This story appeared in the Oct. 10, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.
The 1985 NHL draft was held at the Metro Convention Centre in downtown Toronto, and everything had a real hometown feel. The Maple Leafs owned the No. 1 pick. I considered myself a pretty casual 18-year-old—mustache and mullet the dead giveaways—and we never had much need to dress up back in Saskatchewan. The suit I wore was probably my first—brown with a clip-on tie for quick release. A bit different from today’s kids.
On June 24, 2016, I spent the first round at a restaurant next to the Air Canada Centre, attending an event hosted by the Leafs, who were picking first overall for just the second time. The place was packed with fans watching the televisions, waiting to see which player we’d choose—though åwe all knew it would be you. From the moment Toronto won the lottery last April, there was never any question. We paid close attention to your season in Switzerland, when you had 46 points in 36 games against full-time pros. Everyone knew you were the highest-rated prospect, a teenager from Scottsdale, Ariz. So when the team called out “Auston Matthews” at the draft in Buffalo, the whole bar erupted, hugging and high-fiving as if the Leafs had just won in overtime.
That’s the greatest thing about Toronto fans—they want to be a part of this story. These days I work as a community ambassador for the team, still involved in a relationship that began more than three decades ago. Being at the restaurant, watching you stride up on stage, reminded me of my draft day, when right from the start I felt welcomed into the family.
Many of your experiences will mirror what I went through. You’ll be starting on a last-place team, just like I did. You’re going to become the center of attention, simply because of where you play. Media coverage has always been big in Toronto—the capital of the hockey world. Even though they’re covering you locally, every newspaper feels national. We were always critiqued at the highest level, and quickly I learned there was no time, no room, for a “poor me” attitude.
That lesson had been drilled into me as a child, growing up on a farm in western Canada. At 10, I started driving tractors and helping with household chores. By 16, I was planting crops—wheat, barley, canola, peas and flax—around our 2,500-acre farm. I helped raise cattle, too. Farming is unpredictable. You can put the seeds in the ground and hope for no frost, no hailstorms and good harvests, but the reality is you’re pulling 18-hour days, getting ready for the worst. Farming teaches you to handle anything.
You’re going to become the center of attention, simply because of where you play. Media coverage has always been big in Toronto—the capital of the hockey world.
My rookie season presented several tests. Entering training camp as the Western Hockey League’s reigning defenseman of the year, I walked into the Toronto locker room on the first day and looked at my name on the board. LEFT WING, it said, next to Russ Courtnall and Gary Leeman. Not only was I expected to learn the game as a youngster at the highest level, I was also switching positions.
On day two, I had my first fight. Bob McGill was our tough guy, so he’d probably seen the 253 penalty minutes I’d posted during my last season in juniors. I played physical, and I guess Bob was thinking, I’m making sure I keep my job. I’d say the bout ended in a draw.
Sometime after the season starts, Auston, I’m sure we will meet up and chat. But for now, here is my advice: Don’t change your personality. If you try to be something you’re not, you can’t keep that up. It’s an act. I came into Toronto planning to fight, score, hit and throw everything I had at the challenge. Here’s who I am, that’s how I play, take it or leave it.
Your whole first year is figuring out the game and how to live—a real learning curve. From laundry to cooking to your daily routine, everything will stretch your limits. It was the first time I had my own vehicle, my own credit card. The first time I received a paycheck.
But that rookie season was one of my favorites. We were all so young that the roster felt like a glorified junior team, yet we rose from last place to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. As for the pressure? I’ve always believed that playing in Toronto is easier when you’re younger. Experiencing attention like that, you don’t know anything different. So welcome everything in this city with open arms, Auston. As a professional hockey player, there’s no better place to be. I should know.