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Matthias eager for Leafs debut

by Chris Lund / Toronto Maple Leafs

Each home opener provides an opportunity for players to don the Maple Leafs sweater for a first time in Toronto. For those who grew up in Toronto, the opportunity to play in front of family and friends adds something special.

To return home and play for the team you cheered for as a child is something we all dream of. To make it happen on the biggest stage is something a select few accomplish.

Shawn Matthias, one of many new names on the Leafs roster and a Mississauga, Ont., native, had the dream so many kids growing up in the Greater Toronto Area do. Watching players like Doug Gilmour, Mats Sundin and his childhood favourite, Darcy Tucker, wear the Blue and White gave him something to strive for.

Every road hockey session, every early morning practice, every rep in the weight room. Everything was a brick on the road back to Toronto to play for the Maple Leafs.

On July 6, 2015, he put pen to paper and joined the organization.

On October 7, 2015, he'll wear the sweater when the Maple Leafs take on the Canadiens.

Leafs. Habs. Hometown. A Hockey Holy Trinity that has fueled NHL aspirations for many.

While Matthias has been part of training camp with the Leafs from day one in Halifax, the regular season appearance makes it official. One regular season game puts in you in the player register of that franchise forever. In the case of the Maple Leafs, forever stretches back 99 seasons and goes forward each day from here on out.

"I thought about it quite a bit actually," said Matthias. "One of my best friends growing up who is actually a huge, huge Leafs fan came over and we had dinner and we were talking about it. We both started getting pretty fired up."

"Just to talk to a good friend who's a big fan and someone that can relate who has grown up watching the team, cheering and seeing how he feels about it and making you realize how special it's going to be, it really started to kick in."

With the addition of Matthias, the Leafs have another proven NHL veteran they'll rely upon to contribute this season. Early iterations of the lineup have found him playing in a proverbial top-six role, providing an opportunity to use his ample size, mobility and scoring touch.

The team as a whole is a work in progress. Roughly half of the opening night lineup will be different from the group that played last season's finale. Despite the effort required to grow accustomed to one another on top of learning the X's and O's set forth by head coach Mike Babcock, the club appears to be rounding into form.

"I think all of our systems are getting tighter," said Matthias. "At first obviously with it being new, having a few days to work on it, the first couple of exhibition games, you can see a big difference from those games to the end of exhibition. We've tightened things up and got more comfortable with everything."

Many talking points are out there about this team and the season ahead. An offseason of change and the ever-bright Toronto spotlight present challenges for 2015-16's Maple Leafs. The dressing room is well aware of what's ahead. While onlookers may hold skepticism, there is no shortage of confidence or belief in the group as a whole.

Whatever this group encounters, they will be ready to meet it head on.

"It's going to be a challenging year but, like Mike keeps saying, we accept that and we're excited about the challenge," said Matthias. "We trust each other in this room, we have a lot of faith and a lot of confidence."

"We're all excited to get started and prove people wrong that count us out."

Step one of the journey to proving those onlookers wrong begins Oct. 7 against the Canadiens. Many players from many towns and many countries will wear a Leafs sweater worn by many before them and many more in the stands looking on.

This season will also feature many players, like Matthias, from right here in Toronto — home games in the truest sense of the term.

Playing in the NHL is no small feat. Playing in the NHL for the team your friends, family and a younger, wide-eyed version of yourself cheer for is something else altogether. It adds responsibility and pride — an extra layer of meaning, on top of the journey to get to the point you dreamed of for so long.

Shawn Matthias, in front of his parents and friends in the crowd, will officially become a Maple Leaf when he's introduced, "From Mississauga, Ontario. Number 23..." at Air Canada Centre.

Somewhere in the GTA, that introduction will resonate with another young player, back from a road hockey game or a practice, and they'll continue to make their designs on a future as a Maple Leaf.

Those few who make it will take the same pride in the crest as those before them. They know it means more to be back home. And, if there was any doubt in their mind, they'll definitely have a friend there to remind them of the honour.

From there it's just a matter of playing that first game.

"I'm really excited and really proud to be wearing that jersey."

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