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Auston Matthews: The 20-Year-Old Tasked With Delivering Toronto's First Stanley Cup in 50 Years

Born near San Francisco and raised in Scottsdale, Ariz., Auston Matthews might be the most famous face in Canada's largest market. He at once represents 21st century Sun Belt expansion and the future of an Original Six franchise.

When his rookie season was over and he wanted an escape, Auston Matthews went home. He passed time like any teenager, lounging poolside and racing go-karts with buddies in Scottsdale, Ariz., savoring his parents’ shredded beef tacos, waging war on their new Ping-Pong table. He took up golf and—surprise—caught on fast, starting in triple digits and peaking with an 83 at TPC Scottsdale. Once a week he worked on his flexibility and posture at a local studio called Simply Pilates with a private instructor who knew nothing about him until their first 55-minute session in early June. “It was good to see him free up his brain, no care in the world,” says his father, Brian. “He got to be Auston for a little bit.”

The past two years would’ve depleted anyone’s Duracells, of course. On Sept. 17, 2015, his 18th birthday, Matthews officially became a pro hockey player, when he joined Zurich’s ZSC Lions, a Swiss league team that he would lead with 24 goals. He spent his 19th birthday in Toronto at the ’16 World Cup, where he was the youngest player on the 23-and-under Team North America, but sparkled nonetheless. In between he paced Team USA with nine points at the world championships in Sochi, Russia. Twelve months, three teams, three countries. “Just crazy,” Matthews says. “I needed to wind down.”

If only he had the time. After worlds, Matthews became the first American chosen No. 1 overall in the NHL draft since Patrick Kane in 2007, and the Maple Leafs’ first No. 1 selection since Wendel Clark in 1985. He was the first top pick from the Sun Belt and the first of Hispanic descent—his mother, Ema, was born in Mexico. He realized his life had changed when he went apartment hunting in Toronto and was stopped by fans three times on a one-block stretch between a restaurant and a hotel. “I don’t do too much walking around [anymore],” he says. “When I do, I try to keep a low profile.”

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That might be the only thing Matthews cannot achieve. His record-setting, four-goal NHL debut last Oct. 12 inspired a rap song—Auston Matthews/Auston Matthews/Hit ’em with the four like Auston Matthews. He broke team rookie marks for goals (40) and points (69), earned 164 of 167 first-place Calder Trophy votes and led the Leafs from last place in 2015–16 into the playoffs. Even his new tattoo fueled offseason chatter in the city for days. (“Took my family crest and made it more realistic,” Matthews explains of the crowned lion that sheaths his right shoulder.) “Obviously,” says Toronto native Zach Hyman, Matthews’s usual left winger, “everybody in the city loves him.”

As the NHL enters its 101st season and Matthews his second, youth is blooming all across the league. Oilers center Connor McDavid claimed his team’s captaincy and the Hart Trophy even if he still can’t legally drink on road trips to the U.S. Nineteen-year-old Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine, the No. 2 pick in ’16, is clubbing stentorian slap shots with the flare of Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin. In Toronto, Matthews’s arrival was preceded by sprightly first-rounders William Nylander (’14) and Mitch Marner (’15); all three notched 60 points as rookies last season, only the second time that’s ever happened. (Peter Stastny, Anton Stastny and Dale Hunter of the 1980–81 Quebec Nordiques were the first.) Yes, 30-year-old Sidney Crosby and Pittsburgh, with consecutive Stanley Cups, are still seated on the throne, but the kids are storming the castle gates.

Even among his peers, though, Matthews stands out. He is 6' 3" and 216 pounds with steal-your-breath skills, “a big guy with small-guy hands,” says Clark. He was born near San Francisco and raised in Scottsdale, and now might be the most famous face in Canada’s largest market. He at once represents the grassroots success of 21st century Sun Belt expansion and the future of a billion-dollar Original Six franchise that hasn’t won a championship since 1967.

He is the bridge between True North and Southwest.

“I can’t forget it,” Erik Karlsson says, “because it’s on every goddam ad for anything in Canada.” The ubiquitous scene that Ottawa’s star defenseman—perhaps the best in the world—is referring to occurred late in the first period of the season opener on Oct. 12, 2016. With the Maple Leafs trailing 2–1, Matthews—who had scored the first goal—gained possession at the offensive blue line. Over the next 10 seconds, he stickhandled through the legs of two Senators skaters; nudged the puck along the left wall toward Karlsson; shrugged off pressure from behind; surprised the two-time Norris Trophy winner with a swift stick-lift; regained possession; and beat goalie Craig Anderson from below the face-off circle. “Going to have to give him that one,” Karlsson says. “I didn’t think he was going to get around like that.” 

The hat trick arrived less than 90 seconds into the second period, and by the end of two, Matthews had hit ’em with the four. “You just knew you were watching a kid come out and arrive,” Toronto defenseman Connor Carrick says. But as GIFs pulsed across the hockey world, Matthews stewed. It had been his assignment that night—Senators forward Kyle Turris—who struck the game-winner in overtime. When Brian met his son after the game, he recalls, “the first words out of Auston’s mouth were, ‘I kind of blew it there and let my man get free.’ ”

Auston was raised to be an honest self-evaluator. After youth games Brian would ask his son to list three areas that needed improvement, followed by three that he had done well—in that order. By age 10, Auston was studying VHS tapes that Brian had filmed from the stands and calling his power skating coach, Boris Dorozhenko, for evaluations. “Uncle Boris,” Auston would say, “tell me what I did wrong and what I did right.”

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Growing up, Matthews would spend hours at Phoenix’s Ozzie Ice studying older and bigger players, learning to navigate around them in three-on-three tournaments. Brian would show him videos of Michael Jordan pulling up from the free throw line to help his son understand the power of a quick catch-and-shoot motion. After watching YouTube highlights of the Blackhawks’ Kane or former Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk, Auston would grab his Rollerblades, dash into the street and drill the same moves until dark. “He’s always talking, always thinking, ‘Can I add that to my repertoire?’ ” Brian says. 
Which is why Matthews began training with Darryl Belfry, a skills coach and player-development consultant for Toronto, last summer. Together they mixed a sort of greatest hits album of hockey’s best skills—his puck protection tactics below the goal line draw from the Islanders’ John Tavares, for instance, and his tight turns from Colorado’s Matt Duchene.

But mostly, Matthews says, “all I did was work on my shot.” This meant rebuilding his basic mechanics and teaching his feet to operate independently of his upper body. The results were undeniable: Forty goals, including a league-high 32 at even strength, a smorgasbord of redirections, wristers, mopped rebounds and dropped jaws. “Some people have hammer and nails, and they can’t do anything,” Dorozhenko says. “Some people have a full box of tools, and they can build a house.”

When Matthews and Belfry reconvened in July, they sought to borrow from a familiar source. During his 21-year playing career, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan developed a two-touch move that tapped passes into his sweet spot, letting him swiftly shoot without having to settle the puck, like a volleyball player setting and spiking by herself. “That is unbelievable,” Matthews said after trying it once, and every subsequent session included at least five minutes of practicing Shanahan’s technique.

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The move had been revived once last season, by Shanahan himself, wearing his old Red Wings number 14 and facing his employer, the Leafs—at the outdoor Centennial Classic alumni game on New Year’s Eve in Toronto. The Hall of Famer’s more impressive revival, however, has been turning the Maple Leafs into a playoff team in just three years. But not even the architect of Toronto’s so-called Shana-plan could have predicted Matthews’s instant success.

With less than two minutes left in overtime of the Centennial Classic on Jan. 1, Matthews lofted a no-look backhanded shot over Red Wings goalie Jared Coreau’s glove for the win. Defenseman Morgan Rielly ran into the boss later that night. “That’s just storybook,” Shanahan said.

Across the street from the Maple Leafs’ home at Air Canada Centre, Wendel Clark dishes wisdom between bites of a cheeseburger and fries. He is almost 51 years old now, between Shanahan, 48, and head coach Mike Babcock, 54. Officially, Clark works in the front office as a community ambassador; he spent the 2016 draft with season-ticket holders at a Toronto sports bar and says everyone roared when the pick was announced. Unofficially, he’s the only person alive—or dead, for that matter—who can relate to Matthews’s experiences. “I’m sitting there going, ‘Yep, seen that, done that, been there,’” Clark says. “And he’s handled everything with flying colors.”

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Like his predecessor at No. 1 overall, Matthews joined a young, last-place team and promptly reached the playoffs; Washington eliminated the Leafs in six games last April, but he finished the first round with four goals. (Capitals netminder Braden Holtby was particularly impressed by the third, a rebound elevated from inside the blue paint: “So quick. Ninety-nine percent of the time, someone buries that into my pad.”) Concerning what comes next for Matthews, Clark has a theory. “You don’t learn the personality of players Year One,” he says. “You learn the skill level, how good they are as hockey players. Years two, three, four, you start learning the person.”

The most educational moments from his rookie season came during its lowest points—which, it should be noted, remain higher than they are for most rookies. When Matthews went goalless for 13 games between Oct. 27 and Nov. 22, it was the longest scoring drought of his life. His mind flashed to some advice he overheard Oilers winger Patrick Maroon give a teammate at the 2016 world championships. “You’re living the dream,” Matthews told himself. “It sucks going through slumps like that, but you’ve got to have fun and enjoy it.”

If he ever felt shy about showing his personality in Toronto few probably noticed. Cameras caught him and Marner entering Air Canada Centre last winter in a peacoat-fedora combo that made them look like baby-faced mobsters. And while Babcock conferred with officials during a game against Vancouver last November, the pair passed the time by singing Bon Jovi with the home crowd.

Now, for the first time in years, Toronto isn’t living on prayers. Signing veterans Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey signaled Toronto’s intention to contend in a muddled Eastern Conference, but these Leafs are still growing. They lost nine overtime games after taking leads into the third period, and nine players made their playoff debuts against Washington last April. Upon his arrival in May 2015, Babcock warned that pain was coming. But it doesn’t seem so bad now.

“The light [at the end of the tunnel] has approached pretty fast,” Rielly says. “It’s great to know you’re on the brink of being a team you want to be.”

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In Year Two, Matthews will inherit more responsibility in the locker room (the Leafs won’t name a captain this season, but he’s the obvious choice when they do); in the media (Matthews was among those unafraid to voice his opinion about recent protests, saying that kneeling during the national anthem was “a dishonor” to soldiers); and of course on the ice (he began 63.1% of his five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone, a team-high).

“I think I could be ... ” he says, pausing as he searches for the right word, “assertive. Demand the puck a little more, hang onto it and make plays, trust in my skills.”

At the same time Matthews is already making his influence felt throughout the game, in more than one country. Last season he cracked the top 10 in jersey sales; by comparison, former Leafs winger Phil Kessel topped out at No. 17 in 2013. Back home in Arizona, a young mother is buying her son’s first hockey stick, when a stranger remarks, “Take a photo with that. He might be the next Auston Matthews.” 

Even further south, he’s gaining admirers. Not long ago Dorozhenko received a package from a friend in Mexico City, where he coached before moving to Arizona. It contained a custom Mexican national team jersey, red with green and white stripes, and MATTHEWS written on the back. Included was a note for the first NHL star for all of North America: 

¡Estamos muy orgullosos de ti! (We are so proud of you!) Follow me on Twitter.