Leafs fans have a lot of time for any piece that pumps the tires of Auston Matthews right now. After all, it’s all but certain that he’ll be the first player to wear Toronto’s new jersey when his name is called as the first overall pick in late June because he’s an incredible, NHL ready prospect who quite frankly is ahead of his competition.
So when ESPN posts an article prepared to pump his tires and get people excited, it’s something that you just have to click, right? But then you do, and you can’t help but be a little disappointed.
Before we get into the meat of the issue, the comparison to Jonathan Toews feels like a bit of a short-sell. No disrespect to a top-flight player in Toews, but he gets a lot of hype based on the fact that he’s the captain a dynastic team in the Chicago Blackhawks. All signs point to the 18-year-old Matthews having similar two-way qualities, but being a more dynamic offensive player with a higher upside. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic.
But I get why John Buccigross decided to make that comparison. It fits the Bucci narrative; that skill is great, but you need the will to win if you’re going to succeed . In fact, he even says this in before the first text break:
“When a hockey player like Matthews is compared to Toews (who was taken third in the 2006 draft by the Chicago Blackhawks), what the person doing the comparing is basically saying is that he is someone you can win with. There are talented, skillful players and then there are players with whom you can win.”
Fine. I’ll let Bucci have that one, even though the top flight talent tends to make a more impactful footprint on his team’s on-ice result than the “good in the room” role player. Toews is a player with both qualities surrounded by talent, though, so it allows him to step back and be the guy that the old school loves. Sure.
It’s this section that’s concerning to me, though.
Matthews is the new Toronto Maple Leafs pillar made in America’s Desert Southwest. The last American to be a centerpiece for the Leafs was Phil Kessel. And while Kessel was good in Toronto — he led the Leafs in scoring in all six of his seasons there — his optics and the team weren’t. Matthews is different. He has lottery hair, stoicism and calm that will serve him well as an American in Toronto. Walking into the rink with his winter coat, scarf and Tim Horton’s, Matthews will look like a kid who grew up in Peterborough, Ontario, not Scottsdale, Arizona. Kessel always looked like the grumpy neighbor/villain in a “Christmas Vacation” movie.
Here’s the thing, John. I understand what your schtick is; you’re the 50-year old who uses his connections in American Hockey, particularly at the college level, to infiltrate the youth. You’ve perpetuated the “living the dream” bro-culture that dominates youth hockey players, helping inspire a generation of hockey-loving teenagers to dress, speak, and act self-superior in the same way. They’re the greatest people on earth, as long as they do it in a certain way; one that you’ve centered yourself in the promotion of over the years. But that’s your schtick. I get it.
But what I don’t get is why every player has to “fit the mold” to succeed.
Auston Matthews is one of the greatest American prospects in the history of the game, and while he followed USA Hockey’s development program, he doesn’t line up with “the culture”. He’s Californian born to a Mexican mom and Arizona raised. Off the ice, he carries himself like a relatively selfless, unassuming teenager. He broke through the order by spending honing his skills in the most untraditional of untraditional NHL markets and, shocking people even further, deciding to spend his draft year in Europe. His road to the show isn’t the expectation. But that’s fine. Completely and totally fine. He’s his own person and it’s led to him being one of the best teenagers we’ve seen hit the NHL Draft in years.
He doesn’t need to “look like a kid from Peterborough” to be successful. As @beckalin put it on Twitter this afternoon, being a good, hard-working hockey player doesn’t erase his upbringing. Nor should it have to.
For all the times we’ve rolled our eyes at Don Cherry when he suggested that the Leafs needed “good Ontario boys”, this really isn’t a roster that fits any sort of specific mold. Players on the main roster come from nearly every Canadian province, multiple different US states, and many different European countries. Some had different upbringings; Leo Komarov was born in Estonia, raised in a Swedish-speaking part of Finland, built up his game in Russia, and is now one of the most beloved players in Toronto. Nobody told him to shut up and drink his Timmies; he put in the hours and played good hockey, so nobody cared. Nazem Kadri was born in nearby London but was at the time the highest drafted Muslim player in NHL history. Nobody told him he couldn’t fast during Ramadan, including the Leafs, who do their best to accommodate him. Many still can’t spell the name of Nikita Soshnikov’s Russian birthplace (Nizhny Tagil), but that didn’t stop the fans from falling in love last year. Nobody gets mad at William Nylander for being born in Calgary but having a distinctly Swedish upbringing. We can go on and on; even the bulk of criticisms of Kessel were regarding his conditioning and pouting rather than his shyness and upbringing.
Toronto is a multicultural city. The Leafs organization are focused on winning. There may be some outliers (sadly, often media members who have the ability to influence casual audiences), but for the most part, nobody in this town, player, staff member, or fan, expects you to fit a “certain mold” of personality if you want to be a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Being a “good Canadian boy” isn’t the better way; it’s just a way. As long as Auston Matthews works hard, trains hard, and scores the bazillion points that we all know he will, fans should and probably will know better than to pick apart what defines him as a person. Because there’s nothing wrong with it, and everything wrong with suggesting that a certain way of life is “ideal” in making a good hockey player.