Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were engaging in a bit of fond reminiscing on Monday, thinking back to a moment when the natural order of things was generally intact.
Hockey was being played, and often well by the Maple Leafs, who were an intriguing young team on the rise. And whenever the two star Maple Leafs would head to dinner with their veteran teammate Patrick Marleau, it’d be Marleau who’d somehow find a way to slip his credit card to the server when the time came to settle the cheque.
Not that there was anything wrong with that. Marleau, who has earned an estimated $ 95 million (U.S.) in salary since he broke into the NHL in 1997, probably isn’t strapped for cash. But Matthews and Marner, as they grew to become close family friends of the Marleau clan, have long been on track to do OK for themselves, too — both signing megadeals with the Leafs in 2019. So along with occasionally engaging in the NHL tradition of tossing their credit cards into a bowl and picking one at random to cover the tab, they also devised a game.
“At dinners, you couldn’t touch your phone. If you touched your phone you had to pay the bill,” Marner said. “It was more so we could sort of enjoy the presence of each other more, just talk about other things, rather than just being right down on our phones kind of looking at Twitter or Instagram or texting people. It was just a fun way to be more interactive with each other.”
It was also, Marner acknowledged, “another way to try and stop Pat from paying the bill.”
Fast forward to our current situation — where sitting down in a restaurant isn’t even possible, no matter who’s footing the expense — and you had Monday’s NHL video conference featuring Matthews and Marner, both 22, and the 40-year-old Marleau. It was a reasonable facsimile of sitting down to an informal lunch with the trio, not to mention a rotating cast of extras who made the Zoom-hosted chat session a fun and occasionally hectic mess of a production.
Hockey was talked, sure. But dogs also barked more than occasionally (Marleau and Marner both shrugged at the canine-induced commotion in their respective households). And Marleau, speaking from his San Jose home, was joined on screen at various times by his wife Christina and three of their four sons. At one point the proceedings were interrupted by the ringing of what sounded like a landline, apparently emanating from Marner’s GTA abode.
“I don’t know what that was,” Marner said.
Which got a chuckle out of Matthews, who shook his head from the Phoenix area, where he said he was riding out the global sports stoppage “chilling by the pool” alongside teammate Frederik Andersen.
“Mitch, come on,” Matthews said, scolding his teammate. “I can’t focus.”
Marleau’s legacy probably isn’t what the Leafs hoped it would be when they acquired him as a free agent in the summer of 2017. Though he was a top-six regular in his two seasons in Toronto, and though he played in all 164 regular-season games over that span, his production dropped off in his second year with the team. And removing his $ 6.25-million cap hit from the books for 2019-20 required the relinquishing of a 2020 first-round draft pick, not exactly a small price for a salary dump. Two teams later — Marleau signed with the Sharks this season before being traded at the deadline to the Pittsburgh Penguins — and in the midst of a life-altering pandemic, who’s counting?
Monday’s chat avoided much in the way of hard analysis of why Marleau’s tenure in Toronto — which Marner said was hailed on arrival as “everything our team needed to make a long run in the playoffs” — never brought with it post-season success. But there were some amusing moments, for sure, mostly when the NHL-appointed moderator engaged in a version of “The Newlywed Game” — an exercise in seeing how well the teammates and ex-teammate know each other.
How many NHL games, for instance, did it take for Marner to score his first NHL goal?
“Seven games?” said Marleau, clearly unsure.
Said Marner, apparently insulted: “Are you (kidding)?”
The answer was two.
And on which team did Matthews spend his NHL draft year before being selected No. 1 overall by the Leafs back in 2016? Everybody knew the answer, although Marner said he was unsure about the spelling of the Zurich SC Lions.
“You were gonna go play for them, too,” Matthews cracked, reminding the world of Marner’s difficult negotiations with the Leafs last summer, wherein a report leaked that Marner was in talks with the Swiss league club as a possible 2019-20 destination should the Leafs not pay him sufficiently.
More questions. Who was the most ruthlessly competitive player in mini-sticks? The unanimous answer was Matthews.
“I didn’t play it off like I didn’t want to win. I wanted to win,” Matthews said.
What’s Marner’s favourite flavour of ice cream?
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“You should know this,” Marner said to Marleau. “You went out to get me ice cream constantly on the road.”
The answer, delivered correctly by all, was cookie dough. Which brought to mind a post-dinner road activity favoured by the trio: dessert and a movie back at the hotel. “Cars 3” was their initial bonding point. And speaking of empty calories: Who’d be most likely to binge-watch “Love Is Blind,” the reality-TV dating show? The consensus was Matthews, who also was the unanimous answer to questions such as “Who takes most penalties in mini-stick games with the Marleau boys?” and “Who takes longest to get ready to go out to dinner?”
Nutritionally, this was not necessarily a conversation the Leafs strength and conditioning staff wanted to hear. At one point Christina Marleau asked which of the three players could survive solely on pizza. And without skipping a beat the undisputed answer came back Marner. That probably helps explain why the Leafs, in the midst of the pandemic, are delivering three square meals a day to players residing in the GTA — and paying the bill, no game of credit-card roulette required.