clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Auston Matthews a long time coming for Leafs, fans

New, comments

For an organization that has made the playoffs just once in its last dozen seasons, the arrival of a potential superstar and a bright future are long overdue.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The last 12 seasons haven't been easy for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their loyal fans. Waffles and jerseys rained to the ice, paper bags were adorned as if they were routine, coaches rotated in and out, core pieces came and went. Only the results remained the same.

For more than a decade, the Leafs were unable to finish near the bottom of the league while also failing to make the postseason.

More than once, there was no end in sight. The Leafs were the Leafs, they couldn't commit to a rebuild. How could the NHL's most prominent franchise dedicate itself to intentionally tanking? Brian Burke wouldn't let them. Neither would Dave Nonis after him. And so they pursued proven talent, and settled on Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, and hired a coach they deemed to be a "proven winner." And they were outspoken about it -- Burke has never been shy. When the "blueprint" failed, it descended into hysteria.

Eventually, MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke had no choice but to go in a different direction. When he hired Brendan Shanahan as the team's president, the direction changed.

Shanahan, quickly followed by Kyle Dubas, Lou Lamoriello, Mark Hunter and Mike Babcock, assembled a front office team that was intent on playing the long game. The idea was simple: if Leafs fans could wait nearly 50 years for another Stanley Cup, they could be patient with a real rebuild.

And pain was promised. Pain became a catchphrase. It was coming and it was ominous. But it has paid off. The pain might soon be over.

On Friday, Leafs fans flocked across the border to Buffalo's First Niagara Center to bare witness.

Arjang Ahnadi, a lifelong fan, travelled from Hamilton to Buffalo with "MATTHEWS" taped to the back of his Leafs jersey.

"I'm very excited, he's a big centre, 6-2, 200 pounds, 200-foot game, offence, defence," he said like he was Matthews' personal promoter. "That's what we need. Haven't had a centre like that since Mats Sundin, I'm very excited."

"Longtime, since birth, dying for a nice pick, I think the GM's going in the direction," Ahnadi said while standing in the stands amid dozens of Leafs fans, all in jerseys, next to Toronto's draft table. "The organization's headed in the right direction and I think we're going to come up soon."

By 6:14 p.m. the first "Go Leafs Go" chant had started. By 6:29 p.m., the "Au-ston Ma-tthews" chants had started.

"Longtime coming, longtime coming, as soon as we got rid of Phaneuf and Kessel I knew the team had committed to a new track -- drafted Marner, drafted Nylander, now Matthews is going to complete the puzzle," Ahnadi added. "I was really happy to see them commit to the rebuild because year after year they would try and cut a shortcut."

Five other fans travelled from Toronto, though they joked that they were from Matthews' native Scottsdale, and sat wearing matching Leafs hats and t-shirts that read "Auston Matthews 20:16."

When Mark Hunter stepped to the podium and made it official, the crowd descended into chaos. They'd waited for this, and they wanted everyone to see how good it felt, even amid the opposing boos.

And Matthews knows what at stake now.

"It felt unbelievable to put on the jersey for such a storied franchise," he said after being selected.

"It's something that I feel I can handle well," Matthews added. "You can see it out there in the stands, they were pretty loud out there so it was definitely a pretty cool moment."

And he doesn't want to let Toronto down. He knows how much it means to the Leafs and their fans, he said.

"I want to be an impact player, I believe I can be a franchise centreman, a No. 1 centre."

Coming into a young franchise, that is now on its way out of the rebuild makes it particularly exciting. Matthews credited the Leafs for having a wealth of top young players and said he looks forward to playing in the best place in the league.

For Babcock, the acquisition of Matthews marks the start pushing away from the pain.

"We got a lot better," Babcock said. "Lou's a better GM, I'm a better coach and the team just got a lot better. He'll develop into a top, top centre."

Moving forward, Babcock insists its up to him to look after Matthews like he's his own kid. He thinks Matthews is prepared for the spotlight, in large part because of his year playing professionally in Switzerland but also because he's been succeeding under pressure for years.

"He's going to be a dominant centre for the Leafs with and without the puck, he's going to be a championship type centre," Babcock added.

And the word 'championship' has a different ring than the word 'pain'.