A few hours after the Toronto Maple Leafs said that Auston Matthews would not be commenting on his disorderly conduct charge, Auston Matthews came out to comment on his disorderly conduct charge.
This wasn’t a conversation. It was a rambling statement, after which there would be no questions.
“I regret any of my actions or whatever, the distraction on the team or the distress on any individual,” Matthews said.
It wasn’t exactly the Gettysburg Address. It also wasn’t an apology, which felt ill-judged. This was an attempt to spin the news cycle a little quicker in the hopes it might spin itself out before next week’s home opener.
The Leafs locker room wise men were brought out to amplify those themes – “distraction” and “distress.” John Tavares used precisely the same formulation, making it clear this wasn’t Matthews having thought this through, but instead repeating aloud someone else’s talking points.
Matthews’s image to this point – straight shooter, head screwed on right – is out the window. He may go on to be a superstar in the NHL, but people will also think of him as one of those guys. The guys who have been given a lot of advantages, and then decided to take a few more.
Matthews’s alleged crime happened back in May. On Wednesday, Leafs coach Mike Babcock said he’d heard about it for the first time Tuesday night, along with everyone else. Someone’s been keeping secrets.
Matthews is accused of being the ringleader of a bunch of nitwits who decided it would be funny to terrify a female security guard at 2 a.m. by hopping into her parked car. When that didn’t work out – the guard had locked the doors – Matthews, 21 at the time, allegedly responded to her fear and anger by dropping his trousers and giving her a good look at his butt, before walking off with his pants puddled around his ankles.
We all do stupid things. We are all especially likely to do stupid things when it’s late, when we are drunk and when we are young. Fistfights, minor acts of vandalism, listening to a lot of Dave Matthews.
But we have not all said to ourselves, “There’s someone who’s alone and vulnerable. Let’s see how funny it would be to remind her just how much.”
It is difficult to wrap your head around what – based on the guard’s description to police – sounds like a cruel act of intimidation. If proved true, it is the mark of someone who thinks the little people are far lesser than him and deserving of no consideration or kindness.
Matthews didn’t do much to dispel that impression on Wednesday morning. He seemed far more worried about distressing his teammates than the “individual” in question.
His teammates didn’t help him much on that score. Tavares and then Morgan Rielly shuffled around the issue at hand, praising Matthews as a good guy. Both kept trying to steer the issue back to hockey.
It was left to Babcock – on the day, the designated adult in the Leafs organization – to speak as though he hadn’t been programmed by a legal team.
“As the Toronto Maple Leafs, we always pride ourselves on doing things right. On the ice, off the ice, in treating people,” Babcock said.
If that is indeed the case, then Matthews is done as a candidate for the Leafs captaincy.
You can’t run around talking up the club’s history, culture and civic pillardom – which, in lieu of titles, the Leafs love to do – then chuck all that as soon as the nostalgic video montages don’t match up to current events.
While one bad night should not be held against someone forever, it may tell us more about a person’s character than a dozen canned visits to a children’s hospital.
What the Leafs decide to do next will tell us a great deal about the real values of this outfit.
There must still be an enormous temptation to give Matthews the ‘C’ in any case. He’s in the first year of a five-year deal, after which he will be in his prime and can go where he likes.
It will not have escaped his notice that in Toronto, this story is a media frenzy. In 20 other NHL cities, it doesn’t even make the news.
Giving the captaincy to Tavares is the hockey thing to do. The 29-year-old is a quality veteran who may be the most boring public speaker on the planet. From the management perspective, that makes him the ideal person to talk every night.
But giving Tavares the ‘C’ doesn’t help the Leafs long-term. They already control him until the end of his effective playing life.
Same goes for Rielly, though he may be a wild card because he occasionally says things that are interesting – a big no-no in the NHL.
Putting Matthews in charge of the locker room solves a couple of problems. But it would signal that the Leafs really care about only one thing – winning.
That’s fine. Most teams do. But they can never be seen to be doing that. That would be a desperate move.
Coming hard on the heels of the admission that Matthews got dinged up in May and, according to Babcock, never bothered letting his head coach in on that salient piece of information, it gives the impression of an organization that doesn’t have its business on lockdown.
That would remind us of the Leafs we remember from the bad old days – the team that didn’t have any clue what a good idea looks like, never mind where to buy one.
Very rapidly, this becomes a question of core values.
Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, Babcock and Co. aren’t running a Best Buy. They can’t wash their hands of their employees once they walk out the door.
Every Toronto player wears a metaphoric Leafs jersey every time he is in public. That’s the quid pro quo for making all that money. They are always representing the logo.
And though we make fun of blue-and-white disease and all the rest, that logo means something in Toronto and far beyond. That’s a large part of why people continued to pack the building during all those horrible years. They weren’t there to watch bad hockey. They were there to be part of something larger. You might call it community.
If that community doesn’t stand for integrity and decency, then it doesn’t stand for much.