Why Leafs’ Matthews became first player to discuss positive COVID-19 test

Shawn McKenzie is joined by Sportsnet NHL Insider Chris Johnston to discuss the stories coming out of Day One of Maple Leafs camp.

TORONTO — We’ve all learned enough about COVID-19 to know that you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy in the middle of a heated playoff series.

But if hockey was in need of someone to step forward and put a face to the virus at this challenging juncture in history, it couldn’t have found too many athletes better equipped to do so than Auston Matthews.

The Toronto Maple Leafs star is the first and only NHL player to publicly discuss a positive test. It was done matter-of-factly after the opening session of the team’s summer training camp, with Matthews saying, “Yeah, I did” when asked Monday about a report that he contracted the novel coronavirus while at home in Arizona waiting out the paused season.

Matthews said he was “pretty much asymptomatic” throughout the experience and didn’t shy away from the impact the resulting quarantine at his Scottsdale, Ariz., home had on preparation for the NHL restart.

“Obviously I wasn’t able to leave or skate or anything, so I think that was kind of really the only thing that kind of took a hit for me,” he said. “I was skating beforehand. Having to take two and a half or three weeks off the ice, that obviously kind of catches up to you.”

What’s most important here is that he’s feeling healthy now.

Matthews missed anywhere from 10 to 12 planned on-ice sessions, but still got back to Toronto in time to join teammates for a week’s worth of small-group workouts before camp opened.

The willingness to address questions about the positive COVID-19 result head-on follows the same tact he’s taken with every injury he’s endured as a member of the Maple Leafs. It also to this point sets him apart from his NHL peers, at least 50 of whom have registered a positive test in anonymity since mid-March.

That’s an individual choice.

Where there is tension to this situation is that Matthews didn’t choose to have news of his result first appear in a sourced story by Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons on June 19. But that doesn’t change the fact he could easily have sidestepped the follow-up questions Monday, especially with the veil of secrecy the NHL is draping over every injury, illness and absence right now.

His COVID-19 tale is typical of many out there and should serve as a reminder to every one of us about the importance of remaining vigilant. The 22-year-old had been back home in Arizona for a couple months before contracting the virus and wasn’t able to trace the exact source of his infection.

It did arrive, however, at the moment the number of cases in that state started to skyrocket without warning.

“I mean, it was not a hotspot for like two months, it was like the safest place to be, and then obviously things kind of flipped pretty quickly there,” Matthews said.

The hope here is that Matthews’ openness might help remove any unnecessary stigma other NHLers associate with a positive test. There is value to sharing our experiences, particularly when it pertains to an issue of such great public interest.

A pandemic becomes much less of an abstract idea to the public when someone of this stature normalizes it — which, quite coincidentally, one of Matthews’ favourite athletes Russell Westbrook did Monday by following the NBA trend of announcing positive tests.

There is at least some cover for other NHL players who might choose to do the same, although their collective preference at this point seems to be extreme privacy. The league is obliging by making press releases about positive results as obtuse and impersonal as possible, while also forbidding teams from commenting on injuries again until the Stanley Cup is handed out.

“Your health is a big deal and this has been a big shock to, I think, everyone over the last number of months and we’re still learning a lot about it,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “Still trying to get the grasp of the virus and making sure that we’re handling it the right way.”

In the event Matthews ends up on this branch alone, it won’t shake him. He’s not prone to melting in the sun.

Remember when he bucked convention by playing his final draft-eligible season as a pro in Switzerland? Or when he arrived to massive expectations in Toronto as the organization’s first No. 1 draft pick in three decades, and people wondered how he might handle it?

He handled it by scoring four goals in his NHL debut, winning the Calder Trophy, being named an all-star in each of his first four seasons and putting together a no-doubt 50-goal season that only COVID-19 could stop.

That’s why there’s absolutely no concern in Leafs camp about what comes next. His legs weren’t where he wanted them in Monday’s scrimmages, but Matthews still has plenty of runway left before a best-of-five qualifying series with Columbus starts on Aug. 2.

“Well he’s got a pretty good track record coming off of an off-season and the way he’s able to kind of come out of the gates humming pretty good,” Tavares said. “I’d like to think it’s not going to take him very long.”

Remember that Matthews has a ridiculous nine goals in his four career season-openers. And he didn’t go more than five games without scoring all year long.

“Auston’s worked hard and he’s done what he could given his circumstances,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “It won’t be long before the conditioning matches up with his ability.”

He’s built a platform and he’s unafraid to use it.

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