The seminal moment of his National Hockey League draft experience came with a mix of boos and cheers.
Welcome to the NHL, Auston Matthews. And welcome to the Toronto-Buffalo rivalry.
As expected, the 18-year-old center from Scottsdale, Ariz., was the No. 1 overall pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs at First Niagara Center Friday night.
Toronto fans were wearing “Auston 2016” shirts in the stands and offered chants of “Go Leafs Go!” Buffalo fans lustily booed every time Toronto was mentioned.
When asked about the Buffalo-Toronto rivalry, Matthews played it simple.
“It kind of goes both ways I guess,” Matthews said. “My heart’s forever here. I’ve been drafted in Buffalo, and hopefully, down the road, we’ll have some pretty good games here.”
Matthews was succinct with all his answers as he faced the Toronto media in a civilized sit-down interview area.
He already knows how to play his public answers close to the vest, probably a valuable quality in a scrutinized media market.
“It’s going to be an adjustment, for sure,” Matthews said of dealing with the media spotlight. “It’s something I think I can handle, though. Over time, I think I’ll get better and better at it.”
So far, he’s pretty good at keeping the storyline tight and slightly vague.
The Maple Leafs, after all, are starved for any type of success. Their fans are desperate for a winner and are looking for a potential savior to bring them out from the postseason cold.
But Matthews laughed slightly when he answered the question about being Toronto’s savior.
“Hockey is a team game, so there’s really no savior,” Matthews said. “I’m an impact player, and I believe I can be a franchise centerman, and that’s my ultimate goal.”
That being said, he seems to understand, and perhaps welcome, the pressure that will come with playing in the Toronto market.
“I know everybody there is extremely passionate,” Matthews said when asked what he knew about Toronto. “They obviously love the Leafs. It’s a great sports town, with the Blue Jays, the Raptors. … Everyone’s told me when they’re winning, it’s the best place in the league.”
While the Leafs aren’t used to winning (at least not lately), Matthews has a resume filled with success. He twice won gold with Team USA at the Under-18 World Championship, and in 2015, he was named tournament MVP after leading all players in goals (eight) and points (15). Matthews also has represented the United States twice at the World Junior Championship (2015 and 2016), leading the 2016 tournament in goals (seven) to help the U.S. win bronze.
He is the seventh American-born player to be selected first in the NHL draft and the first since Buffalo native Patrick Kane was selected by Chicago in 2007. He joins Erik Johnson (2006, St. Louis), Rick DiPietro (2000, NY Islanders), Bryan Berard (1995, Ottawa), Mike Modano (1988, Minnesota North Stars) and Brian Lawton (1983, Minnesota North Stars).
But Toronto’s anointed next one is not only an American. He’s an American from Arizona – as non-traditional a hockey market as you get in the U.S.
The reception he’s received has been “great not only for Arizona but the whole southwestern U.S.,” Matthews said. “It’s continuing to grow.”