The first time Auston Matthews met Mike Babcock, it was in the Detroit Red Wings’ coaches office at Joe Louis Arena.
Matthews was 17, playing for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program about 45 minutes west in Ann Arbor. His coach was Don Granato, brother of Tony Granato, assistant to Babcock in Detroit.
The morning of a Red Wings game, Matthews and teammate Matthew Tkachuk came with Don Granato to watch practice and preview life in the NHL. Babcock had seen them play against the University of Michigan, and he told Matthews, “You’re a good player, but you can’t let your talent make up for your work ethic.”
“It’s something that I’ve always remembered,” Matthews said.
Matthews grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and didn’t realize how good he was until he tried out for the NTDP and stood out against the best players of his age group in the United States. It gave him top coaching, top teammates, top competition and experiences like meeting Babcock.
It also gave a glimpse of his personality: humble but confident, calm but competitive, unaffected and unafraid, the kind of person who could play pro hockey in Switzerland at 18, play in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 before his NHL debut and star in Toronto without acting much like a star.
“I really enjoyed my time there, thought I learned a lot, really progressed as a player, as a person,” Matthews said. “Some of my closest friends kind of come from those two years.”
Matthews lived in a suburban subdivision with his billet family: Brian and Heidi Daniels, their sons Cole and Camden, and teammate Luke Opilka. He kept his room clean, brought down his own laundry, made his own breakfast and lunch. One day, the family brought home some mulch. He grabbed a shovel and helped spread it out.
“I’ve never met a more competitive kid,” said Camden Daniels, now 15. “If he lost, you weren’t going to hear the end of it for a couple days.”
But you wouldn’t hear much about ice hockey.
“Whenever we went out to dinner or anything and some of my friends would be with him … Everyone knew how good he was, and he would just play it off like it was nothing basically,” Camden Daniels said. “You would have never thought he was doing what he was doing.