Feeding The Beast

TORONTO (July 6) — We know this much about Auston Matthews: He is “honored.”

“Honored” to be ranked as the top prospect for the 2016 National Hockey League draft.
“Honored” to be part of the annual prospects media tour at the Stanley Cup final.
“Honored” to be chosen No. 1 overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Honored” to wear the Leafs (slightly) re–designed uniform for the first time.
“Honored” to pull on the storied Maple Leafs practice jersey for his initial skate with the team.

In the next four months, we will discover that Auston was “honored” to sign his entry–level contract with Lou Lamoriello; “honored” to partake in the first day of training camp; “honored” to appear in his initial pre–season game; “honored” to be officially named to the roster; “honored” that Lou the Grinch has allowed him to wear No. 34, and really “honored” to make his NHL debut — barring injury — at Ottawa, Oct. 12.

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This is how an honorable and respectful young man answers questions. In the Millennium of Overkill, we see the NHL’s top prospect wherever he goes. Mercifully, there are no bathroom or bedroom–cams. But, any and all hockey–related appearances are covered. It’s called “feeding the beast.” And, in Toronto, there is no larger, more ferocious beast than a proclaimed teenager wearing blue and white.

When the Maple Leafs last drafted a “franchise” center–iceman, he was sweating and toiling.

Hall–of–Famer Darryl Sittler recalled the moment in his 1991 autobiography:

Toronto Maple Leafs had the No. 8 pick [in the 1970 draft] and they selected me. I was hard at work building swimming pools in London [Ont.]; I’d been a Maple Leaf about five or six hours before I found out. I heard the news on the radio on the way home from my summer job that evening. Gilbert Perreault [drafted first by Buffalo] and Dale Tallon [second by Vancouver] got fussed over by their new teams… all I got were a few congratulatory phone calls from family members and friends. No press conference; “meet the press” media tour or new car to show off my status as the franchise’s top pick and potential future star. No Leafs sweater–pulled–over–head photo opportunity at the draft table in Montreal. The next day, I was back poring concrete again — building swimming pools. Today, some 20–odd years after the fact, I don’t remember anybody from the Leafs telephoning or writing me that summer.

Indeed, times have changed. If the Leafs had a “draft table” in Montreal on June 11, 1970, nobody saw it. No one, that is, beyond the hockey and media personnel jammed into a ballroom at the venerable Queen Elizabeth Hotel. There was no live TV or radio coverage of the NHL draft. As Sittler mentioned, half–a–day went by before first–round picks were informed of their destination. Just prior to training camp, Sittler’s agent, Alan Eagleson, negotiated a two–way contract with general manager Jim Gregory that paid the future star $15,000 if he skated for the Leafs; $9,000 if demoted to Tulsa of the Central Hockey League.

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DARRYL SITTLER’S 1991 MEMOIR AND HIS O–PEE–CHEE 1970–71 NHL ROOKIE CARD.

Not long from now — as outlined by reporter Chris Johnston of Sportsnet — Matthews (through his agent, Pat Brisson) will endeavor to land an entry-level contract with the following parameters:

$925,000 in salary, with $92,500 of it paid in a signing bonus.
$850,000 in “Schedule A” bonuses, which are tied to individual achievements such as goals and points.
$2 million in “Schedule B” bonuses, which are given for league–wide excellence such as trophy nominations or finishing among the scoring leaders — making them extremely tough to hit.

In his most productive NHL season (1977–78), Sittler earned $165,000 — or $760,000 less than what Matthews will receive with his entry–level maximum. Darryl finished third in NHL scoring that year (45–72–117) behind only Guy Lafleur (132 points) and Bryan Trottier (123). Lafleur made $180,000. Trottier (in his third season) pulled in $90,000. The third–place scorer in the NHL last season — Sidney Crosby, with 85 points for the Stanley Cup–champion Pittsburgh Penguins — earned $12 million. Yes, times have changed.

When Sittler came into the NHL 46 years ago, there was no such thing as “feeding the beast.” Media coverage of the Maple Leafs’ top draft pick wouldn’t have fed an ant. Of course, such–modern entities as all–sports TV and radio were barely in the dreaming stage. My ol’ colleague at The FAN–590 — the late Jim (Shaky) Hunt — would have offered a snippet of information during his three–minute sports updates on CKEY Radio here in Toronto. Another late colleague, Pat Marsden, may have done the same while providing a brief, supper–hour recap on CFTO–TV, Channel 9. If you aspired to read about the Leafs, you waited until the following day and purchased your copy of the Toronto Star, Toronto Telegram or the Globe and Mail. The words “blog” and “Internet” hadn’t been invented. There was no–such thing as a personal computer.

Oh my, how times have changed.

As I watch Matthews on TV in a media scrum virtually every night — and hear him politely answering different versions of the same question — I wonder about the “beast”. You may be aware that I spent 17 NHL seasons in the thick of scrums all over North America (and even Europe) while covering the Maple Leafs for Canada’s first all–sports radio station. If a certain vintage, you likely recall the black–and–white FAN–590 microphone–flag on your TV many nights and, perhaps, a glimpse or two of this “made–for–radio” face while standing beside a coach or player. Were you inclined to explore a different angle in my years around the team (1994 to 2011), it was necessary to break free of the “pack” — the increasingly monstrous group of reporters and television cameramen that attends each practice and morning skate.

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I STILL HAVE THE FAN–590 MICROPHONE–FLAG THAT TOOK QUITE A BEATING WHILE GETTING HAULED ACROSS NHL CITIES BY YOURS TRULY AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY (AND MILLENNIUM).

The “pack” today is twice the size it was five years ago. And, seeking a distinctive angle is more difficult given that the majority of player interviews are conducted at a podium, or in front of a back–splash with the team’s logo and sponsor prominently displayed. A reporter has little choice but to join in on these sessions. TV cameramen are obligated to provide scrum “visuals”; thus the Matthews–type repetition on nightly sportscasts. Only in the dressing room, where the “pack” moves from one player to another out of convenience, is there an occasion to pursue a unique angle. It requires a bit of preparedness — and separation from the “pack” — but is hardly a colossal challenge. I can tell you that from experience.

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TODAY’S CONTROLLED MEDIA: AUSTON MATTHEWS AT THE PODIUM (ABOVE) AND BACK–SPLASH.

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Clearly, Matthews will be the focal point of the season for the 2016–17 Maple Leafs (along with the club’s Centennial). But, all players have a story to tell. As a reporter, you simply need to ask.

HAIL TO THE CHIEF

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HAPPY 86th BIRTHDAY TO GEORGE ARMSTRONG — CAPTAIN OF THE 1962–63–64 AND 1967 STANLEY CUP–CHAMPION TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS. THE CHIEF IS SHOWN HERE DURING A 1966 GAME AT THE OLD MADISON SQUARE GARDEN IN NEW YORK, CIRCLING BEHIND RANGERS GOALIE ED GIACOMIN.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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