Politics enters Leafs’ and Raptors’ locker rooms,
“I don’t think I’m voting. I haven’t really looked into it too much.” LEAF AUSTON MATTHEWS WHO DRESSED AS DEBATE QUESTIONER KEN BONE FOR HALLOWEEN
As the marathon U.S. presidential campaign snaked its way to its Tuesday finish, more than a few giants of the sports world attempted to exert some influence on the race.
LeBron James spent part of Sunday stumping for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in Ohio, a state where Republican nominee Donald Trump could cite the loyalty of another born-and-bred icon — golf great Jack Nicklaus. In a divided United States, many jocks aren’t shy about choosing sides. Clinton counts among her athletic supporters NBA sharpshooter Steph Curry, tennis legend Martina Navratilova and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Trump’s camp includes ex-boxer Mike Tyson, former NBA eccentric Dennis Rodman and two-time golf major winner John Daly.
But if you’ve spent any time talking politics in the Maple Leafs dressing room, you’ll know the political leanings of the resident Americans are far less overt — at least for the record. One day last month Connor Carrick, the defenceman from Chicago’s southern suburbs, said he planned on casting a vote for president via absentee ballot. But it was important to him it be a secret ballot.
“It’s a hard thing for guys to talk about — it’s one question that leads to another,” Carrick explained. “It’s just easier not to say anything.”
At which point Roman Polak, Carrick’s dressing-room neighbour from the Czech Republic, interrupted a reporter’s questions with loudly spoken demands.
“Have some balls,” Polak said to Carrick. “Who’d you vote for? Say it.” Carrick shook his head: “No.” Polak persisted: “Say it.” Carrick smiled and shook his head: “No. I’d rather not.”
That’s not to say the discussion hasn’t continued in earnest among the hockeyists. Given that pro athletes are granted vast swaths of free time, more than a few Toronto puck pursuers have used their off hours to become dedicated followers of the election saga. Morgan Rielly, the defenceman and accomplished general-interest conversationalist from Vancouver, has announced himself the fulcrum of the ensuing discussion.
“I’m a big CNN guy,” said Rielly. “Whether you’re American or Canadian, this election is a big deal. You can’t help but take interest. At least, I can’t, anyway.”
Some of Leafland’s U.S. citizens, the likes of New Jersey’s James van Riemsdyk and Michigan’s Matt Hunwick, said they’ve made it a priority in the past few weeks to print out the requisite forms and send in their ballots. Others have been less involved. Auston Matthews, the 19-year-old rookie from Scottsdale, Ariz., arrived at the team’s Halloween party dressed as Ken Bone, the red-sweatered internet sensation who rose to brief fame at one of last month’s debates. But the costume, an idea floated to Matthews by teammate Connor Brown, turned out to be the height of Matthews’s political engagement.
“I don’t think I’m voting. I haven’t really looked into it too much,” Matthews said a while back.
Matthews added that he’s “not really” a political person, and hasn’t been inclined to become one given the tone of this particular race.
“It’s a little wacky,” Matthews said. “Very wacky.”
Matthews wouldn’t be the first athlete to shy away from politics. Most do. Even when L.A. Dodgers slugger Adrian Gonzalez refused to stay with his road-tripping teammates at Chicago’s Trump International Hotel and Tower earlier this season — this presumably to protest Trump’s derogatory references to Mexican immigrants — Gonzalez, who like Matthews is an American with Mexican heritage, chose not to publicly elaborate on his reasons.
“We’re here to play baseball, not talk politics,” Gonzalez has said.
The Maple Leafs, as much as they’re clearly committed to playing the most promising brand of hockey this city has seen in years, aren’t averse to the occasional discussion about projected electoral-college maps.
“We look stupid, but we’re not that stupid,” said Polak, 30. “We talk politics a little bit. We know what’s going on. Guys are educated on that matter. So I think we’re pretty good at it.
Trump found himself in a media firestorm last month for dismissing videotaped boasts about forcibly kissing and groping women as “locker-room talk,” a sports tie-in that didn’t sit well with many athletes. Polak insisted the political back-and-forth around these particular stalls “is more serious than fun.”
“We’re just discussing what’s happening in the debates. What’s funny, what’s not, what’s important, what’s not,” Polak said. “Just like the regular people. We’re people, too, you know?”
Van Riemsdyk, for one, said he sees it as his duty as a citizen to be informed on civic issues, even if the 2016 campaign will go down as an unprecedented “circus.” But van Riemsdyk, like every other American Leaf polled, declined to say if he planned to side with LeBron or the Golden Bear, Clinton or Trump or otherwise.
“It’s always changing for me, so I don’t like to declare one way or the other,” said van Riemsdyk, 27. “Your views evolve as you get older. I just try to stay open-minded. I think that’s the best thing you can be is open-minded. Because once you think you know everything is usually when you’re screwed.”
Polak, perhaps tiring a little of the regular election discussion these past few weeks, recently lambasted a reporter for “digging” for partisan opinions from teammates who clearly preferred to keep such ideas private.
“It’s a personal matter,” Polak said. “You’re not going to get anything from us.”
Then the Czech defenceman smiled as he put a hand on a reporter’s shoulder: “Now, off the record …”