Point After: Dear Auston…

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.

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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.

Toronto's first-round pick Auston Matthews had sky-high expectations entering the 2016 season, and man did he live up to them, becoming the first NHLer to score four goals in his debut, though his Maple Leafs fell to the Senators 5-4 in overtime.

Facing Zack Greinke, who led the NL in ERA the year before, Story set an MLB record by homering in his first two career at bats on Opening Day.

In his first game ever, which also happened to be against the quarterback that was taken one pick before him in the draft (that'd be the Bucs' Jameis Winston), Mariota became the first rookie in NFL history to throw four touchdowns in the first half. He was 10 of 13 passes for 175 yards and four touchdowns at the end of the first half(!!), and finished the game 13 of 16 for 209 yards. You read that right--he finished with more touchdowns than incompletions.

Sharks goalie Troy Grosenick set an NHL record for saves in an NHL debut shutout, stopping 45 shots from the Hurricanes in a 2–0 win.

The former No. 11 pick finished with a video game stat-line of 22 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and nine steals against LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

The future league MVP threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for one TD in his NFL debut. Despite his herculean effort, the Panthers lost 28-21 to the Cardinals.

New York Rangers rookie Derek Stepan scored three times against the Sabres in a 6–3 win

In one of the most hyped debuts ever, the former No. 1 pick struck out 14 batters over seven innings while allowing just two runs against the Pirates.

The first MLB player born in the 1990s, Castro homered and hit a bases-loaded triple against the Reds, setting the record for most RBIs in a debut with six.

Fabian Brunnstrom’s first NHL game was one to remember, as he potted three goals against the Predators in a 6-4 Stars’ win

LeBron's first game was one of the most anticipated rookie debuts in NBA history. The proclaimed Chosen One recorded a monster stat line of 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals.

This is considered one of the greatest NFL debuts at any position. The Cardinals receiver finished with 10 catches, 217(!) yards and two touchdowns in Arizona's loss to the Lions.

Allen Iverson took the NBA by storm as soon as he stepped on the floor as a Sixer. The recent hall of fame inductee scored 30 points and dished out 6 assists against the Milwaukee Bucks.

The 21-year-old fireballer threw a complete game against the Giants, allowing two earned runs and tying the MLB record with 17 strikeouts in his first career start.

The Vikings offense was struggling against the Bears, and so in the second quarter, veteran QB George Shaw was benched for a rookie named Fran Tarkenton. Thus began a Hall of Fame career. Tarkenton threw a touchdown pass on his first drive, and finished the game 17/23 for 250 yards, three passing TDs and a rushing TD. The Vikings beat the Bears 37–13.

Marichal dominated the Phillies, carrying a perfect game into the 7th and a no-hitter into the 8th. He ultimately tossed a one-hit shutout, striking out 12 while walking just one.

Wilt Chamberlain recorded a ridiculous 43 point and 28 rebound effort in his NBA debut for the Philadelphia Warriors.

McCovey started his career with a bang, going 4 for 4 with two triples and 2 RBIs against future Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts.

Close

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.



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