Even for the centre of the hockey universe, this was unusual. The typical crowd of reporters that follow the Maple Leafs swelled to a mob on Wednesday. The parking lot at the team’s practice facility in suburban Etobicoke overflowed.
That is what happens when the face of an NHL franchise, and one of the game’s brightest young stars, is charged with disorderly conduct. That it happened months ago in Auston Matthews’s hometown in Arizona and became public knowledge a week before the season begins makes it embarrassing.
With nowhere to hide, the 22-year-old forward was one of the first Toronto players on the ice for a pregame skate before the Leafs played the visiting Montreal Canadiens later in an exhibition game at Scotiabank Arena.
Matthews was also the first to talk to reporters after practice. For about a minute, he stood at the back of the arena, beneath 13 Stanley Cup banners that stretch from one side of the rink to the other, and expressed regret if his actions did anything to distract the team.
He looked uncomfortable and, beyond a brief statement, said the “situation” is such that he could not comment further.
A complaint filed with the police in Scottsdale, Ariz., alleges that the Leafs’ highest-paid player was among a group of young men who attempted to force open the door of a security officer’s vehicle as she sat in a condominium parking lot on May 26 at 2 a.m.
After she leaped out of the car and confronted him, the security officer said Matthews walked away, dropped his trousers, bent over and mooned her. He was wearing boxers at the time, which led to the hashtag #CaptainUnderpants to trend on Twitter.
It was only on Tuesday that the team’s management confirmed that it knew about the complaint. John Tavares and Morgan Rielly, leading candidates to be appointed the Maple Leafs captain, said they only became aware on Tuesday night.
“There are a lot of people here today but we are focused on the ice,” Tavares said as he faced a phalanx of newsmen. “It is easy to cast judgment and make assumptions. I think you just let the process carry out.
“We have a full belief in him and what he brings to our locker-room.”
A pretrial hearing was held on the matter in city court in Scottsdale on Wednesday. The City of Scottsdale’s website lists the next court date as Oct. 22.
Matthews was not arrested when the incident occurred but faces charges of disorderly conduct and disruptive behaviour. It is a Class 1 misdemeanour and punishable by a jail term of as long as six months, which is highly unlikely, and a fine of US$2,500.
In January, the former rookie of the year signed a five-year contract extension worth US$58-million.
In a complaint filed with police, the security officer said one of the other young men in the group attempted to intervene on Matthews’s behalf and asked that the incident not be reported to the condominium’s management. She responded by saying it was on video – and would be reported.
A surveillance camera allegedly shows Matthews walking toward an elevator in the building with his pants around his ankles.
Some fans expressed disappointment in Matthews on Wednesday but many seemed more concerned that this would make him unlikely to be appointed the Maple Leafs captain. A number railed on as though he were the aggrieved party; some blamed the condominium because it hired a female security officer who worked late at night, others lashed out at the media for reporting on what they perceived to be a minor transgression.
The latter is ridiculous: Similar charges would be reported against Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin or any other top player.
The security guard reported that Matthews told her he thought it would be funny to see what her reaction would be with someone trying to force open her locked car door. It did not look as though he found any humour in the situation on Wednesday, and neither did his teammates.
The Maple Leafs played an exhibition game against the Canadiens on Wednesday night, and Matthews was expected to be in the lineup. Much is expected of him when the season opens on Oct. 2.
“He is taking [this] very seriously,” Rielly said. “As a group, we don’t take this job for granted. We feel very lucky to play here.
“We try to treat people with respect and carry ourselves in a manner we can be proud of. Auston is no different.”
The circumstances were on Wednesday. He and the team were in the spotlight for the wrong reason.
The Globe and Mail, September 25, 2019