TORONTO — Some people questioned the Toronto Maple Leafs for handing free-agent Matt Martin a $10 million, four-year contract last July, especially given where the game is headed in terms of speed and skill, and with fighting on the decline.
But the Leafs’ front office saw more than a fighter. They saw a solid hockey player who could help their young, rebuilding squad on and off the ice.
“Well, it’s huge,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said last Friday when asked about Martin’s impact. “I mean, we don’t get slapped around ever. Last year, we got abused. … Not only is he a good player, he’s a great man. He treats those kids with kindness, with a firm hand of accountability at the same time. He’s a good pro, he lives right, he acts right, treats his teammates right. So he’s got a huge fan in me, I can tell you that.”
The 27-year-old Leafs winger, who has four goals, two assists and 79 penalty minutes in 45 games this season, sat down with ESPN.com to discuss what’s it’s like to play alongside the “amazing”? Auston Matthews?in the center of the hockey universe.
ESPN.com: As a guy who grew up in Windsor, Ontario, what’s it like to play on a Canadian NHL team for the first time in your career?
Matt Martin: It’s special. You’re in the center of the hockey world, the mecca of the hockey world, I guess you could say. My dad’s side of the family was mostly? Detroit Red Wings?fans and most of my mom’s side was Maple Leafs fans. And I was a Colorado Avalanche fan growing up, so it was kind of interesting how that all worked out.
When I signed here, my mom texted me and said my grandpa had just rolled over in his grave in excitement with his Leafs foam finger on. It’s a special thing to be a part of, and obviously with all the history with this team, 100 years, it’s a first-class organization. It’s incredible how they treat the players.
ESPN.com: Wait a minute — you grew up an Avs fan just across the border from Detroit during that crazy Detroit-Colorado rivalry? How many fights did you get into at school?
Martin: Well, I was a huge Joe Sakic fan and a huge Patrick Roy fan. When the Avalanche came into the league [moving from Quebec in 1995], both Sakic and Roy ended up on the same team, so it was a pretty easy decision for me. It did get pretty ugly in my household at times. My family members were mostly Red Wings fans, and I liked players like Claude Lemieux and Adam Foote, guys that Wings fans hated. I had some fun with it and was able to come out on top in a few of those battles.
ESPN.com: You played junior hockey with Steven Stamkos in Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League. What was that like, and do you still maintain a relationship with him all these years later?
Martin: Yeah, I still talk to him every now and then. It gets harder and harder as the years go on. Obviously, he’s in Tampa and I’m here, but I stay in touch as much as possible and when I see him I stop and talk to him. I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career to play with Stamkos, to play with? John Tavares?and now to play with a pretty special player in Auston Matthews?as well. It’s amazing to see all the different personalities and the different styles of player, all succeeding at high levels. All three are great guys.
ESPN.com: During Team Canada’s World Cup training camp, Stamkos and Tavares had stalls beside each other in the dressing room, and we were joking that Stamkos was handing over the “Toronto rumors baton” to Tavares, given the big decision that the? New York Islanders?captain will have to make eventually (he’ll be one year away from free agency this summer). You know Tavares and you know what’s going on with the Islanders this season. How do you think that’s all going to play out?
Martin (with a huge smile): I think, out of respect for John Tavares, that I’m going to not give you any sort of answer on that because I can only imagine what’s going to unfold when you post this. Listen, he’s a dedicated guy, he wants to win, but he’s a loyal guy at the same time. He loves Long Island; I’ve never heard him say a bad thing once about playing there. Everyone who has played there has loved it there. I loved it there as well.
I don’t know what’s going to unfold there, but he’s definitely got an important decision to make about his future. I wouldn’t want to be in his situation, with the amount of messages and tweets and all those things that he gets. But I think he’s handled it well. I think he learned from the Stamkos situation how to handle it, and I think he’s prepared for it. He’s a mature guy who understands how valuable he is as a player. He’s a superstar and he’s going to get that attention. He’ll make the decision that’s best for him and I’ll support it either way.
ESPN.com: Now, you have an impact in a role that’s on life support these days, although you can play too, which is why you’re still in the league. What is your sense of the future of fighting? The numbers showing that fighting is on the decline don’t lie.
Martin: I’ve never really gotten into this debate. All I know is that the league is going to go in the direction that the league wants to go in. You can either adjust as a player or you can fizzle out.
I’m trying to do my job as much as possible. As long as fighting is in the game, I’m going to get into altercations. But at the same time, I do believe I can play the game and I do want to continue to get better at playing the game. The league will do what’s best for players, and I just have to adjust accordingly.
ESPN.com: You mentioned how you’ve been fortunate to play with Stamkos, Tavares and now Matthews. What kind of parallels can you draw when you see a young superstar-in-the-making like Matthews?
Martin: Not to disparage Johnny or Stammer in any way, but I think Auston has gotten off to a better start than both of them. And that doesn’t mean much, but he’s certainly taken the league by storm.
The one thing I was so impressed with is that when he was in that 11-game goal drought and it seemed like? Patrik Laine?was scoring every game and you started to hear more and more noise from outside the room, [Auston] was just focused every day. He came in and worked, never got too low, never got too high.
He’s an unbelievable player to watch and he’s so mature for his age. He’s going to be a great leader for this team for a long time. You can tell by the way he carries himself every day, already at a young age. He appreciates everyone in this room and what they do. You don’t see that very often in a 19-year-old.
If I had scored four goals in my first NHL game, I don’t know what I would have done. I’d be jumping around somewhere, but it wouldn’t be just going over to my teammates and giving them a pat. Same thing in the outdoor game, after he scored that [overtime] goal. It’s amazing how he carries himself. He’s a mature player, a great player and he’s only going to get better.