ago.
“I just want you to keep playing and especially come back here. This is what it is. Life goes on. But I’m very lucky to be here and represent the team.”
It’s hard to really convey the gravity of Matthews’ success in the context of the Maple Leafs’ history. The organization has simply never had a player like him. Never. Never. Within their walls, Matthews literally shows up once a century, endowing the Leafs with a superstar that leads the pack, doesn’t follow; that sets trends, not adapts them.
Take a look at the annals of prominent Leafs alumni and no one even comes close.
Ted Kennedy, Johnny Bauer, Darryl Sittler and Wendel Clark played at a time when hockey looked unrecognizable compared to today. Phil Kessel scored at breakneck speed during his tenure with Toronto, but never got close to the heights Matthews had already achieved both off and on the ice. Mats Sundin is arguably the closest thing to a superstar that Leafs fans have seen in the modern era, and yet even he, despite his incredible lead and playoff accomplishments, reached the top as a point-per-game player who pretty much fell on the second step. NHL stars.
Matthews is different. His name is mentioned in conversations never before whispered by the Leaves. Children want to be like him. His peers, having presented him with the Ted Lindsay Award for the most outstanding player in the league, admire him. Matthews is simply incredible – he is part of a growing group of talent who are currently pushing the NHL ice product into a true golden age.
The next decade will be dominated by an arms race led by Matthews and fellow Hart nominee Connor McDavid. And Matthews knows it.
“I think he’s definitely pushing me,” Matthews admitted of his relationship with the Oilers captain.
“I would like to think that I pushed him. But in the end, he was the best of the best… Every time I voted for Ted Lindsey, I’m pretty sure I’m just writing down his name. “
Ironically, last night’s results show that in locker rooms across the league, Matthews’ peers are doing the same for him.
Still, expectations are a funny thing. Despite Matthews capturing the NHL’s personal honors last night, the same result next season will be nothing short of a disappointment. Team success is all that matters now. That the Maple Leafs should keep playing until the summer of 2023 to avoid some very difficult questions. Matthews knows this better than anyone. And, as he’s made clear, more than anything, he wants the Maple Leafs back to their former glory.
“I’ve said it before: I feel honored to wear blue and white, represent the city of Toronto, and wear the Maple Leaf every night,” Matthews said.
“I really enjoyed my time in Toronto and it was very special. I love every guy on this team, the management staff. The whole organization from top to bottom is first class and I was very lucky to play there.”
Organizations are also lucky.