No home runs for Auston Matthews on Wednesday in Coca-Cola Field. That will have to wait until Friday night in First Niagara Center.
NHL Draft week in Buffalo had its kickoff in the home of the Buffalo Bisons, where the presumptive No. 1 pick and five other big NHL prospects took their cuts at the outfield fence with a little batting practice.
No one went deep but that hardly stunted anyone’s fun on a sunny afternoon. There will be more fun slated for Thursday but the clock is ticking to real business: Friday night’s first round and the culmination of a whirlwind season for Matthews, the kid from Arizona who is about to carry the hopes of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s really exciting,” Matthews said. “Just a couple days away and it’s pretty nerve-wracking but really exciting. … I’m sure it’s going to be fun. It’s what you dream of as a kid. For it to be about done and about to happen, it’s pretty exciting.”
Matthews threw the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Herd’s game against Louisville, drawing big cheers and nary a boo from the crowd. The catcher was Bisons pitcher Ben Rowen, who played hockey for the Los Angeles Junior Kings as a teenager.
“You obviously don’t want to bounce it or anything. At least I got it over the plate,” Matthews said.
Outfielder Dalton Pompey and infielder David Adams provided batting gloves for the players, who were adorned in Bisons caps and jerseys with their names on the back. Buffalo catcher Tony Sanchez and relief pitcher Pat Venditte were among the players to greet the prospects.
Matthews batted left-handed, hit some balls hard and drew a “that’s a double” cheer from pitcher Richie Hebner, the Buffalo batting coach, for a line drive down the right-field line. He hit one ball deep near the warning track in right.
“I’m sure it was pretty funny for them watching guys who don’t play their sport so they were having a good time,” Matthews said. “I thought I had a couple but it’s pretty far out there. It’s tough.”
Pompey, a Mississauga native who was the starting center fielder for the Blue Jays on Opening Day last year, sought out Matthews. Pompey is a big Leafs fan whose favorite player was former Toronto tough guy Tie Domi.
“I knew it was a big deal when the Leafs got the first pick,” said Pompey. “They’re in a rebuilding state and the sky’s the limit. Hopefully they can bring a championship to Toronto. You saw what happened with the Blue Jays and how the city surrounded us − and the whole country. I think for the Leafs, it’s going to be double that.”
Finnish defenseman Olli Juolevi surprised observers with some good swings. So did London teammate Matthew Tkachuk. Finns Patrick Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi were inexperienced baseball players. Cape Breton’s Pierre-Luc Dubois also took part.
“They got out there and some of them got really good swings,” Pompey said. “I’m impressed. It’s the same as if I go on the ice and try to skate and put the puck in the net. I don’t think I’d do very well.”
The prospects have batted in recent years in places like Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and last year’s sojourn to Marlins Park in Miami, where Jack Eichel took his hacks. This was the first time the event was held in a Triple-A park, but that mattered little to the prospects.
“It’s a nice stadium, a nice place,” said Laine, expected to go No. 2 to Winnipeg. “The sun is shining. For a minor-league baseball arena, this is quite big. It’s a good opportunity for us to play here.”
“This is nice, really nice.” said Dubois. “We came to one of their games here during the combine with a couple guys. It was fun to watch.”
Hebner, an 18-year big leaguer, is a rabid hockey fan from his days as a Massachusetts high school star.
“You can tell Matthews played,” Hebner said. “The Finnish kids you could tell they never had a bat in their hand but they had a lot of fun too.”
Like Pompey, Hebner said he also sought out Matthews for some advice – and some Steven Stamkos talk.
“I was telling him, ‘You’re going to get drafted by Toronto and if the guy from Tampa goes to Toronto, that’s going to be a much-improved club,’” Hebner said. “ …. If he goes to Toronto they’re going to have a few more wins than last year. They’re hungry. When’s the last time they won? It will be interesting to see what happens.”
Hebner said he’s floored by the interest in the draft here, with FNC sold out for weeks for Friday’s first round and tickets pushing $200 on the secondary market.
“I went to the NHL draft in 1973 in Montreal,” Hebner recalled of an off day during a Pittsburgh Pirates road trip. “I walked over there, sat up high, had my foot in the chair and I watched all these guys put a jersey on with their mother and father crying. It was pretty emotional and pretty nice to see. Now you can’t get a ticket over here. When I went, I just walked in he building and stayed about three hours. This town is crazy over hockey.”
The prospects will be staging a youth clinic Thursday morning in HarborCenter, then taking a bus tour that will include a trip to the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls. They will meet the media in the afternoon in Erie Basin Marina.