TAMPA – “They said we could go somewhat casual tonight,” explained Auston Matthews, showing off the monogrammed jacket, unbuttoned white shirt, and gold chain he wore to the 2022 NHL Awards ceremony he had cleaned up at just minutes before.
“I don’t love wearing a tie if I’m being honest with you. It’s hot. I’m trying to take it a little casual tonight. Let the chest breathe a little bit.”
Matthews’ casual nature is a staple of his brand at this point in his young career. And it doesn’t stop at his outfit selection, either.
On the surface, at least, the Maple Leafs’ sniper put together the NHL’s most potent goal-scoring season in a decade with what seemed to be relative ease, earning a place among the league’s modern royalty while demolishing the record books of a franchise over 100 years in existence in the process.
It definitely wasn’t as easy as he made it look, of course.
Matthews is known for his relentless preparation off the ice, with his meteoric rise being largely attributed to an innate need to push his game to greater and greater heights year after year. But the 24-year-old doesn’t show that consternation in public, really. Despite being at the center of hockey’s hottest market and burdened with towering, generational expectations, Matthews exudes a level of calm that few could possibly replicate in his circumstances.
That cool-yet-focused demeanor was more apparent than ever this season.
As milestone after milestone piled up on his mantle, Matthews refused to let his personal achievements overtake an ever-present hunger for team success. Of course, that hunger remained unfulfilled at year’s end — only to grow more ravenous until it finally gets fulfilled.
But for Matthews himself, becoming the first Maple Leaf in nearly 70 years to get his hands on the Hart Trophy is about as nice a consolation prize as any. Even if it is a consolation prize nonetheless.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little bit of angst,” admitted Matthews, standing in the home rink of the team that ended his season early a few short weeks ago.
“Just wishing you were still playing, and especially being back here. It is what it is. Life goes on. But I’m very fortunate to be here and representing the team.”
It’s difficult to truly convey the gravity of Matthews’ success in the context of Maple Leafs history. The organization has simply never had a player like him before. Never. Not once. Inside their walls, Matthews is quite literally a once-in-a-century figure, endowing the Leafs with a superstar who leads the pack rather than follows it; who sets the trends rather than adapts them.
Take a look back through the annals of notable Leafs alumni and no one even comes close.
Ted Kennedy, Johnny Bower, Darryl Sittler, and Wendel Clark played at a time when the sport of hockey looked unrecognizable to that of today. Phil Kessel scored at a break-neck pace during his tenure in Toronto but never came close to the heights Matthews has reached already both off the ice and on. Mats Sundin is perhaps the closest thing to a superstar Leafs fans have seen in the modern era, and yet even he, despite his incredible leadership reign and postseason accomplishments, topped out as a point-per-game player who largely fell in the second rung of NHL stars.
Matthews is different. His name is in conversations that no Leafs’ has been whispered in ever before. Kids want to be like him. His peers, after handing him the Ted Lindsay Award as the league’s most outstanding player, admire him. Matthews is simply transcendent — part of a growing group of talent currently pushing the NHL’s on-ice product into a veritable golden age.
The next decade will be dominated by an arms race led up top by Matthews and fellow Hart nominee Connor McDavid. And Matthews knows it.
“I think he definitely pushes me,” admitted Matthews of his relationship with the Oilers’ captain.
“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.”
Funnily enough, the results from last night show that, in locker rooms around the league, Matthews’ peers do the same for him.
And yet, expectations are a funny thing. Despite Matthews’ sweep of the NHL’s individual honors last night, an identical outcome next season will be nothing short of a disappointment. Team success is all that matters now. That Maple Leafs must keep playing deep into the summer of 2023 in order to stave off some very difficult questions. Matthews knows this better than anyone. And, as he’s made clear, there’s nothing he wants to do more is bring the Maple Leafs back to their former glory.
“I’ve said it before: I think it’s a tremendous honor to wear the blue-and-white and represent the city of Toronto and wear the Maple Leaf every night,” said Matthews.
“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.”
The organization feels pretty fortunate, too.