TORONTO – One of The Nutcracker Cannon Dolls needed to act frightened. The other was required to be the excited one.
But once the highly excitable Mitch Marner learned that the frightened one would have to leap into the excited one’s arms in fear and be carried across stage, he knew how he and Auston Matthews would divvy up the roles.
“I wasn’t going to carry Matts off the stage,” Marner said Thursday, the morning after he and his Toronto Maple Leafs power-play mate made their National Ballet of Canada debut.
“It was fun. I was just acting scared the whole time. It was cool seeing how hard they work at their job and how undercover they are strength-wise. It was cool seeing them in their element.”
And cool to see a couple of superstar hockey players not too cool to duck outside theirs.
Matthews admitted to cold feet 20 seconds before his cue to go onstage dressed like MC Hammer going trick-or-treating as a court jester.
“Probably one of the most comfy outfits I’ve ever worn. It was amazing,” chuckled Matthews, noting that he relied on his “good shoulder” to bear Marner’s 175 pounds. “It was nerve-wracking going out there. You just go out there and let your emotions take over.”
Matthews and Marner are hardly the first celebrities — or even Leafs — to embrace the longstanding tradition of the Cannon Doll cameo. Doug Gilmour and Steve Thomas stormed the stage in 2004, and Mats Sundin donned the Technicolor getup in 2007.
But the fact Matthews and Marner jumped at the chance to do so in their prime — and performed with such uninhibited joy in an era where the slightest act of silliness goes viral — speaks to their ability to enjoy the ride while plying their trade in the game’s most scrutinized market.
“They weren’t watching hockey last night,” coach Mike Babcock pointed out. That’s a note of praise, not a scolding. “They had a good time; they’re energized today. To me, that’s a good thing in your life.
“The other thing they talked about was how good the athletes were. My oldest girl grew up wanting to be a ballerina, so I kinda had a good idea going to enough of her shows how good the athletes are. It’s good for people in our profession to see people in other professions, how hard they work and how prepared they are. The guys said it was spectacular.”
Neither Matthews nor Marner had ever attended a ballet, but Marner’s family scrambled for tickets the second they learned he’d be involved. Morgan Rielly, too, made sure he was in the audience, with his mom, Shirley.
“She loved it. I loved it. It was fun. I got nervous for them, so I’m sure they were nervous, but they were great,” the defenceman/theatre critic said. “The place was packed. It was sold out. So for them to do what they did and enjoy it as much as they did, good for them.”
Matthews, in particular, was happy to discuss his first ballet. Although his scene lasted all of 50 seconds, the star centre said it seemed as if he was under the spotlight for “six hours.”
“It felt like forever. At one point we turned to the guy steering the cannon, who was great, as we’re jumping around, asking him, ‘How much longer?’ We were freaking out, not sure what else to do,” Matthews smiled.
“Watching the second act, they’re very talented. Every time they jumped, I was thinking in my head: I’d for sure fall and probably break my ankle doing this.”
Matthews, the excited one, said he’d even return for an encore — but he might have to wait until 2020.
“Next year they asked for John Tavares, though,” Matthews revealed. “We’ll give him some tips.”
For a proud game that has long celebrated those with the sweet flow, slowly, thankfully, hockey is letting its hair down more and more.
As the perfect denouement to the Leafs’ Nutcracker narrative, Thursday night’s opponent, Roberto Luongo, fired off a suggestion:
“I thought it was funny,” acknowledged Rielly, one of the Leafs shown Luongo’s tweet Thursday morning. “But I don’t think they’ll be taking the night off.”
Ankles, shoulders and personalities intact, Matthews and Marner indeed will throw on their hockey costumes and come to play the Panthers tonight.
“They are, eh? Ah… it was worth a try,” Luongo smirked.
“We are playing a game, and it’s a privilege to do so. Sometimes it’s important to keep it light.”