Every once in a great while, a little information leaks out of the Politburo that runs the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It is usually an inadvertent admission by one of the apparatchiks that sheds the speck of light. In this case it was Auston Matthews, who let slip on Friday the reason he missed the Leafs' past six games might have been a concussion.
Matthews took part in his first practice with his teammates since he was hit on the chin by teammate Morgan Rielly in an accidental collision during a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 9. While the official decision on Matthews's return to the lineup will not be made until shortly before Saturday's game in New York against the Rangers, Matthews gave the impression he expects to play.
When the brief conversation with reporters on Friday turned to the injury itself, Matthews said he did not immediately feel the injury was serious. However, later in the evening following the game and the next day he did not feel well.
A reporter from Sportsnet asked what he was feeling. "Just normal concussion symptoms I guess. I won't go any further than that," Matthews replied, although he did say just before that he went through the NHL's concussion protocol once his symptoms surfaced.
Word of the admission was quickly relayed to head coach Mike Babcock, who was clearly not happy about it when he came into the Leafs' dressing room at their practice arena a few minutes later for his daily media scrum.
"You guys already talked to Auston, we're done with that. What else?" Babcock said before anyone had their recorders fired up.
Even for a guy who puts talking to the media just behind a barium enema on his list of least favourite activities, this was a clear sign of great unhappiness. When the question of a concussion was first raised in the days following Matthews's injury, Babcock was evasive.
"I didn't know he had a concussion," Babcock said at the time in response to a question about whether Matthews went through the NHL's mandatory concussion protocol following a suspected head injury.
You can bet if Babcock was upset on Friday, so were Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Lou Lamoriello at some point, too.
It would also not be surprising if young Matthews were pulled aside for a chat about divulging injury secrets. Spilling the beans on injuries ranks right up there with discussing potential trades when it comes to sins in the eyes of the secrecy-obsessed Leafs organization.
This, if it happened, is hardly fair to Matthews, just as it wasn't fair to put him in the uncomfortable position of trying to dodge the subject of his head injury. First, at 20 years of age, Matthews is not exactly as adept at blowing off the media as your average NHL coach or GM.
Second, it was obvious from the moment Matthews took most of the impact of the collision with Rielly on his chin, as well as him clutching his head briefly, that he sustained a head injury. And third, even though there were a few oddities around the injury, no one tried to suggest the Leafs were doing anything that was not in the best interest of the player aside from their refusal to say what Matthews's injury was.
So it goes in a league that encourages obfuscation when it comes to injuries – don't you just love all the upper-body and lower-body nonsense? – and with a team that takes that to the nth degree.
Despite Matthews's admission, though, it still cannot be said or written as a fact that he had a concussion. At least not until the Leafs' medical team is allowed to confirm it.
Matthews did stay in the game after he ran into Rielly, which is unusual. It also appears the independent spotter the NHL has at every game, with the power to send a player to be examined by a doctor after any hit to the head, either did not deem the incident serious enough to warrant a medical look or did not see it.
However, Matthews said on Friday he did not feel any symptoms until well after the game, and once he did the Leafs followed the NHL's procedure for head injuries.
"I went through the concussion protocol, and obviously they take that pretty seriously," Matthews said.
Something the Leafs and the league should take seriously is transparency with injuries. Their rationale is the creaky old argument opponents will target any player if they know where he sustained an injury. That is mostly nonsense, of course. Aren't referees paid to keep any hit men in check?
If the NFL can be open about injuries – admittedly it's because that league is all about gambling and needs to be above-board – so can the NHL. Fans who pay hundreds of dollars for tickets and merchandise deserve to know what is happening with their teams and when they can expect someone back in the lineup.
After going through his first practice with the Leafs since he was hurt, Matthews said, "it's fun to be back out with more people than myself. Obviously, I'm just trying to get my legs back."
He said the decision on his playing status will be made on Saturday. If he plays, as expected, Matthews will be back with his usual linemates, left winger Zach Hyman and right winger William Nylander.
The Leafs will get four days off in the Christmas break after the Rangers game. Then they will hit the road for three games starting Dec. 28 against the Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche and the Vegas Golden Knights. Their next home game is not until Jan. 2 when the Tampa Bay Lightning pay a visit.