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Matthews ready for pressure, fame that comes with Leafs

If Toronto takes Auston Matthews first overall, he'll be entering fame and pressure unrivalled by any Leafs player before him.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Top 2016 NHL Draft prospect Auston Matthews may not understand just how drastically his life is about to change, but he feels like he's ready for it nonetheless.

It's impossible to plan for what comes next. The day before he's set to likely go first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, Matthews is trying -- or at the very least pretending -- that he's unsure if the Toronto Maple Leafs will draft him with the top pick.

But if -- or when -- the Leafs do draft the 18-year-old American centre, he'll be thrust into fame and pressure that will be unrivalled in the 100-year history of the NHL's most prominent franchise.

Only once before, have the Leafs drafted first overall.

It was 1985 and they took Leafs legend Wendel Clark, whose number 17 is now honoured with a banner hung from the Air Canada Centre's rafters. And Clark was a different breed of player. He was drafted in large part due to his physical style of play, fresh off racking up 478 penalty minutes in two seasons of junior hockey with the Saskatoon Blades, and wasn't even his team's leading scorer. It was a different world. The draft was held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and 7,000 fans attended. The World Wide Web didn't exist.

On Friday, in Buffalo, throngs of Leafs fans will travel across the border to fill the 19,200-seat arena -- which sold out in minutes when tickets went on sale -- to see Matthews. Unlike Clark, Matthews is known above all else for his record-setting talent as the the player who bested Patrick Kane's United States National Training Development Program (UNTDP) scoring record. Unlike Clark, he'll be entering a social media age in hockey's biggest franchise.

Matthews will exist in an era that no Leafs player of his ilk has ever had to face. Even Mats Sundin, who carried the Leafs for more than a decade before being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, didn't face the instant commentary that comes with today's Twitter-first world (he left the organization just over a year after Twitter was created). Matthews remembers when Jack Eichel permanently shut down his phone two years ago at the World Juniors in order to avoid all of the social media attention and criticism.

Stew Gavin, a former Leafs right wing who now helps young NHL players manage their money, was drafted 74th overall in 1980.

"When I got drafted, without a word of a lie, I don't think any players attended," Gavin said. "It seemed like if you could hold a stick and skate in competitive hockey a lot of the guys would have been selected and hoped that you would continue to progress into an NHL player."

The morning of the draft, Gavin was cutting the grass. When he came inside for lunch he received a phone call: the Toronto Maple Leafs had selected him. Life as an elite young hockey player isn’t quite so simple anymore.

On Thursday, dozens of reporters swarmed the top prospects during what is, for some of them, their final media availability before they're selected.

Unlike other prospects from NHL lineage like Matthew Tkachuk, Logan Brown, or Alex Nylander, Matthews doesn't have support from within his circle from people who have been through the draft process.

Alex, younger brother to top Leafs prospect William, credits his father Michael (an NHL veteran of more than 600 points) and his brother for guiding him through the process. Both William and Michael were on hand for Alex's media availability -- William even hopped in to ask a couple of questions to ease the tension.

"I get a lot of advice from him and tips on how to be better," Alex, who lived with his family in Toronto while playing for the Mississauga Steelheads, said.

William says he has tried to help keep his brother focussed during all of the new attention he has received during his draft year. He recommends both Alex and Matthews focus on the pressure they put on themselves and not what comes from anyone else.

"Be the way you've always been, no need to change the person you are," William, who went eighth overall to Toronto at the 2014 draft, said. "Stay the same, the fame and everything you still have to be the person you were before you were drafted."

But it's not that simple, and money quickly becomes more of a factor than ever before. For Matthews, who comes from a modest background and whose mom worked two jobs to put him through hockey as a child, it means that much more.

Matthews credits his parents for guiding him.

"I think they raised me pretty well and instilled the right things in me," the presumptive top pick said. "They've been unbelievable throughout this whole process."

Organizations like the Gavin Management Group now work to help players like Matthews with the transition to life in pro hockey and eventually the transition out.

Even without his on-ice performance, Matthews will receive insulation in the form of a recently signed deal with Bauer Hockey.

Gavin, No. 77 on The Hockey News’ list of the most influential people in hockey, works to educate players and help them set up bank accounts, do their tax filings, and set savings targets.

All of this is done through what Gavin, who spent 15 years as a professional hockey player, refers to as a "very comprehensive program for the athlete to maximize the financial rewards when they get into the League with the goal that they can be set up for life and leave the game and not have to work."

But players don’t always adequately prepare for their future. Educations are sacrificed along the way, and even for players like Matthews injuries can derail a career.

"A lot of times they or their families are walking blind, figuratively, into this new life of a professional hockey player or drafted player," Gavin said.

There's a sense of instant gratification.

"You try hard, you focus, then you make it a year or two to see you fit in and then once you get there you say ‘hey, I can do this and I can see myself being here for a long time’ and you don't really think about ‘well I’m going to get hurt’ or any of that stuff, you just think ‘well let’s keep it rolling’."

Gavin thinks some players feel invincible after early success in their careers.

"It could come to a quick halt," he often reminds them.

He tried to prepare while he was in the NHL by taking courses, but he didn’t know when his career would end.

"I thought I would keep playing longer than I did," he remembered. "It was tough because you don't know when you’ll quit, where you’ll be living, where the opportunities are and can you even live in that country?"

Like many others, Matthews tries not to imagine that outcome. He has come too far. Growing up in Arizona, where hockey isn't a major sport, the chance to get drafted really is a an unimaginable dream.

And he thinks he's ready for all that comes with being labelled a team's "saviour." He credits a later birthday and an extra year of development for preparing him to rise to the challenge if he's drafted by the Leafs.

"I think I'm ready for all that comes with it," he said. "For me, I just want to focus on myself. To me (the label) is fine. That's obviously what I want to be. I want to be a No. 1 centre."