Auston Matthews remembers going back to the Toronto Maple Leafs hotel after dinner one night and finding something unexpected.
It was a road trip at the start of the 2017-18 season, and when his bedroom door opened, there was a second-year colleague, Mitch Marner, sitting on the bed with wingman Patrick, so 38 year old, newly signed. Marleau.
“(They) were waiting for me and we were going to watch a movie … we put Cars 3 on,” recalls Matthews with a smile. “It was a tradition on every road trip – put on a movie and order a dessert. “
Matthews, Marner and Marleau took part in a sometimes chaotic video conference / family reunion hosted by the league in the midst of the NHL shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This included shared memories, a 10-minute personal trivia game, children and spouses joining the conversation, dogs barking, phones ringing, and doors needing an answer.
At one point, Matthews playfully scolded Marner for the noise at the end of the call: “Mitch, please.” “
While things were mostly kept light by an NHL public relations staff member leading the appeal – independent journalists submitted questions in advance – the bond forged by the three as teammates after signing de Marleau’s free agency Leafs in July 2017 after 19 seasons with the San Jose Sharks were again evident.
“They looked really good, kids,” said Marleau. “I just enjoyed them. “
The NHL suspended its season on March 12 in response to the new coronavirus epidemic that has killed thousands of people around the world, crippled the economy and shut down sports leagues.
With time available, the trio reflected on how, despite an age gap of almost two decades, friendship and chemistry have flourished.
Marleau continued by inviting Matthews and Marner, both 20 at the time, to have a meal with his wife Christina and the couple’s four boys at their Toronto home. It quickly turned into frequent visits, photos, singalongs and mini-stick games where one or two Apple watches were sacrificed.
“Every time we went (the first trip), we brought an extra pair of clothes,” said Marner. “We knew that we would all have mini sweaty sticks for hours. It’s kind of where the relationship started – when we started going there and hanging out with all the kids, just the feeling of being part of the family. “
Marleau scored 27 goals and 47 points in his first campaign with Toronto and added four goals and an assist in a seven-game playoff loss to the Boston Bruins that spring.
“I knew they were really good and played this offensive game at high speed,” said veteran winger about Matthews and Marner. “They improve everyone around them. It was one of the things that attracted me. “
Marner said Marleau’s signing of his $ 18.75-million, three-year contract sent a strong message to a young Toronto core who had just appeared for the second time after the season since the 2004 lockout -05.
“It gave us the confidence that we are bringing a guy who can do whatever our team needs,” said the winger, now 22. “Everyone knew what his resume was, how long he had been in the league. As soon as he started talking everyone listened.
“We are both very grateful to have played with him. “
But time catches up with everyone.
Marleau regressed 37 points in 2018-2019, his lowest total in a full season since 1997-1998 as a rookie, and only two assists in another playoff loss to the Bruins.
With the Leafs in a tightening of the salary cap last summer – coincidentally, Marner’s need for a new contract played a huge role – Marleau was traded to Carolina for cost reduction. The Hurricanes failed to convince the future 40-year-old to play for them, so he was bought out before signing with the Sharks for a season.
San Jose then sent Marleau to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who beat the Sharks for the Stanley Cup in 2016, on the NHL trade deadline.
Eight games later, the coronavirus stopped life on and off the ice.
“The short time I have spent there has been great,” said Marleau from his home in San Jose. “Just a great opportunity for me to win another chance to win a Cup. “
That this hit will happen this season is a guess. The NHL players have been quarantined since mid-March – a directive has recently been pushed back until at least April 15 and should be extended further.
The league could return later this spring, in summer or perhaps not before 2020-2021.
Matthews, who spends the break in Phoenix with Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen and is on his way to becoming the fourth Toronto player to score 50 goals in a season, said that Marleau’s influence on him and Marner arrived early and often.
“If I ever need something or want to bounce something off someone, he’s a guy who has gone through a lot,” said Matthews. “He will always give honest feedback and his opinion. “
Maybe on a movie and a dessert.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 6, 2020.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press