It's been a long time coming, but American NHL star Auston Matthews is finally set to make his Olympic debut in Beijing this coming February.
Matthews, 24, is one of the most dangerous offensive players on the planet. He netted 41 goals in just 52 games during the 2020-21 season, earning him the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal scorer.
The 2017 Calder Memorial Trophy winner and two-time EA Sports NHL cover athlete was unable to compete at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang as the NHL prohibited its players from participating in the Games. But NHL players are back for Beijing, and Matthews, who has already been named to the team, is expected to be the centerpiece of Team USA's squad.
"Gold is absolutely on our minds," said Matthews during a virtual media summit this week. "I've been fortunate to represent the U.S. before, but obviously never at the biggest stage, which is the Olympics, so I'm really looking forward to it."
Matthews has an impressive track record of success when representing the United States internationally. He led the U.S. to back-to-back gold medals at the IIHF World U18 Championship in 2014 and 2015 and played a key role for Team USA's bronze medal-winning team at the World Juniors in 2016.
However, the last time Matthews competed internationally was over half a decade ago when he played for the iconic Team North America at 2016's World Cup of Hockey. Still, Matthews believes the experience he gained from that dynamic North American team has sufficiently prepared him for the granddaddy of them all — the Winter Games.
"Yeah, that was a blast. I think anybody that had the opportunity to play [at the World Cup] would probably say the same. It was some of the best hockey that I think we've seen in a really long time," he said.
"For myself, I hadn't played in the NHL yet. I was just going into my first season, so I felt really lucky to kind of get that experience before actually playing my first season. So hopefully playing in that kind of helps me prepare for [the Olympics] a little bit, but from everybody that I've talked to that's been fortunate enough to compete in an Olympics, there's just nothing like it, so I'm really looking forward to it.
"I don't know what to expect. Just trying to go in there with an open mind and just have as much fun as possible."
One player with Olympic experience who knows Matthews quite well is none other than Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane. The three-time Stanley Cup champion has competed at the Olympics twice, including the 2010 Games in which Team USA earned a silver medal.
Kane is widely regarded as one of the best American hockey players of all time, if not the best. And there's a very good chance that Matthews could finally get to play on a line with him when the puck drops in Beijing.
"[Kane] is somebody that I looked up to a lot growing up. One of my favorite players to watch still today," said Matthews.
"I've been fortunate to spend time with him in the summer, skating with him, training with him a little bit. He's just an incredible player and puts you on the edge of your seat any time you're watching or you're out there with him, so I'm really looking forward to that possibility."
As familiar as Matthews is with Kane's game, he'll probably be even more familiar with a few of his opponents in Beijing. Several of his teammates on the Toronto Maple Leafs, including Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, have very strong odds to compete at the Olympics as well.
Tavares is now playing in his fourth season as a Maple Leaf after spending his first nine years as an NHLer with the New York Islanders. The 31-year-old is a six-time NHL All-Star and averages nearly a point per game throughout his NHL career. He also played a major role for Team Canada in their gold medal victory at the 2014 Olympics.
Nylander, though not nearly as experienced as Tavares, still figures to carve out a spot on Sweden's Olympic team. At 25 years old, Nylander already has one gold medal under his belt from the 2017 World Championship.
Of those three teammates, though, Matthews may be closest to Marner. Matthews and Marner both entered the NHL during the 2016-17 season, and they've been almost attached at the hip since. Not only do they play on a line together in Toronto, but they've also formed somewhat of a familial bond off the ice with their former Maple Leafs teammate Patrick Marleau.
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Off the ice, Matthews and Marner are a lot like siblings. And as one would expect, it's not exactly a surprise who Matthews is most looking forward to chirping on the ice in Beijing.
"Probably Mitch," he said. "We played together on a line the last couple years, we've got a great relationship. He's pretty chirpy himself, so I'm sure I'll be hearing it from him, but I like to give it back as well.
"[Marner, Nylander and Tavares] are awesome guys and awesome players and it'd be kind of weird playing against them, but I think all of us have a lot of pride in where we come from and representing our countries."
Regardless of who Matthews will be lining up against, his mission is pretty simple — help the United States win its first gold medal in men's hockey since the miraculous 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. The U.S. has come tantalizingly close multiple times since they took down the Soviets all those years ago, but having a player of Matthews' caliber, along with some of the other elite players born in the States, is sure to make this year's team a completely different beast.
"I'm really excited," he said. "The amount of U.S. players that are available to play, I mean, you can go down the list, there's so much talent and there's so much skill and just the prospect of all of us getting together and competing as a team is really exciting to me."
Three players — Matthews, Kane and Blackhawks defenseman Seth Jones — have been named to the Team USA's Olympic roster thus far. The full 25-player roster is expected to be unveiled in January.