TORONTO – As a No. 1 overall pick playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the spotlight was never going to stray too far from Auston Matthews.
But after the 19-year-old turned the hockey world on its head with a four-goal debut the focus tightened even further.
Matthews earned himself a large media audience following Thursday’s practice and got a taste of some of the worst aspects of being a hockey player with notoriety in this city. He was none too comfortable, not to mention a little confused, when a local TV reporter asked if the Leafs had consulted him on a Stanley Cup parade route.
The follow-up included something about a statue and Matthews wisely retorted: “One game.”
It probably says something that the youngest person in the room was the one providing perspective.
On some level, this is the world he now occupies. Setting a scoring record in your first NHL game will obviously provide a flash point, but the hype and attention should only get ramped up from here.
Steve Keogh, the Leafs director of media relations, ended the TV portion of the Matthews scrum when the questions veered off track. The team is mindful of managing his demands and trying to shield him as much as possible.
However, just as coach Mike Babcock can only do so much to control his on-ice matchups, there will be aspects of his new life that Matthews has to adjust to. Fortunately, he seems more than well-equipped to handle them.
While acknowledging that it was difficult to sleep following Wednesday’s game, Matthews seemed level-headed as he reflected on the four pucks he put past Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson. He certainly didn’t seem concerned about the heightened expectations they were bound to create.
“Keep your world small and not get too hung up on what other people are saying about you,” Matthews said of his strategy for the coming days. “Just stay kind of grounded and just focus here on the inside – focus on the team, focus on yourself.”
A performance like the one he had in Ottawa is only possible with that kind of detail-oriented approach.
Matthews seemed to channel his inner Bill Belichick while repeatedly mentioning that his focus had already shifted to Saturday’s home opener against Boston. An 82-game schedule provides precious little time to look back.
It would all have been music to the ears of an organization trying to prepare its young players for the inevitable swings of emotion throughout the season.
“Well I tell them not to listen to you guys,” said Babcock. “There’s lots of information coming in and they’re living in an information world. They have their phone in their hand every second. No matter how much you tell them to listen to country music and watch the hunting channel they’re not going to do that.
“The reality is there’s four or five or six people in your life that care about you, that have an impact on you and the rest it’s just noise.”
In the case of the Matthews debut, the noise came from all over. A slew of established NHL stars sent tweets that ranged from reverence to compliments.
Kris Letang welcomed him to the “beer league” while Roberto Luongo said that he’d decided goaltending partner James Reimer would start all of the games against Toronto. There was even a rare tweet from Daniel Briere, the first hockey idol Matthews had while growing up in Arizona and the man he credits for inspiring him to take up the sport.
Matthews said his phone “pretty much blew up.”
In relatively short order, he is almost certain to become the most closely scrutinized player the Leafs have had since Mats Sundin.
And, no, I haven’t forgotten about the Phil Kessel era.
It’s a testament to his talent and draft position and the miserable decade of losing the organization has just endured. Scoring goals on your first three NHL shots in a little more than a period of action won’t hurt either.
Matthews plans to put on the blinders.
The contingent of family coming to town for Saturday’s game includes his parents Ema and Brian and sisters Alex and Breyana. An aunt and uncle will be here as well. There should be enough going on away from the rink to keep him busy.
“I’m not really focused on (the outside attention) too much,” said Matthews. “You just go out there and have fun and play hockey. This is what I’ve dreamed about doing since I was a little kid so I’m living my dream right now.”
His exploits on opening night made big headlines in the U.S., with the “Today Show” among the unlikely places his goals were shown. NBC Sports Network even decided to add the telecast of Saturday’s game to its schedule.
The enthusiasm was also evident here in Toronto, although Babcock did his part to try and temper expectations.
“I mean he is a kid and it’s one night,” he said. “You’ve got to do it for a year and then you’ve got to do it for two years and then you’ve got to do it for 15 years. So there’s lots for him to look forward to.”