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Auston Matthews reawakens both Toronto hope, Leafs hatred

BUFFALO, NY – Auston Matthews breeds hope. Hope breeds swagger. Swagger breeds “Auston 20:16” shirts and a “Matthews [greater-than] Eichel sign” at the NHL Draft in Buffalo.

“I think Auston Matthews is going to be a better prospect in the long run. Jack Eichel is going to be a great hockey player, but Auston Matthews is going generational talent," said Ryan Westlake, one of the true believers.

Westlake was one of three busloads of Maple Leafs fans to whom the team provided tickets to Friday night's Draft and shipped over the border. Over 160 of them. Former Leafs Darcy Tucker, Rick Vaive and Shayne Corson joined them, and everyone hit the bars before the event. 

There was no doubt Matthews was going to be the name uttered by Leafs director of player personnel Mark Hunter, but one could still feel the emotional catharsis the obvious provided the Toronto fans in attendance.

Their bellowing roar when Matthews was formally theirs was fueled by a season of intentional failures and decades of involuntary ones. They waived Leafs flags. They chanted “Go Leafs Go!” They were booed lustily by everyone else in attendance.

Leafs fan pride was back. Hatred of prideful Leafs fans was back. It was glorious.

“My heart was beating, walking up there. Very nerve-wracking,” said Matthews of the reaction. “They’re very passionate. It’s something you can’t take for granted.”

There was a decided mix of cheers and boos when Matthews tugged on the Leafs jersey for the first time. Then polite applause as the moment set in: An American kid from Arizona, taken first overall, ostensibly to bring magnificence to Canada’s most unsuccessful successful franchise. 

And then as the clapping continued, the “Auston Matthews!!!” chants from the guys wearing the brilliant “Auston 20:16” shirts and the Leafs fans crowded near the stage. 

Auston Matthews breeds hope. Hope breeds a savior complex. But a savior complex breeds a swift rebuke from Matthews himself.

“I want to be an impact player. I think I can be a franchise centerman, a No. 1 centerman in the NHL,” said Matthews.

“Hockey’s a team game. There is really no savior.”

Salvation, after all, is a tall order. Hope, in contrast, is a more realistic starting point.

“I am buying, for the first time since pre-lockout, what they’re selling,” said Westlake, sitting amongst Leafs fans in the upper deck of First Niagara Center. “This team has been built around bringing in aging superstars. Since post-lockout, [president Brendan] Shanahan and [GM Lou] Lamoriello have reset the expectations.”

The expectation, at least for fans like Westlake, isn’t for Matthews-As-Hockey-Savior. It’s more like Matthews-As-Face-Of-The-Revolution.

“Those young guys, Willie Nylander and Mitch Marner are two pretty special players,” said Matthews of the Leafs' two star young talents, who are already foundations of their rebuild. 

Westlake agrees. “He’s become the face of the new wave.”

Moments after he made history, Matthews sat before rows of media. The strings on his jersey shook slightly and his hands were clenched, from nerves or adrenaline or both. He’s the face of the new wave, the face of an old franchise. And he says he’s ready to accept the mantle.

“It’s going to be an adjustment, for sure. But I think it’s something I can handle well,” he said. “Everyone’s told me that when you’re winning, it’s the best place in the League to play.”

It’s easy to forget that about Toronto.

It’s been a while.

--

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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