ESPN has come calling. NBC has picked up his next game for a national broadcast. Pardon The Interruption dedicated a segment to him, and U.S. sports radio talk show titan Jim Rome did the same.
Meanwhile, the requests for interviews have overflowed Toronto Maple Leafs media relations director Steve Keogh’s inbox to the point he is still digging out from under them.
Leafs rookie Auston Matthews’ record-setting four-goal NHL debut on Wednesday night instantly put him into the international spotlight. NBC Sports executive Sam Flood told Sports Illustrated on Friday that the only reason it will broadcast Saturday’s home opener between the Leafs and Boston Bruins is that Matthews is playing in it.
“This is purely based on a player,” Flood said.
Even Matthews’ parents have become a draw, as Brian and Ema Matthews received more screen time on Sportsnet during the opener in Ottawa than many of his Leafs teammates.
A day later at practice, more than dozen cameras were on hand – several cameramen had to use stepladders to see over the throng – and the Leafs held two separate scrums to accommodate all the television and print media.
One reporter then asked Matthews for his thoughts on a Stanley Cup parade, a question that confused the kid from Arizona who hadn’t yet heard the tired line.
The Leafs have attempted to mitigate this Matthews Mania to the extent they can. They have declined radio requests and limited TV to brief appearances. On Friday, the day before Matthews makes his debut at the Air Canada Centre, the only access to him was a few minutes chatting with a few reporters after practice, during which Matthews largely talked about baseball. (He’s pulling for the Los Angeles Dodgers, his favourite team.)
The baseball talk was fitting. For weeks, Matthews’ play at the World Cup of Hockey and in training camp were overshadowed in Toronto by the Blue Jays’ postseason heroics. But a just-turned 19-year-old scoring four goals in his first game for the first time in NHL history in the largest hockey market there is has a way of ramping up the attention.
It’s only natural to wonder what effect it all might have on a teenager who didn’t grow up in hockey country and who confesses that he didn’t see any of this coming, even two years ago.
Will any of it go to his head? Will any of it change the way he plays or trains or thinks of himself?
Those who know Matthews well say no – that he’s too grounded and too focused on getting better. What has been unmistakable over the past few days is how unaffected he is by the hype machine quickly amassing around him. Matthews has been quiet and calm and unfailingly polite, reminiscent of the good impression former Leafs netminder James Reimer instantly made as a young player thrust into the Toronto limelight five years ago.
In fact, his teammates, coaches and the Leafs staff have been as impressed with Matthews off the ice as what he accomplished on it the other night.
“What impressed me most is how he took responsibility at the end of the game for a mistake that he had made,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said of his first-overall pick. “This isn’t about one player – and he knows it. He says all the right things.”
“He’s a good kid,” head coach Mike Babcock added, crediting Matthews’ parents. “And he has a chance to be a real good player and obviously have an impact on the people around him. So good for him, good for us.”
Leafs veteran James van Riemsdyk chuckled when asked to compare Matthews’ ability to handle all the attention and pressure to his own entry into the NHL at a young age.
There’s no comparison, he said.
Van Riemsdyk believes Matthews “absolutely” has the perfect temperament for a high-end prospect attempting to grow into a starring role with the Leafs. “He just doesn’t let anything faze him,” van Riemsdyk said. “That’s going to allow him to handle the scrutiny playing in Toronto. He just stays even through everything.”
As for the attention inflating his ego, they don’t see it. They see someone with remarkable talent who wants to take on the league’s best players and help the Leafs win.
“He’s so humble,” linemate Zach Hyman said. “Easy to talk to. He’s not cocky at all. Just a really nice guy. You’d never know how successful he is on the ice if you just met him.”
“Guys like him. Guys want to be around him,” added defenceman Connor Carrick, who played with stars such as Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom in Washington. “He’s got a very quiet confidence about him. The guys that are usually the most confident are the ones that don’t spend a second thinking about [the hype]. He strikes me as one of those guys. He’s just comfortable in his skin. When someone’s like that, it kind of puts everyone else at ease around him.”Report Typo/Error