BUFFALO – It isn’t often the Maple Leafs have the opportunity to select first at the NHL draft – and they made the most of that opportunity Friday at First Niagara Centre, picking standout centre Auston Matthews No. 1 overall.
In a charged atmosphere in Buffalo that felt like a playoff game, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, president Brendan Shanahan and team management made their way to the podium early Friday evening, and the official announcement of Matthews’ selection was made by Mark Hunter, Toronto’s director of player personnel. The arena erupted, with a large contingent of Buds fans leaping to their feet in celebration, and the hometown Sabres supporters voicing their opinion in a less joyful manner.
All in all, it made for an instantly memorable moment, one Matthews will cherish for the rest of his days.
“Very nerve-wracking,” Matthews said of the minutes leading up to the announcement. “But once they called my name, it was definitely a sigh of relief. A lot of excitement with my family there with me. It was a pretty unbelievable feeing.”
Matthews rose from his seat in the stands as soon as he heard his name, was embraced by his parents, and made his way to the stage to accept congratulations from Leafs brass. When he made his way to a jam-packed media waiting area to take questions from reporters, he got his first real taste of life in the spotlight of Toronto. But he said he embraces the challenge of playing in a major hockey market.
“It’s a great sports town with the Blue Jays, the Raptors,” Matthews said of Toronto. “They’re very passionate. Everybody has told me when they’re winning, it’s the best place in the league. So it’s definitely something I look forward to.”
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has spoken numerous times before Friday’s events that he values players who have a strong drive train – and the organization believes that Matthews’ competitiveness fits in perfectly with its blueprint for the future, and that Matthews will improve the efforts of every member of the franchise.
“We got a lot better,” Babcock said Friday. “Lou is a better general manager, I am a better coach and the team is way better…(Matthews is) going to be a dominant centre for the Leafs with and without the puck. He’s going to be a championship-type centre.”
As they went through the prospect evaluation process with Matthews, Lamoriello and Shanahan were obviously wowed by the youngster’s on-ice skills, but both also were impressed by the obstacles Matthews faced and overcame growing up in Arizona and trying to develop his hockey skills in a still-young hockey market.
“I enjoyed (discovering) more about his story,” Shanahan said. “The difficulty of how to raise a young hockey player, a prodigy, in that region, and the support you need from your family to do that. We all have been watching him play hockey for several years, but when you get into this type of process and you are picking first and you dig a little deeper, it’s nice to see a little bit more of the background of how he became the young man that he is.”
“I had the opportunity to meet his mom and dad and spend a little time with his two sisters,” added Lamoriello, “and I think coming away from there, you felt extremely comfortable with the way he was raised. He had to go through a lot of difficulties, extenuating circumstances to become the player he is. There’s a commitment, (and) there’s something special in that. That goes towards his character.”
For Matthews, draft night was the culmination of a lifelong dream. But at the same time, the achievement marks only the beginning of a professional career in Toronto he is determined to make a success.
“I want to be an impact player,” said the Arizona native, who scored 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games with Zurich of the Swiss League last season. “I believe I can be a franchise centreman, a No. 1 centreman in the NHL, so that’s my ultimate goal.”
The Leafs also unveiled their new uniforms for the 2016-17 season Friday, and although the revised jersey would’ve looked gorgeous regardless of who was wearing it, there was something particularly special about a new and important face being the first player to pull it over his head.
“It looks good,” Matthews said of the Leafs’ new jersey. “I like it. It felt unbelievable putting on the jersey. Such a storied franchise, so it was a big honour.”