The first time Auston Matthews met Mike Babcock, he was starstruck, except not for the reason you might think.
To reach the Red Wings’ coaches office at the old Joe Louis Arena, a hallway winds past the visitor’s locker room, which on this particular game day in November 2014 had been occupied by the Flyers. Matthews, then 17 and playing for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, watched morning practice and was on his way to introduce himself to Babcock with teammate Matthew Tkachuk and coach Don Granato when they became sidetracked.
There was Claude Giroux, the Flyers’ captain, leaning against the wall, talking on his cell phone. And in an instant, the little kid inside Matthews took hold.
“Auston right away taps me and goes, ‘Coach, that’s Claude Giroux! Can I get a picture? Can I get a picture?'” Granato recalled. “We’re a good 50 feet away. I grab him by the arm and say don’t you dare take your phone out. You know where you’re at? It’s not picture area down here.”
Giroux was then and is now an NHL star, a goal scorer, which is what Matthews wanted to become. So you can understand if shaking hands with Babcock, all parties unaware of its prophetic meaning at the time, was the second-best thing that happened to Matthews that day.
“I can tell you he might have still been thinking about Giroux,” Granato laughed.
Granato shared this memory, among others, as a glimpse into the formative years of a hockey-playing prodigy whose meteoric rise from Arizona captivated those around the sport, first with USA Hockey and, later, the NHL. Back then, as coach of the U.S. under-18 team, he was one of many at the NTDP who helped a teenaged Matthews harness his sky-high potential as the future face of hockey in America, a reality that will soon arrive, if it hasn’t already.
You know the story: The dynamic center went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft. He scored four goals in a record-breaking NHL debut, an appropriate start to the best (40 goals, 69 points) rookie season in the Maple Leafs’ 100-year history, and ran away with the Calder Trophy. And his union with Babcock in Toronto flipped the city’s woebegone Stanley Cup hopes overnight.
For a player who’s accomplished so much, so soon, Matthews still has work to do. So what are fair expectations?
‘A six-tool guy’
A few weeks before that fateful first meeting with Babcock, Matthews and the NTDP played an exhibition against the University of Michigan, a team that included Dylan Larkin, Zach Hyman, J.T. Compher, Tyler Motte and Zach Werenski. Babcock was in Ann Arbor for the game to watch Larkin, the Red Wings’ 15th overall draft pick the spring prior, but had been hearing second-hand stories about Matthews’ talent from assistant coach Tony Granato, Don’s older brother.
“The guy he (Babcock) walked out of there most impressed with was a kid who was a junior in high school playing against Division I guys,” Don Granato said.
By this point, Matthews had already been the subject of many Granato phone calls.
The brothers, both deeply rooted with USA Hockey, kept in touch about all things NTDP. But from the time Don Granato first watched Matthews as a 15-year-old trying out for a spot in the program, practicing with players two years his senior, he noticed Matthews stood out for more than his big frame and sheer talent.
“I said, Ton, I think we’ve got a kid who’s going to be as good as or better than Sidney Crosby,” Granato said. “He said, ‘Are you out of your mind? You’ve had him for one week.’ And I said I know. I’ve had him long enough to tell you. I think this kid has a chance to be as good as Sidney Crosby and I think he’s going to be the next American first overall (draft pick). … He remembers it so well because he thought I was crazy.”
Hyperbole or not, Matthews carried himself like the greats who came before him: humble but confident, calm but competitive, with the sort of internal drive that challenges even the coaching staff to keep up. And then there was the size (6-2, 190), speed and creativity, all jaw-dropping for any teenage player.
It helped Matthews excel against older competition while with the NTDP and at the 2015 and 2016 World Junior Championship. In between, he played — and put up gaudy numbers — for Zurich SC in Switzerland’s top professional league, a 17-year-old dominating veteran pros.
“He’s a big guy. His edges were so good, his hands were so good,” said Danton Cole, who coached Matthews in 2013-14 on the U.S. under-17 team. “… You know how they talk about baseball? A five-tool guy. Auston was kind of a six-tool guy. There just wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. You’d be watching in practice and you thought you saw everything, especially in tight area games, you’d think you’ve seen everything. But he’d score a goal, make a pass or spin out of the corner with the puck and make you shake your head.”
That brings us back to that 2014 scrimmage against UM. With Babcock in attendance, it was the perfect foreshadow for Matthews’ future. He scored a goal, had four shots and was the best player on the ice, according to Granato. Babcock became coach of the Maple Leafs after the 2014-15 NHL season, stabilizing the organization along with president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Lou Lamoriello. So the game served as the first time the two crossed paths.
Shortly thereafter, Granato started taking Matthews on regular trips to the Joe, about 45 minutes from the NTDP headquarters, something he hadn’t done with other players previously.
“I felt for some reason I should be doing it with him,” he said. “I wanted to get him around the NHL as much as I can so it’s natural to him. He’s going to play in the NHL. I wan’t him to feel comfortable and that he belongs on Day 1, not a year later.”
Hit ’em with the four like Auston Matthews
About that Day 1.
Matthews’ first NHL goal came 8 minutes and 21 seconds into his debut. He jumped on a loose puck in the slot and flung it past a lunging Senators goalie Craig Anderson. For Granato, Cole and those watching back at the NTDP, it was more of an inevitability than anything. A group text served as a real-time play-by-play forum.
“Hey, Auston got his first goal,” Cole remembers writing. “It kind of shoots back and forth. I think before anything else could get out, it’s like, geez, he just got his third.”
Less than six minutes later, Matthews scored again. This time it was an incredible individual effort, the sort of tight-space magic Cole had seen many times over in practice and games. Matthews pick-pocketed Mike Hoffman in the neutral zone, slipped by Senators captain Erik Karlsson and stunned Anderson, who barely had a chance to set before a quick flick of the wrist beat him five-hole. Each time, cameras panned to parents Brian and Ema, who were ecstatic.
By the time the second period closed, Matthews became the first player in history to score four goals in an NHL debut. He had more goals in the first 40 minutes of his career than yesterday’s wunderkinds Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid combined in their first games.
“There was probably two people more excited. That was his mom and dad, and then it was me,” Granato said.
Since meeting Matthews, the most difficult part for Granato had been keeping quiet about what he already knew: Matthews was a star in the making. Like swearing to secrecy upon discovering oil in the backyard, Granato gushed only to Tony and friends outside hockey, so as to shelter Matthews from outsized expectations.
And on this night, the texts started flooding in.
Hey, you told me two years ago this kid was going to be better than so-and-so.
One came from Jeff Sauer, Granato’s old coach at Wisconsin. He was watching Matthews make his debut at Granato’s urging.
“He wanted to watch the Blackhawks that night and I said, Hey, coach, do me a favor and just turn on the Toronto Maple Leafs and watch this kid Auston,” Granato said. “He didn’t know who he was. He knew he was the number one pick but … I said that’ll be more fun to watch than the Blackhawks tonight.”
Matthews was an instant sensation. The Maple Leafs went 40-27-15, made the playoffs for the second time in a decade and nearly knocked off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals in what would have been an upset for the ages. His four-goal debut birthed a cult classic rap song titled “Auston Matthews.”
Youngest in the league,
Yes, I’m balling
This not Spalding
I’m icy b—,
First day of work,
Made you act a fool
Auston Matthews, Auston Matthews
Hit em’ with the four like Auston Matthews
The talk of Toronto became the talk of Canada, surpassing even McDavid. Anyone who called themselves a hockey fan knew the story, how a kid from the desert, a product of the NHL’s unpopular southern expansion, defied the odds and climbed the ladder to stardom at the center of the known hockey universe. Yet, there’s a sense his notoriety everywhere else was lacking.
Next face of the NHL?
An ESPN The Magazine feature in October asked, Why isn’t Auston Matthews a bigger star in the United States? The NHL’s most vexing question is also one of the simplest to answer. Hockey is growing in the United States, particularly in “nontraditional” markets such as Scottsdale, Ariz., where Matthews is the shiniest of trophies for commissioner Gary Bettman. But the sport’s integration into mainstream American pop culture remains stagnant, while other leagues surged and now dominate most headlines.
The NHL still lags well behind the NFL, NBA and MLB in television ratings. Presented opportunities to showcase hockey to a wider audience, like scheduling Matthews’ Maple Leafs for a national U.S. broadcast or sending players to the Olympics, the league fails to act on potential benefits, coming off as out of touch with fans.
The Maple Leafs, under an organizational decree from Lamoriello, preach crest over individualism, suppressing personality. That’s not unlike the culture inside most NHL locker rooms, but it’s troublesome for marketing purposes, especially when an American-born star such as Matthews is cordoned off in Canada.
If Matthews, for all his plusses, has a shot at becoming the next U.S. face of the NHL, something will have to change.
That distinction currently belongs to Patrick Kane, even if the gap is closing. Before Matthews, the Blackhawks star was the last American-born player drafted first overall in 2007. They’re two of seven in history, a club which started in 1983 with Brian Lawton and adds new members about twice every decade.
With an NHL scoring title, Hart Trophy and three Stanley Cups in tow, Kane has steadily climbed the list of all-time USA Hockey greats while playing in one of the NHL’s biggest and most media-friendly markets. And at 29, he’s far from finished. But a history of off-ice trouble and the absence of Olympic gold (he has just three goals in a pair of Olympic tours) are two blemishes on Kane’s resume, leaving the door wide open for Matthews to take the mantle in short order.
“If you go down the league, there’s a lot of great players nowadays. I would say he’s definitely in the top 20 as of now,” Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, a fellow American No. 1 pick and one of USA Hockey’s all-time greats, told Sporting News in October. “There’s some talented guys, but over time he probably will evolve into not only the best American and give Patrick Kane a run and all the stats for American-born guys.
“On the whole, given the city he’s playing in, Toronto, being American, I just think it’s got a formula for a pretty exciting career.”
Matthews won’t be afforded what would have been an opportune moment to play in his first Olympics, since the NHL has banned its players from the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Imagine him skating alongside Kane. With USA Hockey’s influx of young talent, would-be first-time Olympians like Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Seth Jones and more could have made for a tantalizing blend of generations in pursuit of the Team USA’s first gold medal since the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.”
Granato, like any other hockey-loving American, laments the what-ifs.
In his first season as a Blackhawks assistant coach, Granato has been able to study Kane up close the last six months. And while he politely deferred when asked to compare the faces of USA Hockey old and new — “I’m not touching that one,” he laughed — Granato believes it’s a matter of time before Matthews gets his due.
“That’ll come with playoff success, certainly in this market here — the U.S. market. He’s well on his way to that,” he said. “That’s a byproduct of what the NHL has done and the growth of the NHL in the U.S. … It’s only a matter of time, for me.
“I think he’s headed in that direction because of a combination of not only his ability, but the marketability of our game in the U.S.”
Matthews’ encore sophomore season hasn’t gone off without a hitch. His point-per-game production is in line with expected growth. Most of it has been of the highlight-reel variety, making Matthews a must-watch hockey commodity on a nightly basis (for those who can). But injuries are cutting into those opportunities, first with an undisclosed upper-body ailment that sidelined him four games in November. A concussion, the scariest word in hockey, especially when it involves the game’s young stars, cost Matthews another six games in December before his return just before the holiday break.
That’s nothing more than a speedbump in Matthews’ development. The Maple Leafs signed several veterans in the offseason, an indication their rebuild is ready to take the next step into postseason contention. And the 20-year-old is on a mission to end Toronto’s half-century Stanley Cup drought sooner rather than later.
If or when that happens remains to be seen. Matthews will wait until at least 2022 to break out on an Olympic stage, when he’s 24. But in sports, where we assign faces to everything, his evolution into the role for USA Hockey — and, possibly, all of the NHL — is happening right before our eyes.
“I think he’s probably pushing on that right now,” Cole said. “I don’t say that lightly. Patrick (Kane) has done some unbelievable things for the U.S. and he’s a great player, but I think where Auston’s at, if we were in the Olympics, I’d say he’d probably be the focal guy. The future of U.S. hockey.”