Growing up in Arizona, Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews spent plenty of time playing EA Sports’ NHL video game series. Soon, the 21-year-old will be on the cover of the game’s next edition, NHL 20, which will be available Sept. 13.
The No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft is a three-time all-star. Matthews has appeared in the playoffs each of his three seasons, but his Maple Leafs have been knocked out in the first round each year. It’s a relatively big offseason in Toronto, not just because the Toronto Raptors captured the NBA title. Matthews’s teammate, Mitch Marner, reached restricted free agency and is expected to command a big new contract. The Maple Leafs own Marner’s negotiating rights, but it could be a long contract tussle.
Matthews, in Las Vegas for this year’s NHL Awards, spoke to The Washington Post in a phone interview Wednesday about a variety of topics, including the state of the Leafs and his thoughts on being the cover star of a video game he has been playing since his childhood.
Did you play EA’s NHL game growing up, and how aware were you of who was on the cover every year?
I played it quite a bit and still play it today. Every Christmas, I knew I would get the new NHL game. I always looked forward to it. Considering the past guys on the cover, it’s pretty special company, a pretty cool feeling, a pretty cool honor.
Did your parents have the game under your Christmas tree?
My parents tried to hide it in the tree, but I knew it was coming every year. I would try to find the thing that’s six inches by five inches, with the distinct cover, every single Christmas. I always wanted it earlier, but they’d make me wait until Christmas before I got the game. I always was looking forward to getting it.
What was your reaction when you found out you'd be on the cover for NHL 20? How’d you find out?
My agent called and brought it up. He was pretty nonchalant about it. He asked, “What do you think about this?” I thought it’d be pretty awesome. It’d be a no-brainer being on the cover. It’s an honor.
How often do you play now? Is there something of a video game culture in the NHL?
We have a young team, so lots of us play Fortnite, NHL, Call of Duty. We cycle through games. So many young guys play video games. We all play video games. I played quite a bit of NHL growing up, and I still play it quite a bit. My friends from home — everybody is into video games. You could play for hours.
Switching gears a little, how familiar are you with Jack Hughes, and what advice would you have for a fellow young American center who could be picked first overall?
I have met him a few times over the last couple of years. He’s a nice kid, another American guy who could go No. 1. It’s awesome. For advice, I’d tell him to enjoy himself. The whole process, getting drafted as a top pick, it’s stressful. There’s a lot going on. You have to realize the position you are in. Not many people get to experience that. I would say to really enjoy the opportunity he has. To really enjoy it, because it flies by. It feels like yesterday I was at the draft.
What was it like for you to see Toronto's response to the Raptors winning?
It was amazing. The night they won it, the city was on fire. Toronto is just a passionate sports city in general. In Canada, hockey is the dominant thing. So I think you just imagine what it would be like if we were to accomplish our goal, winning the Stanley Cup. I think it gives you extra motivation seeing them accomplish that in their respective sport.
What do you think it'll take for the Maple Leafs to break through?
This year left a sour taste in all of our mouths. Three years in a row, we were knocked out in the first round. We lost to the team that went to the Stanley Cup finals. It leaves you feeling what could have been. We got a taste of that, and how hard it is to advance out of the first round. It’s a good learning experience for us to put into reality that to get to the top, it’s quite a feat.
Mitch Marner has a big summer ahead. How much does he mean to the team, and how anxious are you to see him re-signed?
He means a lot to the team. It’s something that will get done hopefully soon. There’s a business side of the game. That’s the way it is. I think everybody here is confident something will get done soon and he’ll be in a Maple Leafs uniform this season.
Is there a balance for you in wanting to see the team together while also wanting to see a friend like Marner financially maximize on his opportunity?
Yeah. It’s the whole business part of the thing. We want to do what’s best for us. Our core, you look at the players we have, how young we still are, and he’s a big part of that — for us to get to that next level.
There was a lot of talk about officiating and video replay this postseason. Where do you stand on that? More replay? None at all? Or is it good as is?
There should be something different. It’s not good as is. There’s been a lot of controversy. I’m not sure how to fix that. It’s definitely something to be looked at closely.
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