The first time Auston Matthews met Mike Babcock, he was starstruck, except not for the reason you might think.
To reach the Red Wings’ coaches office at the old Joe Louis Arena, a hallway winds past the visitor’s locker room, which on this particular game day in November 2014 had been occupied by the Flyers. Matthews, then 17 and playing for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, watched morning practice and was on his way to introduce himself to Babcock with teammate Matthew Tkachuk and coach Don Granato when they became sidetracked.
There was Claude Giroux, the Flyers’ captain, leaning against the wall, talking on his cell phone. And in an instant, the little kid inside Matthews took hold.
“Auston right away taps me and goes, ‘Coach, that’s Claude Giroux! Can I get a picture? Can I get a picture?'” Granato recalled. “We’re a good 50 feet away. I grab him by the arm and say don’t you dare take your phone out. You know where you’re at? It’s not picture area down here.”
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Giroux was then and is now an NHL star, a goal scorer, which is what Matthews wanted to become. So you can understand if shaking hands with Babcock, all parties unaware of its prophetic meaning at the time, was the second-best thing that happened to Matthews that day.
“I can tell you he might have still been thinking about Giroux,” Granato laughed.
Granato, now an assistant coach with the Blackhawks, shared this memory, among others, as a glimpse into the formative years of a hockey-playing prodigy whose meteoric rise from Arizona captivated those around the sport, first with USA Hockey and, later, the NHL. Back then, as coach of the U.S. under-18 team, he was one of many at the NTDP who helped a teenaged Matthews harness his sky-high potential as the future face of hockey in American, a reality that will soon arrive, if it hasn’t already.
You know the story: The dynamic center went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft. He scored four goals in a record-breaking NHL debut, an appropriate start to the best (40 goals, 69 points) rookie season in the Maple Leafs’ 100-year history, and ran away with the Calder Trophy. And his union with Babcock in Toronto flipped the city’s woebegone Stanley Cup hopes overnight.
For a player who’s accomplished so much, so soon, Matthews still has work to do. So what are fair expectations?
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‘A six-tool guy’
A few weeks before that fateful first meeting with Babcock, Matthews and the NTDP played an exhibition against the University of Michigan, a team that included Dylan Larkin, Zach Hyman, J.T. Compher, Tyler Motte and Zach Werenski. Babcock was in Ann Arbor for the game to watch Larkin, the Red Wings’ 15th overall draft pick the spring prior, but had been hearing second-hand stories about Matthews’ talent from assistant coach Tony Granato, Don’s older brother.
“The guy he (Babcock) walked out of there most impressed with was a kid who was a junior in high school playing against Division I guys,” Don Granato said.
By this point, Matthews had already been the subject of many Granato phone calls.
The brothers, both deeply rooted with USA Hockey, kept in touch about all things NTDP. But from the time Don Granato first watched Matthews as a 15-year-old trying out for a spot in the program, practicing with players two years his senior, he noticed Matthews stood out for more than his big frame and sheer talent.
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“I said, Ton, I think we’ve got a kid who’s going to be as good as or better than Sidney Crosby,” Granato said. “He said, ‘Are you out of your mind? You’ve had him for one week.’ And I said I know. I’ve had him long enough to tell you. I think this kid has a chance to be as good as Sidney Crosby and I think he’s going to be the next American first overall (draft pick). … He remembers it so well because he thought I was crazy.”
Hyperbole or not, Matthews carried himself like the greats who came before him: humble but confident, calm but competitive, with the sort of internal drive that challenges even the coaching staff to keep up. And then there was the size (6-2, 190), speed and creativity, all jaw-dropping for any teenage player.
It helped Matthews excel against older competition while with the NTDP and at the 2015 and 2016 World Junior Championship. In between, he played — and put up gaudy numbers — for Zurich SC in Switzerland’s top professional league, a 17-year-old dominating veteran pros.
“He’s a big guy. His edges were so good, his hands were so good,” said Danton Cole, who coached Matthews in 2013-14 on the U.S. under-17 team. “… You know how they talk about baseball? A five-tool guy. Auston was kind of a six-tool guy. There just wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. You’d be watching in practice and you thought you saw everything, especially in tight area games, you’d think you’ve seen everything but he’d score a goal, make a pass or spin out of the corner with the puck and kind of shake your head.”
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That brings us back to that 2014 scrimmage against UM. With Babcock in attendance, it was the perfect foreshadow for Matthews’ future. He scored a goal, had four shots and was the best player on the ice, according to Granato. Babcock became coach of the Maple Leafs after the 2014-15 NHL season, stabilizing the organization along with president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Lou Lamoriello. So the game served as the first time the two crossed paths.
Shortly thereafter, Granato started taking Matthews on regular trips to the Joe, about 45 minutes from the NTDP headquarters, something he hadn’t done with other players previously.
“I felt for some reason I should be doing it with him,” he said. “I wanted to get him around the NHL as much as I can so it’s natural to him. He’s going to play in the NHL. I wan’t him to feel comfortable and that he belongs on Day 1, not a year later.”