I had the opportunity to interview one of the longer serving Leafs and it was a very engaging discussion. Matt Stajan is a very well spoken, intelligent hockey player and his open and honest responses to my questions were a breath of fresh air. Since playing his first game as a Leaf in the 2002/2003 campaign, he has gained a loyal following of supporters both on and off the ice. He is currently serving as the Leafs player representative to the NHLPA so I looked forward to getting his thoughts on the current state of the team.
I meet up with Matt after a brisk Leaf workout on Friday. He seems upbeat, eager to talk and excited about the upcoming season. This is the time of year when attitudes are positive, outlooks are enthusiastic and the future seems bright. I immediately start off the interview on a sour note.
Manics: So what went wrong last season?
MS: You get right into it huh? *laughs* It was a really trying year on everyone. We didn't get off to a great start and it seems like things went downhill from there. I'm not one to point any fingers except squarely at myself. I could do better and I know a lot of guys felt the same way.
Manics: You had a career high 16 goals last season, I'd have to say you were one of the brighter spots on the club no?
MS: Yeah 16 goals but I was also a -11...that simply isn't cutting it. I know that and I have to work harder at my end of the ice to turn that around. I'm confident I can play much better.
Manics: You took some heat last year for some comments you made regarding fans?
MS: Well, like I said it was a very frustrating year and I think it just boiled over. I never meant to insult any of the fans or to suggest that they should stay away. It just came out wrong. When you're having a bad season and you hear things like 'the team should tank and go for the #1 pick' it just upsets you. We're all professionals and not one guy in the dressing room is ever going to think about 'tanking' a game. We all want to win every game, so when we hear people suggest
that it just angers us.
Manics: A learning experience then?
MS: For sure. You have to watch what you say at all times in our position. We're very lucky to be able to play in a great hockey market like Toronto and we shouldn't ever lose sight of that. The fans are entitled to cheer or boo us because they pay their hard earned money to watch us play. When we play badly, they let us know and we shouldn't be upset with them, we should look right in the mirror.
Manics: Enough of last year, what do you think of new coach Ron Wilson so far?
MS: He's tough but fair. He demands an honest work ethic and I think he'll be a great asset for all the guys this season. Not to say that Paul wasn't good, but sometimes you just don't have the right makeup of a club for your coaching technique.
Manics: So do you think the trend towards youth will benefit the new coach?
MS: Oh yeah no doubt about it. He's an experienced guy behind the bench and all of us will be looking up to him and listening to what he has to say. He'll let you know when he's not happy, and everyone will listen. His track record speaks for itself.
Manics: I have a question from one of the readers of my blog, "desiredtoe" asks: 'Do you feel that, with a lot of the old guard now gone, you have to take up a position of leadership as one of the veterans on this team?'
MS: Good question and a tough one to answer. People forget i'm still only turning 25 this year but I'm flattered that i'm looked upon as a veteran now. This will be my 5th full season with the Leafs and based on my tenure then yes, I definitely have to try and step it up and help some of the newer guys just coming in. When I first broke in I was very lucky to have guys like Mats and Gary (Roberts) around, the real veterans who had seen it all and knew what it took to stay in this game. I've learned a lot in my years here and if I can pass that
on to some of the younger guys here, then I'm really helping out.
Manics: There was an article this summer suggesting you could be a future captain of the Leafs. Care to comment?
MS: That would be a huge honour. I'm not really sure how to reply to that. When you look down at the names of the captains of the Leafs you're in awe. I mean can I really see my name beside guys like Sittler, Clark, Gilmour and Sundin? It's every kid's dream and I would wear it proudly if I was asked. Katie tells me I'd be a great captain *laughs*
Manics: You mention Katie, another point I'd like to touch on. You're very involved in the community both of you, tell us a bit about what you do.
MS: Katie and I organize the annual Hockey Fights Cancer night, and it's a fantastic experience for both of us. It's very rewarding to be able to give back to the community and to help those in need. We see the smiles on their faces and it just makes us proud and humble that we're in the position to bring some joy to people's lives, however small that might be.
Manics: Another question from a blog reader HSamuels asks "There have been a lot doom and gloom predictions for the Leafs this season, some suggesting the team will be in the bottom half of the league, what do you think?"
MS: I know a lot of analysts are down on the club, and that's their opinion and they have a right to it. We feel we've got a good young cast here and we can definitely build towards something positive. I'm not one to make predictions about where we'll finish or how many points we'll get, but I really believe this team will surprise many people. I'm looking forward to proving some of the naysayers wrong.
Manics: You're very in touch with your fans and I've heard you're quite accessible on off nights at your local hang out, what's it called again?
MS: California's Restaurant in Mississauga. Great place I'm always looking to put a good word out for them. Dimitri the owner is a great guy but watch out for those Metaxa shots *laughs*
I don't want to keep Matt any longer than I have to as there is a Leaf game that same night, but he's willing to keep talking as long as I have questions. This is a quality guy and a pleasure to interview. Rarely do you find that mix of intelligence, honesty and humbleness all in the same individual but here he is. With this type of quality person in the Leaf dressing room, I tend to agree with Matt that the future is not as bleak as some might suggest.
I'm sorry I couldn't get to more of your blog questions. I had a couple of good questions from a "ForzaItalia" but alas I ran out of time. I hope to make this as regular a spot as I can and try to get the fans questions in for the players in future interviews.