One of Matt Martin’s colleagues referred to him as the prototypical enforcer. Although fighting – the duties typically associated with that type of player – is declining in today’s NHL, Martin is viewed as someone who can still contribute to his team in other ways than simply fisticuffs. Last season, Martin racked up 300 hits with Toronto. Only Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki recorded more collisions.
While Martin logs the least amount of ice time among Maple Leafs, he tries to make the most of the opportunities he is given. In a deflating loss to the Hurricanes earlier this week, Martin registered four shots on net, won a faceoff, and picked up an assist. With three points under his belt this season, he’s already a third of the way to matching his offensive production from last year.
His impact, however, cannot just be measured on the ice. Since arriving in Toronto in 2016, Martin has assumed the role of older brother and father figure for the team’s younger players, particularly Mitch Marner. Their chemistry on and off the ice has been well documented, including their most recent plans to dress up as Dr. Evil and Mini-Me for Halloween. They almost pulled it off, until their girlfriends got wind of their costume ideas and put the kibosh on them.
Before the Maple Leafs head out of town next week to start a Western Conference road trip, Violent Gentlemen caught up with Matt Martin by telephone on his way home from practice. Although our interview was cut short due to technical difficulties, we still had the chance to talk to him about playing in Toronto, having Mitch Marner as a linemate, and how he’s continuing to evolve his game.
This is your second season with the Maple Leafs. Walk us back through what drew you to Toronto when you signed with the club in 2016?
It was my first experience with free agency. I was trying to figure out where I wanted to play and where I’d have an opportunity. I actually got a call from the Leafs the morning of July 1st. At around 10:00am, I got a call from Lou and I talked to him and then I talked to Babs. They gave me the whole run down on why they thought I’d be a good fit there. So, I talked with my family and my girlfriend. Obviously, it’s a great city, it’s a great place to play. It’s an Original Six team. They had just drafted Auston Matthews, so there’s some upside there with not only him but with William Nylander and Mitch Marner. These guys that are the future of the team. I thought they were moving in the right direction and I thought it would be a great opportunity to win a Cup.
What’s your favorite part about being a Maple Leaf?
Every time you put the sweater on, it’s a special thing. The fans here are very passionate. You know, you’re in the centre of the hockey world. Last year in the first round of the playoffs, they had Maple Leafs Square packed with people and on opening night it was packed again with people watching on the big screen outside. You don’t get that everywhere. It’s a passionate fan base, they haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. They’re starving for a winner, so hopefully we can bring that to them.
Mitch Marner had been playing on your line recently. When he was assigned to you and Dominic Moore, was there anything in particular you tried to do to help him out with his game?
I don’t think there’s really anything to do. You just try to keep him positive and keep his confidence up. He’s a pretty positive guy in general and he knows how good he is. He understands that guys are going to have ups and downs throughout the course of the season. It happens to everybody. Obviously, he was going through a bit of a tough time early on, but the last few games he’s kind of back to himself and carrying the puck through the neutral zone and playing with the best of them. It’s pretty easy with him, I think he kind of took the demotion - or whatever you want to call it – in stride and understood that it’s obviously not where he wants to be but he can still get some positives out of it. Like I said, from the first shift he said what he wanted to do and he’s been really effective over the last few games in generating a ton of chances and we were able to get a few goals so hopefully we keep that up.
In our Q&A with Nate Thompson, he called you “a guy who will fight anybody but plays a lot of quality minutes and usually leads the league in hits every year.” How do you view your role in the league?
I played a little bit with Nate for a few games on the Island, he was actually one of my first fights in the league when he went to Tampa Bay. He’s a great guy and a hell of a player. For me, I try to approach the game the same way and try to be physical. There’s a time and place for fighting and standing up for your teammates. But the game is definitely changing and you have to evolve with it or you won’t stick around. You try to evolve every day and I think there’s less and less staged fights, I think it’s more emotional. For better or worse, the game is definitely moving in another direction and as a player, you have to continue to evolve and continue to improve your game. Especially as you get older in this league, there’s all these young guys coming up, so you’ve got to bring more to the table than just fighting. You try to work at it every day and make an impact on the game in more ways than one.
You’re on a two-game point streak right now. What do you have to do to keep that going?
Just have to continue to play well. Right now, it’s Moore, Marner, and myself, and we have a good understanding of how we want to play right now. I think Mitchy is an elite player and he kind of uses our strengths to his advantage. He’s willing to dump the puck and let me go get it by using my physicality when it will benefit him. He understands the way to play the game effectively. A lot of times elite players want to carry the puck in all the time or don’t necessarily like the dump and chase game, but from the very first shift Mitchy was with us, he said, ‘if I’ve got the puck and I don’t have a lot of space, I’ll dump it into your corner and you go do what you do and I’ll be there support.’ Then I just try to get the puck right back to him. We’ve been able to generate a couple goals over the last few games and hopefully we can continue to do that and have a positive impact on games.
There’s a viral clip going around right now of you and Mitch Marner using smelling salts before a game. How did that routine start?
That’s just something we do every game. I think I started using them in junior or in my first year of pro hockey, I can’t really remember.
I’ve always done it and one day I just sort of reached over and put it under his nose and he did it, then we started doing it multiple times and then all of sudden we had a handshake. It just kind of grew from there. It’s just something we do every game now, it’s part of our routine. A lot of guys around the league use smelling salts, I think it just kind of gives you a little wake up and makes you realize it’s game time.
Who’s the toughest opponent you’ve ever fought?
That’s a tough question. I always have a hard time answering that. But George Parros, someone you’re really familiar with, I squared up with him once. I was pretty young when I fought him and he controlled the whole fight. He was definitely in charge of the way the fight was going.
He was throwing punches, but I thought I did a decent job of handling it because I never really got hit. It certainly didn’t feel like I controlled the fight in any way at that point in my career, but I think that’s because he was that much more experienced than me and he’s a smart fighter. It felt like it was a cat and mouse situation. For most of the fight, I was just trying not to get hit as opposed to controlling the fight itself. I didn’t take much damage in that fight thankfully. It was early in my career and he gave me a pat on the head at the end of it.
But there’s been fights where I’ve been tagged and hit hard. Ryan White broke my nose pretty clean one year fighting in Philadelphia when I was with the Islanders.
For your money, who is the toughest guy in the league right now?
There’s a few guys out there. I still think [Zdeno] Chara when he’s really angry, he’s scary. I think [Milan] Lucic has got to be up there. Ryan Reaves is another guy that’s up there. Those are three guys that come to the top of my mind.
This next question comes from Twitter. Michael wants to know what’s your favorite part about living in Toronto?
There’s a few things I love about Toronto. There’s a lot of great restaurants, but there were a lot of great restaurants in New York but similarly, in Toronto, you can go to a lot of different places to eat unbelievable food. On top of that, as big as Toronto is as a city, it’s much smaller compared to New York and you can get everywhere pretty quickly. When you live on one end of town, it doesn’t take an hour and a half to get to the other end, you can get there in 25 minutes. That’s kind of one of the perks about it, I think. There’s also a lot of pride in Toronto. The passion for the sports teams. They love their sports and all the three teams were really good last year. Toronto FC went to the Finals, the Raptors have been good for a few years with guys like [DeMar] DeRozan and [Kyle] Lowry sticking around here, and the Jays were having a good run up until this past year. It’s an exciting place for sports and they’re passionate about sports. I think there’s a lot of pride from being in Toronto. It’s just really cool to be a part of the vibe here. The fan support is second to none.
Some Maple Leafs fans have pointed out that you sometimes protect opponents from the boards at the tail end of an icing call. Can you tell us why it’s important for you to do that?
At the end of the day, you never really want to hurt anybody. When I first came into the league, you tried to chase down icings and touch the puck first. That was all part of the touch icing rule. Now that that’s changed, when the whistle goes, you try to protect the player from going into the boards.
I’m a physical guy, I’ll hit you if it’s clean…
*Reader note: Since speaking with Matt, it has been learned that he will sit out the Maple Leafs' Saturday evening game against the Flyers due to injury.