TORONTO — Without an NHL contract to talk him down, Shawn Matthias jetted halfway around the Earth to Australia and New Zealand, flew 19,000 feet up in the air, then jumped out of the plane while strapped to some Kiwi’s back.
A six-foot-four, 223-pound bundle of fear and exhilaration, Matthias had no idea where he’d been playing next year. All he knew was that the Vancouver Canucks didn’t want him back — despite having his best season as a pro — and he wanted a mental escape before pitching his talents to the 29 other clubs on the open market.
So he went bungee jumping and skydiving. Twice.
“I did some things I never thought I’d do,” Matthias said Friday at MasterCard Centre, holding court in his first scrum as a Toronto Maple Leaf. “The whole trip was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in an off-season. I just wanted to get my mind off things going into free agency. I definitely stepped out of the box.
“There was no one to tell me no.”
Shortly after Matthias’s 18-goal, 27-point campaign (career highs both, despite just one point coming on the power-play) helped Vancouver return to the playoffs, he sensed he would be heading elsewhere.
Significant multi-year extensions were given this spring to Chris Tanev, Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett, and with the salary cap a-crunching, Matthias says the writing was on the wall.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know where you stand,” explains the 27-year-old. “They never offered me a contract, so I never really had a choice. I kinda knew.
“I really enjoyed playing there. I’m not upset about it because now I have a great opportunity to come home and play for a team I grew up watching.”
A Mississauga, Ont., kid, Matthias fondly recalls lying on the floor in front of the television, his whole family cheering on the Blue and White, his dad wearing a sweater bearing the name of Shawn’s favourite player: Mats Sundin, the big, blond Leafs centre Matthias wants to model his game after.
“I remember the [Leafs] used to do a little skills contest, and we’d go to that,” says Matthias. “That was the only time I ever got to go up to the glass close. Just seeing how big they were, how fast and skilled they were. We didn’t go to many games, but we’d watch as many as we could on TV.”
When he met with the Maple Leafs brain trust during the pre-July 1 free agent courting window, new coach Mike Babcock was in the room. Ironically, Babcock had been with Detroit when the Red Wings drafted Matthias from the Belleville Bulls in the second round of 2006. And the presence of Babcock — who guaranteed upon his own arrival that free agents will want to come to Toronto — helped persuade Matthias.
“When I got home, I talked to my dad and said, ‘This is where I want to go.’ It was that good of a meeting. Everything’s going in the right direction. I don’t see why anybody wouldn’t want to play here. It’s amazing what’s happening,” Matthias says.
“You look at everyone that’s come into this organization: they’ve all won Stanley Cups. Who’s better to learn from than guys that have that experience?”
The “local guy comes home” story hasn’t always ended happily in Toronto (see: Davids Clarkson, Bolland), yet Matthias has quietly but enthusiastically re-embraced Toronto. He chose an un-offensive sweater number (23), decorated his Twitter feed with a CN Tower skyline, and has made visits to local hospitals and Blue Jays games.
This summer’s annual golf trip to P.E.I. with his buddies from junior hockey (hello, gold medal, 2008 world juniors) included a side visit to Dion Phaneuf’s summer home, where Matthias got acquainted with his new captain.
Sure, he wishes his one-year, $2.3-million contract carried more term, and one gathers he’d prefer not to become a deadline rental for a playoff hunter come March. But after four organizations and 400 games, he knows what he can control. A natural centre and point-a-game stud in his OHL days, Matthias has played both wings and adapted to penalty-killing and checking deployment.
“I like wherever they’ll have me,” he says. Well played.
“You look around the league this year, a lot of guys signed one-year deals,” he adds. “I think every player wants security. But it’s just the way it is in the game. You have to earn what you get. I’m looking to come into camp, play as hard as I can and go from there.”
Today he’s answering questions and warmly scrawling autographs for 100 minor hockey kids at the Leafs practice facility.
One boy asks him to sign the Leafs crest on the front of his too-big sweater. Matthias declines and marks up the shoulder instead. The crest is sacred.
Another kid, sporting a Boston Bruins ballcap, thrusts is arm in the air. He asks Matthias to name the best organization he’s ever joined.
“Leafs,” Matthias snaps quickly. A pause.
“What’s with the hat, by the way? I couldn’t stop looking at it. Turn it around or something.”
The kid obliges, but a second Bruins logo is stamped to the back.
“Just kidding,” Matthias says with a laugh.
That pain Babcock is promising seems miles from home.
“It’s always fun to see kids smiling and having a good time,” Matthias says. “Being one of those kids when I was younger, I would’ve loved the opportunity to meet a Leaf and talk to them and pick their brain.”