The Scottsdale, Ariz. Native was one of three players (along with his Chicago Blackhawks teammates Patrick Kane and Seth Jones) named to the U.S. men’s hockey team for the February 2022 Games in Beijing on Thursday.
It’s been more than 40 years since American men won the last Olympic gold in hockey, leaving Matthews with little inspiration, but a lot of motivation.
“It’s been a while since the United States got on that podium at the top, so I hope we can obviously change that,” Matthews said Thursday after the Leafs practice at the Gravenhurst Centennial Center. “It’s a huge honor. I feel really lucky to have represented the United States before, but obviously the Olympics is the biggest stage there is. It’s extremely humbling, a huge honor, and obviously Kaner and Seth are two amazing players, so I think we’re all extremely grateful.
Matthews went through the United States National Team Development Program, winning gold at the Under-18 tournaments in 2014 and 2015. He competed twice in the IIHF World Junior Championship, winning a bronze medal in 2016, and skated for the U.S. team at the 2016 World Championships.
Since the Maple Leafs drafted Matthews No. 1 in the 2016 NHL Draft, the 24-year-old has made only one appearance on the international stage, with Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Matthews dropped out of subsequent tournaments due to injury or fatigue from the long NHL season, and the league had previously opted out of the 2018 Winter Games. The NHL has since worked with the AJLNH to restore an Olympic break in the most recent collective agreement.
The only way for NHL players like Matthews not to end up in Beijing is if the COVID-19 pandemic worsens to such an extent that it becomes unsafe to travel there, or if the season of The NHL is severely disrupted due to COVID-related cancellations and the league must use the allotted Olympic break to catch up on games.
There is a deadline in early January for the NHL or NHLPA to refuse to go.
Matthews said he wasn’t really involved in the CBA negotiations that brought the NHL players back to the Olympics. But leaving will allow Matthews to finally team up with one of his favorite players – and longtime training partners – in Kane.
“It will mean a lot [to play with Kane] Matthews said. “Just to watch him do what he does up close and personally [when we skate together], it’s a treat every time. I’m just trying to squeeze out as much as I can and use stuff that I maybe see from him and maybe apply it to my game and just try to pick his brain. But he’s a generational talent and he’s had an incredible career. I can’t wait to play with him.
The experience that awaits Matthews as an Olympian will be second to none, as one of his closest teammates can attest.
“It’s just an extreme honor and a huge thrill,” said Jean Tavares, who represented Canada at the 2014 Games in Sochi. “I’m sure he feels it. I think we all expected him to be one of three guys so hopefully I can play him.
Tavares wouldn’t mind redoing his first Olympics. The center injured his knee in Canada’s quarterfinal game in Sochi and was sidelined for the remainder of his gold medal run.
It is possible that Tavares will again receive the call for Canada (which has so far named Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Alex Pietrangelo to their team), possibly alongside teammates Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly.
Other Leafs who will be vying for places include the Swedes Guillaume Nylander, the Russian Ilya Mikheyev and Petr Mrazek for the Czech Republic.
Other than during his brief stint with Team North America, Matthews has never faced any of his Leafs teammates. The idea certainly has a certain appeal.
“I think that would be a lot of fun,” Matthews said. “We are all extremely close. Funny, you go through juniors playing guys in different countries and you become a teammate with them, and you scatter again [to different teams], so it’s gonna be interesting. They are very good players and I would like to think that I know their games fairly well and that they would probably say the same about me.
The Leafs who hope to join Matthews on the Olympic ice may have to wait for countries to submit their final selections in January. It’s still a long way off, and most players will insist they focus entirely on the NHL regular season that’s about to begin.
But Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe believes the potential to land a ticket to Beijing could add some extra juice to some players’ legs.
“I think there are all kinds of positives that go with it,” Keefe said. “Whether you’re a lock like Auston or you’re a guy who pushes and challenges and wants to make a team and wants to show well. This stuff has guys a little more focused for those who know they’re on the radar of various nations. So everything is fine [for us]. »
Also good for the Leafs would be to see Matthews in great health when their regular season kicks off on Wednesday. The center has been recovering from wrist surgery since mid-August and on Thursday recorded its longest training – nearly 90 minutes – since the procedure.
Matthews is not yet sure if he will make the Toronto preseason final on Saturday, but his goal of playing in Game 1 remains on track.
“It’s getting better,” Matthews said of his wrist. “There were good and bad days, where I didn’t feel as good as I would like. Today, it felt good. So hopefully these are just positive steps moving forward here over time. “