— -- TORONTO -- The war of words raging in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room is threatening to tear apart the very fabric that holds the room together.
It's pitting veteran against rookie, center against defenseman, American against Canadian.
Because his team plays in such a hockey-mad market, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock advised his young players to find something outside of the sport to take their minds off the pressure, to get some relief. He suggested bowhunting.
That's where the volley of insults started.
It was rookie Auston Matthews, he of the four-goal NHL debut, who launched the first verbal attack, targeting veteran forward Tyler Bozak and defenseman Morgan Rielly. He told Toronto reporters that they were the worst Call of Duty players on the team. By far.
On Tuesday, those words were relayed back to Rielly -- because journalism isn't dead.
"We heard about that," Rielly said of Matthews' comments. "We played with [Matthews] last night. He's the worst player on the team. He's the worst player on the this team by a mile."
A mile.?Those are strong words.
Now it's one teammate's word against another. The only way to break the stalemate was to find an outside witness.
It took dogged legwork, phone calls and emails, but another source emerged.
While Matthews plays Call of Duty on the couch in his condo, trash-talking teammates on his headset, his dad, Brian, watches from the dining room table. Brian is proud of of what his son -- the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft and one of the NHL's brightest young stars this season -- has accomplished.
But Auston's Call of Duty skills? Even dad isn't impressed.
"He's honestly awful," Brian Matthews said during a phone conversation on Tuesday afternoon. "He is the worst one. He has to play catch-up."
But Dad offered one bit of warning to the other Leafs. It won't last.
"I'll tell you, he won't be worst for long," Brian said. "He's got to be the best."
Hockey has a long tradition of young players sharing living arrangements with veterans when the former embark on their NHL careers.? Sidney Crosby stayed with Mario Lemieux. Alex Ovechkin lived with his parents and older brother Mikhail as a rookie in Washington, D.C. Connor McDavid lived with Taylor Hall. The season he won the Calder Trophy, Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad lived with Willie Mitchell;?Mitchell's wife, Megan; and their beagle, Pinot.
For the 19-year-old Matthews, it's been Dad. Brian Matthews moved with him to Toronto to help ease the transition to the NHL -- and his son is happy to have him around. When Auston famously scored the four goals on opening night, TV cameras caught his proud parents in the stands. His mom, Ema, was in town for the game too -- and in joyful tears. It was an unforgettable moment and as impressive a debut as any in NHL history.
But the sport has a funny way of evening things out, as Matthews is learning. After scoring six goals in his first six NHL games, he hasn't scored since. His goal drought has extended to 10 games.
It's not from a lack of opportunity. He leads all rookie forwards in shot attempts. He has hit the post multiple times. Toronto's coaching staff isn't concerned because Matthews is getting loads of scoring chances.
The puck is just not going in. That happens -- even to stars.
Matthews concedes it's getting frustrating. And that's where it's nice to have Dad around. Ema -- who lives back in Arizona with Auston's sisters -- is also in town this week.
They can offer small reminders that Matthews has endured slumps before. He went stretches without goals while playing in Switzerland last season. His dad remembers it happening twice while Auston was part of the United States National Team Development Program.
"The talk is about the goal drought. But we as a family, when he comes home, it's like, 'No big deal. You're generating chances, you're getting better,'" Brian Matthews said. "You're doing the things you need to do to become a better player in the NHL. You're learning."
Education has been the emphasis for Babcock too, whose video work with Matthews hasn't been focused on scoring goals. Rather, they have zeroed in on how to get the puck and then keep it. They've watched clips of Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg and of Matthews himself. Babcock showed one clip of Zetterberg getting the puck back three times just because he positioned himself in the right spot on the ice.
"What I showed with Sid was how, when he got [the puck] and he drew you to it, he got you out of position," Babcock said.
The Leafs could have eased Matthews in on the wing. Had they done that, his goal total might look closer to the 12 fellow rookie Patrik Laine has scored so far in Winnipeg as a winger. They didn't go that route. Matthews is a franchise centerman, and they're teaching him how to become one.
Whether Matthews is racking up goals or not, Babcock says they're right on track.
"We need him to be a dominant, dominant center for us," he said. "We think he's going to be one by Christmastime."
That's big praise. But Brian Matthews says that, even in the middle of a goal drought, his son embraces those expectations. "It's not something he shies away from," he said. "All that can do, even with the struggles, is make him a better player."
That's Auston's approach. While others might focus on the stat line, he's taking a big-picture approach to his season. His goal is to become the next Jonathan Toews or Anze Kopitar. Nobody cares how many goals those guys score each season. They just care whether they raise the Stanley Cup.
Maybe that's why Matthews appears to be taking it all in stride. On Tuesday morning, he casually hung out by his dressing-room stall, even after the cameras had left. None of the pressure or burden of being a young hockey star in Toronto was evident.
He had a quick smile. He said it's been great being around his dad -- someone he trusts and can talk things through with. And he laughed when it was suggested that it might be a culinary change from his mom, who cooked him his favorite meals, like her signature chicken tortilla soup, when she lived with him in Switzerland.
"I downgraded a little bit," he said. "She's here right now and I've absolutely been taking advantage of that."
Matthews likes having his dad around as a sounding board. He also was pleased with how he survived a stretch earlier this season when Brian had to go back home to Arizona and left his son alone in Toronto.
"I actually hung in there pretty well, was doing my own laundry, cooking every once in a while," he said. "I can cook a steak, stuff like that. I can't really do anything else. I'm more of a grill guy for sure."
He's still learning. It's why there's a support system in place. His parents were there to celebrate historic beginnings and now they're helping him work through the uneven middles.
"It's nice to have somebody you trust," Matthews said. "Somebody that's been through it all with you."