Sometimes in life, you need a little luck to get where you’re going. Just ask Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. Last spring, he’d already amassed an impressive crop of young talent: William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Connor Brown, to name but a few. But it wasn’t until the ping pong balls fell their way in the draft lottery that the Buds’ rebuild truly kicked into high gear. All of a sudden, Auston Matthews was on his way to Hogtown.
The Scottsdale, Arizona native rolled into Toronto with sky-high expectations. Through a little more than two-thirds of his rookie season, Matthews has exceeded them and then some, with all signs suggesting he could very well be the generational player long-suffering Leafs fans have prayed for. As of today, he sits tied for the lead in rookie goals (28) with the Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine, and remains in striking distance of NHL leader Sidney Crosby.
We recently sat down with the 19-year-old to learn about which players he most admires, his non-traditional route to the NHL, and what clothing store you might find him at on a day off.
Apart from skating, which attribute do you think is the most important to have to be a great player in the NHL?
I’d say hockey sense. It’s pretty important to have the wherewithal for everything going on and know where to be on the ice.
One of your greatest abilities is your play along the boards. I don’t know if I can find five highlights where you’ve lost a puck battle along the boards, and it’s a skill you share with a few truly elite players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. What is the key to gaining loose pucks along the boards? How did you refine this skill?
A lot of it is strength in skating and hand-eye coordination, which allows you to pick pucks out of certain areas. Anticipating the play is important to because it allows you to get to where the puck might be and quickly get it out of tight spaces.
Who was the player you most admired watching while growing up? Someone you tried to model your game after?
I didn’t model my game after anyone in particular, but there’s a lot of guys I love watching. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar and Pavel Datsyuk. The things those guys can do with the puck are incredible and their competitive attitudes, they are just never going to be denied out there. Sidney Crosby, too. Those guys are all guys I like to watch, kind of pick out what they do and translate it to my own game.
Your path to the NHL was somewhat non-traditional, opting to play professionally in Switzerland in your draft year. Looking back, how did that experience help you?
I think it helped me a lot. When you go and play against men in a really good league, it’s fast and skilled, there are guys who had time in the NHL there who are now in that league. It definitely challenged me a lot throughout the year.
What was your favourite part about life in Switzerland?
It’s a beautiful country — it has a lot to offer. Zurich’s a pretty nice city, it has a nice downtown area with the water and really nice architecture in all of its buildings. Just the city and country were beautiful. There was always snow everywhere. It was awesome there.
What did you know about the Toronto Maple Leafs this time last year?
Not much. I didn’t really pay too much attention, but I’m a hockey fan so I knew what the standings were. When a team like the Maple Leafs were struggling as they were last year, it’s pretty well known around the hockey world. I didn’t know too much about them, though, other than that it’s Toronto, the hockey mecca of the world.
You grew up in Arizona, a long way from the Maple Leafs. In your short time so far with this franchise, have you gained an understanding of how big this team is?
Absolutely. It’s the main sport here. People love hockey, they love the Leafs, there’s a lot of support. There have been diehard fans here through the ups and downs. Obviously the last couple years it hasn’t been what they’ve wanted, but we’ve got a young group, we’re trying to build our way up and hopefully we can make this city proud of us as a team.
Do you have a couple examples where it really hit home?
The support around the draft was unbelievable. I was in and out of the city here in the summertime and I hadn’t even played a game here yet. But walking around with my parents, people were coming up to me and recognizing me. That was kind of the first time I realized that people really take it seriously here.
What’s one thing about being in the NHL that has surprised you?
I don’t know if this is really a surprise, but obviously it’s a hard league. With the schedule, it’s very demanding. You’re playing a lot of games in a tough league and if you take a night off, you are going to get buried. That’s been a good lesson. If you take your foot off the gas, teams will come back, they don’t quit.
What’s one thing that has nothing to do with sports that you are passionate about?
I like to play video games, but shopping might be my next more serious thing I’m into.
Got to ask you then: what’s your favourite store to shop at?
I’ve got a lot of stores I like to go to, but if I had to pick one, I’d probably say All Saints is my favourite.
If you aren’t watching hockey on television, what sport do you most enjoy?
I’d probably be watching basketball. I played some baseball growing up but I don’t really like watching it too much. It is very slow. It can get a little boring sometimes.
Read more of our exclusive Maple Leafs interviews:
Connor Carrick Gets Lost in Toronto’s PATH, Just Like You Do
Zach Hyman Talks Making the NHL, Writing Children’s Books and Fantasy Football
Mitch Marner Talks Video Games, Bon Jovi, and His Mom
Connor Brown Dishes On Karaoke, Cooking, and His Cat Mr. Samuelson