In early October at a Leafs’ practice, as training camp dragged on, reporters asked Auston Matthews about the news of the day — tapping into a raw desperation for news of any sort beyond line combinations and the last player sent down. On this day, the news originated a long way from Toronto but spread far and wide: NFL players were following the lead of the currently unemployed Colin Kaepernick and kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the institutional oppression of African-Americans. U.S. President Donald Trump had made the protests a distraction du jour at yet another one of his fawn-fests, calling for the firing of “the sons of bitches” who disrespected the flag — at least the way he was playing it — and encouraging fans to abandon the NFL for not thwarting the protests. Yeah, Trump as usual, looking to hook his supporters with a trip to the race-bait shop.
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Matthews did not have a prepared response. “I don’t think I’d be one of the people who would take part in that,” he said of kneeling during the anthem. He noted that the protest might be seen as “a dishonour” to members of the military who “fight for the flag” and he pointed out that he has an uncle and other friends and family members who are or were in the service. He also noted that he isn’t a “big politics guy.”
On first pass, you might suppose that he had bought into the Trump line, maybe not the full Richie Incognito but still MAGA-ish. But then Matthews showed his position might be more nuanced. He said that he understands athletes using a platform to “send a message.” And then: “Isn’t that one of the Amendments? You have the right to say what you want.”
In his first season in Toronto, not yet out of his teens, Auston Matthews was the focus of attention and yet managed to stay on the periphery when he stepped off the ice. He lived in something like a cocoon. Access to Master Matthews’s innermost thoughts was tightly managed and limited. I don’t know that the Toronto hockey media’s rep as tough or critical is wholly deserved, but just the numbers intimidate — it’s the biggest crowd in the NHL by volume. The Maple Leafs did well to control the media around Matthews since, on any given day, you couldn’t be faulted for fearing that he might actually be crushed in a scrum. And that he didn’t have to face any media inquisitions the couple of times he went into scoring slumps during the season — well, that probably helped his state of mind as well.
Clearly, though, this approach isn’t sustainable in the long run. Not in Toronto. There’re only so many times you can go to Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk for comment when, based on the game that was just played on the ice, Matthews was the defining figure over the previous 60 minutes. Silent Auston isn’t a strategy in building the brand, whether it’s the team’s or Matthews’s personal one. He’s going to have to be somewhat available — preferably right from the start of Year 2.
That said, it’s a strange situation. In Toronto circa 2017, the player most closely watched — across the city’s whole sports landscape — is still just 20 years old. You might think that’s not really out of the ordinary; pro sports are a young man’s game, after all. But just look around at the other major North American sports markets and you’ll see franchise players a long way from 20.
In Boston, Tom Brady is twice Matthews’s age. In New York, well, not the best days for the NYC fans, but it probably would be Eli Manning, who is on the way out, handing off to Aaron Judge, who is 25 and in the process of proving he’s the real thing. In Chicago, Kris Bryant, the maker of the last out in the Game 7 win that lifted the Billy Goat Curse, may, at 25, have already wrested it from Jonathan Toews, who’s closing in on 30. In L.A., Clayton Kershaw is 29. You get the idea. They all have a lot more experience — game and life experience — to draw on in helping to handle the pressure of that profile. When they get asked questions out of left field, they know the drill. When things are going sideways, they don’t rattle.
When asked about the kneeling protest, Matthews wasn’t a completely blank slate. He first thought of family and friends, his personal history. Entirely understandable; at some level, laudable. And then he drew back and took in the bigger picture, how the issue would touch other people’s lives.
Really, when you get down to it, what Matthews had to say seemed a more reasoned response than Sidney Crosby’s. Hard on the heels of the we’re-not-coming-you’re-disinvited contretemps between NBA champs, the Golden State Warriors, and President Trump, Crosby managed to come out on exactly the wrong side of the issue. He said the Penguins would accept an invitation to the White House to recognize their Stanley Cup victory and was so matter of fact about it you expected him to ask if it included complementary greens fees at the Trump links. The NHL has a long line of “I’m not a big politics guy” stars, but Crosby’s tone-deaf statement managed to lower the bar.
Even though his life’s perspective doesn’t match Tom Brady’s or that of long-time King of New York, Derek Jeter, Matthews might actually have a more expansive worldview than most in his demographic. He has lived away from home. He has travelled through Europe and spent an extended time in Switzerland — more noteworthy when you consider the vast majority of U.S. citizens don’t have a passport. Yeah, maybe he has been sheltered from the Toronto media, but let’s face it: How many teenagers read a newspaper, never mind read their names in a newspaper? How many teenagers struggle to find a part-time job, never mind living up to the expectations of a job with millions, tens of millions, riding on whether a shot rings off the post or finds the net. At 20, Matthews has faced pressures in a workplace that we’ll just never know. We can’t form an opinion about his life that rivals his own. Maybe he understands that even if he articulated it, no one would really get what he was on about.
In fact, much of the special praise Matthews was singled out for as a rookie on the ice summed up what we think we know of him off it. “He is good in his own zone” is one description. “He has defensive awareness” is another. The hockey jargon is a perfect match: Matthews lives within his own zone, a bubble of stardom, on the defensive rather than getting caught overcommitting — at least he did in Year 1. Will he choose a hauteur like Mario Lemieux’s, aloof and remote from the media and all others? Let’s just say, that’s easier to pull off in Pittsburgh than Toronto.
For a long time, the largest fan base in the NHL had no figure like Matthews — that is, a franchise player on talent and also the face of the franchise. Phil Kessel wasn’t emotionally equipped to play that game, only the game on the ice. He couldn’t have made his reluctance to engage any more obvious. Not since Mats Sundin has someone been in Matthews’s position and Sundin was equipped to handle all that came with it.
When he came to Toronto, Sundin was already a seasoned pro. And he wasn’t asked to carry the weight right away, he was just a knight in the court of Doug Gilmour. He had an opportunity to see all the upside and downside that comes with being the city’s franchise player. Gilmour ranged more widely, lived larger. Sundin was more in control. Sundin could laugh. Sundin could express frustration, although never to a boiling point or beyond. I don’t think he loved it, but he had enough respect to accept it and make the best of it. Neither Sundin nor Gilmour needed management, they had the social skills to manage themselves. But then again, they never had a media horde bearing down on them at the age of 20, asking their views about athletes kneeling during the anthem or police violence against minorities.
History shows that some players in situations like Matthews’s suffered for the attention, especially when there wasn’t the right support around them. Dwight Gooden owned New York barely into his 20s, but that went sideways quick. Eric Lindros had that sort of profile in Philly and it could have turned out so much better, the awful injuries notwithstanding. If you look at soccer, you’ll see plenty more teenage phenoms whose lives away from the stadiums damaged their reputations or even derailed their careers — e.g. Wayne Rooney or Paul Gascoigne.
A year from now I don’t imagine that we’ll be going to Auston Matthews for hot takes on the news of the day. But the actualization of the young phenom will grow to encompass more than the stuff on the ice. It has to. So far he has exercised a freedom not to speak. It’s a dubious freedom when so many are there waiting and listening.
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