Hockey superstar Auston Matthews’ top reads

By Rosie DiManno

Will Auston Matthews eventually move from the ice to the page? Photo Credit: Rene Johnston via Toronto Star

There might come a day when Auston Matthews will earn a nickname as iconic as Black Mamba.

Thus far, sportswriters and their talking head counterparts have been flummoxed coining a moniker befitting the Toronto Maple Leaf stud, a 21-year-old generational superstar who could very well lead the club to its first Stanley Cup in more than a half-century. The team is Las Vegas odds-on favourite to make the final this spring.

For the moment, Matthews is halfway through reading The Mamba Mentality: How I Play, Kobe Bryant’s debut venture into published autobiography. Bryant gave himself the sobriquet Black Mamba during his two-decade NBA career — more an avatar or alternate personality than just a sports appellation. And the book is less bio than deep dive into a revered athlete’s impeccable technique for mental and physical game preparation. It’s for serious students only, not for sports book grazers in search of anecdotes and insider tattle.

“I’m not a big reader,” Matthews admits. “But this is a cool book, looking into the mind of someone like him, just how dedicated and focused he was.’’

Matthews has little patience for fiction. Elite athletes intrigue him, though. “I want to pick up Tom Brady’s book. And Tiger Woods. Two guys who are among the best in their craft, learn how they think. Kobe’s retired now but his book lets me see what his daily routine was like, how seriously he took his preparation.’’

Sports bios can be superficial and self-serving. The warts and all trope has its limitations, more trustworthy in the hands of a somewhat detached chronicler, biographer rather than autobiographer. Matthews points to Muhammed Ali as a sports legend who’s been a font of biography, practically a one-man industry. Ali’s own most popular book was The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. Among the most insightful books about Ali is King of the World by David Remnick.

“Some athletes have opened up about their lives,” notes Matthews. “The best athletes of the last generation have shared their stories.”

It’s interesting that Matthews makes no mention of hockey, or hockey players, when discussing sports books he intends to crack open and athletes he wishes would un-spool their tales. But he’s awfully young of course, grew up in the NHL outpost of Scottsdale, Arizona. Wasn’t even born yet back in 1993 when the Leafs last made their most memorable bid for a Stanley Cup final, thwarted by Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings.

Leafs fans will recall how that underdog Pat Burns team, led by Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark, took the city on an breathless playoff ride — three seven-game series, through Detroit, St. Louis and the West Coast. In my estimation, the division semifinals versus the Red Wings was the most dramatic tilt, as Toronto clawed back from an over-matched 0–2 deficit, stunning the Motor City on Nik Borschevsky’s Game 7 OT winner.

Long time hockey columnist, author and TV commentator Damien Cox has picked the Leafs-Kings for an expertly detailed lookback in The Last Good Year: Seven Games that Ended an Era.
The era to which Cox refers, a quarter-century ago, was the NHL in its final gasp of disorderly, old-school, personality-driven hockey; face-to-face intimate, at least between players and reporters. “A beautiful mess”, says Cox, who was then Leafs beat writer for the Toronto Star. “Everybody was willing to talk, and there were no repercussions for talking out of turn. Reporters and media members mingled with players and coaches at airports, taxi stands, bars and hotels. We flew on the same flights they did, sometimes sitting beside them. We had their phone numbers. We met their families.’’
Many of the old bars were still in existence, venerable Maple Leaf Gardens among them. The Kings played at the Forum. Enforcers still strode across the hockey world.
For 14 days in May, 1993, the Leafs and Kings, “two teams oozing personality and style, captivated the hockey world.”
Cox formats his chapters by key individuals, “starring” Marty McSorley, Gilmour, Kings owner (and future jailbird) Bruce McNall, Leaf pest Bill Berg, L.A. goalie Kelly Hrudey, referee Kerry Fraser — we will always remember repine that Game 7 penalty he didn’t call against Wayne Gretzky — and Gretzky himself, who almost single-handedly made hockey a celebrity ticket in La-La-Land.
The author brings freshness and never before revealed insight to events most of us think we remember clearly. Cox catches up with the protagonists — and antagonists — for insights beyond the surface of a bloody, mutually-loathing, fistful of a series, exploring different dimensions of an oft-told tale. With realignment, it was the last chance — forsaken — Toronto would have at a Stanley Cup final against Montreal, which ultimately defeated the Kings, last time the Canadiens won the whole enchilada.
Gretzky, criticized for his play through the first five games, scored the winning goals in Game 6 and Game 7. Of course he did.
“In my mind, and in a lot of ways, Toronto might have given Montreal a better series than we did,” Gretzky admits to Cox. “I’m not saying they could have beaten the Canadiens, but a Toronto-Montreal matchup might have been better for Toronto than it was for us.”
By my count, there have been at least 22 books written about Gretzky.
In time, no doubt, there will be an Auston Matthews literary oeuvre too. Perhaps he’ll eventually move from the ice to the page.
“Possibly. Maybe me talking and someone else putting it all together. I’m not much of a writer.”
Whole lotta hockey player though.