Maple Leafs embracing importance of Auston Matthews’ homecoming

NHL insider Chris Johnston on HC at Noon from Glendale Arena to discuss what kind of reception Auston Matthews will get from the Arizona faithful, in his triumphant return.

GLENDALE, Ariz. – You could have guessed that this was going to be a big deal for Auston Matthews, his family and the entire youth hockey community in Arizona.

The Scottsdale-raised teenager’s first NHL game at Gila River Arena has been touted on billboards around the Valley all week and pushed hockey into rarified territory with a spot on the cover of Friday’s Arizona Republic.

But it is in the willingness of the Toronto Maple Leafs to play along – and even bend some internal rules – where you get a sense of just how significant the moment really is.

After a morning meeting, Leafs coach Mike Babcock acknowledged that he would start Matthews for the opening faceoff in Friday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes – a decision that will see his name announced in-house before puck drop and offer Matthews a chance to stand on the blue-line for the national anthems.

Essentially, it’s a move that will push the teenager even more into the spotlight.

“I want him to soak it up and enjoy the whole thing,” said Babcock. “Why wouldn’t you? Getting to play in the National Hockey League is beyond special, getting to play on an Original Six (team) is beyond that, getting to play in a city like Toronto is another level. When you go through all these things and then coming back to a place where you were raised and you’re proud to be from it’s another special thing.

“Why wouldn’t you enjoy it all while you’re going?”

The most unique part of the night might come after the final buzzer, when Matthews and Coyotes winger Max Domi pose for a photo on the ice with the 500 jersey-clad youth hockey players expected to be in attendance.

That’s not the sort of thing you’d normally expect to see a Toronto rookie get to do. General manager Lou Lamoriello has a policy about shielding first-year players as much as possible – the only in-game broadcast interview Matthews has done all season was with Sportsnet after scoring four goals in Ottawa on opening night – but these are special circumstances.

Becoming the first Arizonan to play here is certainly a big deal to Matthews. He believes the emotions will be on par with how he felt during his NHL debut.

“I think this will definitely be one of those moments, for sure,” said Matthews. “Coming back here, it’s just so unique. The hockey community’s so small here, it’s very tight.”

He’s accomplished a lot in a short span of time in Toronto.

Matthews enters the night tied for fifth league-wide with 16 goals and has recently started to see his role with the Leafs expand. Babcock is giving him more minutes and trusting him against tougher competition this month.

The 19-year-old would love nothing more than to deliver a big game in front of friends and family before kicking back and relaxing at home over the Christmas break.

“I’d like to think you rise to the occasion every night, but especially these games you want to make a statement,” said Matthews. “You want to come out and you want to play well.”

The NHL schedule was kind to the first overall pick. He’s been away the last two Christmases while playing for Team USA at the world junior championship – “it was pretty cold, not much sun” he said of the experience in Helsinki last year – but will only have a 30-minute commute home after this game.

Matthews is counting on having a number of friends in attendance who have been away at college or playing junior, but are now home for the holidays.

Then there is his tight-knit family. This is a big night for parents Ema and Brian.

“I’m sure it’ll be pretty emotional for them,” said Matthews. “They’ve been to Toronto a few times for games – my Dad’s up there quite a bit – but I’m sure this one will have some very special meanings to them. For my grandparents as well, this will be the first time they’ll watch me play in the NHL.

“So it’ll be pretty great.”

The Leafs were certainly mindful of the occasion.

“It’s a big story for us, too,” said Babcock. “It’s a big a story for us. Here’s a kid who is a big part of our team and has a chance to be a big part of our franchise and is a special kid. The guys like him and he plays hard for us and we want him to walk out of here proud.”

The only advice the coach gave his rookie centre is to turn his phone off and take an afternoon nap. Coming off a 6-0 win in Colorado on Thursday night, rest and recovery was needed.

No matter what happens in the game itself, it promises to be a night where Matthews is feted as a role model for aspiring hockey players here.

Already mature beyond his years, it’s a responsibility he’s willing to embrace.

“I’d love to be that person,” said Matthews. “I know I had people I looked up to growing up in the Valley, whether it was guys that were older than me that I still skate with and train with today or guys that were playing on the Coyotes like Shane Doan or Daniel Briere, Keith Tkachuk.

“It’s definitely pretty humbling to kind of be a little role model for kids growing up here in the Valley. It’s pretty special.”

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