Modest Matthews feeling ‘fortunate and blessed’ after MVP wins

Watch as Brian 'Red' Hamilton and Nadia Popovici announce Auston Matthews' as the winner of the 2021-22 Hart Memorial Trophy, beating out Connor McDavid and Igor Shesterkin for the honour of league MVP.

TAMPA – Auston Matthews is funny in a way.

Certainly, he wants to win everything he can get his hands on. He’s an alpha male, to be sure.

Yet, in talking to those around him, the Toronto Maple Leafs star wasn’t yapping too much about the Hart and Ted Lindsay trophies on the night he won them both.

The most valuable hockey player of the 2021-22 season, as judged by both his own peers and the writers who cover his sport of choice, was typically humble in accepting the NHL’s two most prestigious individual honours Tuesday during a modest ceremony held at Tampa’s Amateur Works.

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A most ironic site, certainly, for a superstar player whose team was eliminated in an airtight seven-game series by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning — still competing for a Stanley Cup Matthews desires.

Sources say it’s been difficult for the MVP to enjoy viewing these playoffs, as excellent as they’ve been.

Naturally, the tanned talent would rather be throwing on skates and a sweater instead of a slick black suit, white dress shirt and matching white sneakers.

No necktie.

“I don’t love wearing a tie, if I’m being honest with ya,” Matthews told reporters. “It’s hot. So, just trying to go a little casual with ya tonight and let the chest breathe. It’s sticky out there.

“I’d be lying if I said if there wasn’t a little bit of angst of wishing you were still playing right now, especially being back here.”

Gracious and charming — but not overtly celebratory — Matthews scooped both the NHL’s Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award in Florida.

His proud parents, Emma and Brian, and talented sisters, Alexandria and Breyana, were in attendance, along with exuberant agent Judd Moldaver and linemate Michael Bunting, a Calder finalist.

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Bunting, a former Coyote, struck up a fast bond with Matthews, an Arizona native. They both love friendly chirps. Kind hearts off the ice; fierce competitors on it.

Yet even in his conversations with Bunting, Matthews has not been explicit about his MVP aspirations.

“He’s a closed book like that,” a dressed-up Bunting told Sportsnet, minutes before the announcements. “I’m sure it would mean a lot. It’s a great trophy to win, and I hope he wins all the awards he’s up for — because he’s such a good guy and such a good player.”

Matthews was typically gracious in his two trips to the dais, one to accept the Hart and another the Ted Lindsay, for the most outstanding player according to his peers.

“It means a lot to have their respect,” Matthews said. “I just enjoy playing in the NHL. I love playing hockey. I feel very fortunate and blessed every day, so I try to have fun and live in the moment.”

The potential 2024 free agent shouted out his storied franchise, reinforcing that it’s a “tremendous honour” to wear the Blue and White, and gave love to his family.

“I know Father’s Day was a couple days ago, but, Brian, this one is for you,” Matthews said. “A lot runs through your mind… It just means a lot to have them here. It’s really special.”

Matthews also noted that this is the third time the Maple Leafs’ first-round opponent has gone on to reach the final.

Kind of awkward that Matthews’ greatest individual awards were accepted in Tampa.

The Stanley Cup is in town and being contested for by the same team that fed Matthews and his Leafs their sixth consecutive playoff series disappointment. The bitterest one yet.

Funny how much of a premium us voters have placed on goal scoring since the last time a Toronto Maple Leaf won the Hart.

Lady and the Tramp was killing it at the box office. Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” was blasting out of Ford Thunderbirds. And the one referee controlling the game was wearing orange-and-black stripes.

The year was 1955. The league was six teams deep. And its MVP was playmaking pivot Ted Kennedy.

The Hall of Fame centreman scored a whopping 10 goals — and only five at even-strength, to go with 42 assists — in 70 games that season. A face-off beast, Kennedy finished 11th in NHL scoring and wasn’t even the most productive player on his own team (Sid Smith had 33 goals and 54 points).

But voters treated the prize more as an acknowledgement of Kennedy’s splendid career, which he had considered ending the prior off-season. No skater outside the top-10 in scoring has won since.

Sentiment has little room in today’s Hart debate.

Charts and graphs, comparisons both leaguewide and within team, and an intense (unnecessary, some may argue) drill-down on the honour’s criteria — “the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team” — all play a role in fuelling the MVP debate.

In other words: There will be some disgruntled Oilers fans tonight.

Still, Matthews didn’t hesitate to share some shine with runner-up Connor McDavid, who chose not to attend the ceremony.

“I want to be the best version of myself for the team, for myself. He’s obviously an extremely special player. I’m definitely not the only one that would hold him in the highest regard as far as players in this league go,” Matthews said.

“He definitely pushes me. I’d like to think I push him. But in the end, he’s been the cream of the crop… Any time I’ve had a vote for the Ted Lindsay, I’m pretty sure I just write his name down.”

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The Hart vote was not quite as tight as suspected.

Matthews received 119 first-place ballots. McDavid, a unanimous choice in 2021 and the 2022 points leader, topped 29 writers’ lists. Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin got 24 first-place votes.

But any way you slice it, Matthews’ ripping 50 goals in one 50-game span, rewriting an Original Six franchise’s record book with 60 in 73 games, all while improving his physical, defensive and leadership efforts makes him worthy of applause.

“It’s hard in this league to score 60 goals,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, asked for his Hart pick. “Scoring 60 is scoring 60. That’s pretty good.”

Becoming the first 60-goal man in 10 years is at the top of the resume, no doubt. But Matthews also crushed career highs in face-off percentage (56.2), hits (67), assists (46) and points (106), plus league highs in shots (348) and even-strength goals (44). All while facing the opposition’s toughest shutdown units.

Further, Matthews led all forwards in takeaways (92) and deepened his commitment without the puck.

“It’s pretty obvious if you’re watching the game and paying attention that Auston has been dominant in all regards offensively, defensively,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He’s forechecking, tracking, forcing turnovers, and doing all the things that lead to goals and giving himself those opportunities to score.

“I just don’t think you can put any limitations on someone like him with the ability that he has and the drive that he has.”

With Matthews’ mantle now teeming with individual hardware — a Calder, two Rockets, all-star nods, and now the two biggies — the only meaningful uncharted territory is team success.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time in Toronto, and it’s been special. I love every single guy on that team, the management staff. The whole organization from top to bottom is first class, and I feel really fortunate to play [there],” Matthews said on his big night.

Just as they should feel fortunate to have him.

Fox’s Fast 5

Roman Josi was in the building. He got more first-place votes (98) than Norris winner Cale Makar (92) for Best Defenceman of the Year.

The vote was crazy tight: 1,631 points for Makar and 1,606 for Josi.

Even though I had Makar No. 1 on my ballot, it was tough not to feel for Josi. One of the closest tallies in years.

• Bunting and his whole family were on Cloud 9. Didn’t hesitate to fly down for the ceremony. They have a right to be proud.

“Pretty cool moment. If someone said to me a year ago that I’d be standing here, I wouldn’t believe it. So, I think that makes it a little more special,” Bunting told me Tuesday night.

“To make it to the NHL, I played lot of American League games and the ECHL, so it’s been a grind. But it’s been a lot of fun along the way, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.”

Any reluctance to show up in person and return to Tampa, the city that eliminated you?

“No hesitation. The second I got the invite, I was coming 100 per cent. Just the experience. It doesn’t matter if I win or lose. It’s pretty cool,” Bunting replied.

“It’s a little bittersweet that we’re here, and I’m just really excited to play next year. I got my first year under my belt with Toronto, and I just can’t wait for more. I’m really looking forward to it.”

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• I grabbed Steve Yzerman for his thoughts on Calder winner Moritz Seider: “It’s fantastic. He won. He had an outstanding season. Very difficult for a 20-year-old defenceman in the NHL. We’re very proud of him.”

What excites Yzerman most about Seider?

“He’s a good all-around player. He’s got size. He’s got skill. He’s competitive. He’s got sense. And he’s driven to be a real good player, and he’s a wonderful young man,” the GM replied. “So, excited about every part of this game.”

• Igor Shesterkin, deserving Vezina champ: “Incredible feelings.”

• Until Matthews’ win, the Edmonton Oilers had captured five of the past six Ted Lindsay awards.

• Line of the night comes courtesy of host Keenan Thompson, on the Tampa Bay Lightning: “They’ve had their two Cups, and now they’re going back for their booster Cup.”

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