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Matthews swings for fences with Triple-A Buffalo

Top prospect takes batting practice, throws out first pitch before Bisons game

by Mike G. Morreale @MikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

BUFFALO -- Auston Matthews had one objective when he stepped to the plate for batting practice Wednesday at Coca-Cola Field, home to the minor league baseball team Buffalo Bisons.

"I was swinging for the fences, for sure, but just didn't get one out," Matthews said. "I did pretty good but was hoping to sneak one over (the fence). It didn't happen but this was a lot of fun."

Matthews, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft to be held Friday and Saturday at First Niagara Center, joined fellow top draft-eligible prospects Patrik Laine of Tappara (Finland), Jesse Puljujarvi of Karpat (FIN), Olli Juolevi of London (Ontario Hockey League), Matthew Tkachuk of London and Pierre-Luc Dubois of Cape Breton (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) at the home to the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.

All six prospects are expected to be selected at the top of the first round of the draft on Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports); Rounds 2-7 are Saturday (10 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports 2). Matthews also threw out the first pitch of the game between the Bisons and the Louisville Bats on Wednesday night and received a nice ovation from the fans. 

The hour-long batting practice session gave each prospect a chance to showcase their hand-eye coordination while taking pitches from former Major League Baseball player and current Bisons batting coach Richie Hebner.

Video: RAW | Matthews at Batting Practice

Matthews, who fouled the very first pitch off the sole of his shoe, had an edge over the other prospects since he played baseball for seven years before deciding to concentrate on hockey at the age of 13.

"I started playing hockey and baseball when I was six years old," Matthews said. "It was cool and it's been a while so it was kind of cool to get out there again. I played lot of little league and travel baseball but hockey was my main sport and passion.

"It was a little embarrassing to foul the first one right off the foot, but I still had a good time."

His father, Brian Matthews, played baseball at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles before an arm injury ended his athletic career.

"My favorite thing is batting, because that was the only thing I was good at," Matthews said. "My hand-eye coordination is good on the ice and I think that's a result of playing baseball."

Hebner could sense Matthews was a former ball player by the way he swung and slammed several pitches about 340-feet into right field.

"You could tell Matthews played," Hebner said. "He's from (Scottsdale) Arizona. He hit some balls good."

Said Matthews: "I played catcher and sometimes first base but I was always a pretty good hitter; I either struck out or hit home runs."

In addition to taking batting practice, Matthews autographed baseballs and posed for pictures with many of the Bisons players.

"This was awesome," he said. "To get to meet the Bisons players and see their facilities was special. They came over to me and were asking questions about the NHL draft, how the hockey system works going from the youth hockey level into juniors or college. I think we kind of all were pretty curious about things so we talked about that, hung out and enjoyed the nice weather and some batting practice."

Video: Top Prospects Take Batting Practice

Matthews, who said his favorite baseball player is Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and his favorite team the Los Angeles Dodgers, felt it was great to do something non-hockey related with the other prospects two days before the first pick is made Friday.

"It's nice to enjoy this experience with my family," Matthews said. "I think this whole process went really quickly; to me the year has flown by. It felt like just yesterday I was getting on a plane to Zurich to play in Switzerland. It's gone by fast but I just want to take it all in."

Matthews played for Zurich in National League A, Switzerland's top professional League, and was No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters. The left-shot forward tied for fourth in the League with 24 goals and was 10th with 46 points in 36 games. He was second in voting for the League's most valuable player award and won the Rising Star award.

Toronto Blue Jays top prospect Dalton Pompey, who plays left field for the Bisons, is excited for the NHL draft, particularly since the Toronto Maple Leafs hold the No. 1 pick.

"I'm going to be watching [the draft] for sure," Pompey said. "I knew it was a big deal when the Leafs got the first pick. They're in a rebuilding state. The sky's the limit for that team. Hopefully one of those [prospects] can bring a championship to Toronto."

Matthews will be the youngest participant for Team North American at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which begins Sept. 17 in Toronto.

Tkachuk, No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, felt Matthews held an edge over the rest of the group not because he has baseball experience but because he took BP earlier this week.

"I know he came to the Bisons game Tuesday night but last week he said he was in the batting cages in Arizona with one of his buddies so he definitely didn't come into this cold," Tkachuk said.

Matthews ignored anything said by Tkachuk, his teammate for two seasons with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program from 2013-15.

"All he does is lie," Matthews said with a grin. "That's a rumor. I have no comment."

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