This story originally appeared in a Fall 2018 issue. But as the Leafs re-start their season this weekend, it’s time to get reacquainted with Auston Matthews.
Auston Matthews is under the media interrogation lamp again. Swarmed by reporters at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ training camp, he’s being barraged with a line of questioning that’s already reached Groundhog Day-levels of repetition — and the season hasn’t even begun. How have contract talks been going? What are your thoughts on John Tavares? Who should be captain?
“Do you have any personal goals for this season?” one journalist volleys.
“Yeah,” says Matthews. “They’re personal.”
The Leafs centre is well-acquainted with scrutiny. At 21, he’s something of a wunderkind — the Calder trophy-winning, superhuman talent hailed as Toronto’s beacon of hope for bringing home the Stanley Cup. For the past two years, he’s been the most closely watched player in the world’s biggest hockey market — yet has managed, somehow, to exist under the radar. Access to his innermost thoughts has been kept under lock and key.
Lately, however, something’s different about Matthews. When we speak, he seems somewhat looser, less practiced, and more inclined to open up. It’s possible answering the exact same question ad infinitum — mainly, whether he or Tavares, the Toronto-born star centre the Leafs signed in the off-season, deserves to wear the ‘C’ — is making him a little loopy.
“I was at a media tour last week and every single person I talked to asked me that [captaincy] question,” Matthews tells me. “So, my answer has just been ingrained into my mind. It gets painful sometimes. In Toronto, you know, there’s lots of media and lots of stuff that gets blown out of proportion when it’s not really that big of a deal. That’s just part of playing in such a big market.”
Just hearing Matthews speak like this — candidly — is startling. Though perhaps it’s not by accident. Kyle Dubas, the 32-year-old general manager the Leafs appointed in May, has voiced a willingness to allow his players to “really express themselves.” It’s a reversal of a decree by his old-school predecessor Lou Lamoriello, who preached crest over individuality, urging Leafs to keep low profiles (and clean-shaven faces). Now, they’re free to do things like have discernable identities, or, you know, star on magazine covers.
This is a critical moment for Matthews. On the cusp of the most anticipated Leafs season in decades, the part-Latino, Arizona native — and first-ever No.1 draft pick from the Sun Belt — has a chance to become the new great face of North American hockey. One that could raise the profile of the entire NHL, helping the sport reach untapped demographics. But to accomplish this, like any Wheaties box-worthy athlete today, he’ll need to start getting personal.
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This year, the Leafs’ popular subreddit started calling Matthews a new nickname: “Big Cactus.” It’s as much an allusion to his desert upbringing as his seemingly untouchable disposition with the media. (“Prickly boi” is used alternatively.) He’s not particularly fond of it.
“I saw that on the Internet a while ago,” Matthews snickers. “I didn’t think it would stick. That was Shaq’s nickname, wasn’t it? I’m not sure I really like it, to be honest.”
Would you consider yourself a prickly person?
“No I would not.”
“I’m not a hardo. In hockey, it’s kind of traditional to play the tough-guy role, but I think deep down, everybody’s got their soft side.”
Besides, Matthews prefers his other, less bristly nickname: “Papi.” It was coined by his mother Ema, who’s Mexican. (His dad is American). “In Spanish, it means, like, little guy or little buddy.”
Papi was born in 1997 — a year after the Winnipeg Jets relocated to Phoenix — and grew up in Scottsdale. After attending a Coyotes game at 2, he was hooked on hockey. Ice being scant in the desert, he cut his teeth on an undersized rink that could only accommodate three-on-three games. Matthews had to learn to stickhandle in cramped spaces — a skill that, as it turns out, would become his cover-blowing superpower. At 17, he shattered the United States National Team Development Program’s single-season goals record, previously shared by Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel. When the Leafs got first dibs in the 2016 NHL draft, he was a no-brainer.
It would take Matthews little time to become Toronto’s hockey messiah. In his first game, he scored within just eight minutes. Then he did it again, and again, and again — the only player to ever notch four goals in an NHL debut. Just as miraculous was how he scored them: dancing around Ottawa Senators veterans in casket-tight corners, controlling the puck with incomprehensible, lacrosse-like ease. All this at 19. Suddenly, Leafs fans were howling their sarcastic, self-deprecating catchphrase — “Plan the parade!” — without a trace of irony.
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Matthews’s playing style — elusive, comfortable in his own space — also sums up his off-the-ice demeanour. But if you were him you’d want a bubble, too. Leafs fans are a rabid, obsessive, tormented people — and they’re banking on him to deliver Toronto its first championship since the Beatles were touring. “You sometimes run into an older person who’s begging you to win a Stanley Cup before they die,” he says. When Matthews strolls down the street in Arizona, “nobody really knows you.” When he tries it in Toronto, he’s basically Beyoncé. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but some days you don’t want to be bothered.”
It’s an unsettling amount of expectation for anyone. “Obviously, I have a lot to prove,” he admits. “I’m just trying not to get too ahead of myself. I still want to have fun. I’m still a kid.”
Matthews has stood witness to the dark underbelly of Leafs Nation. There’s one unsavoury fan encounter that sticks out in his mind. He was at a restaurant with his father when a 50-something couple, seemingly inebriated, asked him for a selfie. “I was like, ‘Sorry, do you mind? I’m eating dinner with my dad right now. If you guys are going to wait around, I’d love to take a picture with you afterwards.’”
Following dinner, the male fan approached Matthews again. “We took a picture together and he was kind of a dick. He was like, ‘Do you know so-and-so?’ I said no. And he went, ‘Well, he’s going to kick your ass tomorrow.’ And he didn’t mean on the ice. He meant physically — like I was going to get beaten up. I was like, ‘What?’”
The ominous threat was neither the first nor last time Matthews has dealt with trolls. “They’re everywhere,” he sighs.
Today’s sports heroes are expected to be more accessible than ever — cue to J.R. Smith hanging around in public topless, or Eugenie Bouchard dating a Twitter follower. In the social media era, constant — even intimate — communication with fans is the new normal. But Leafs fans are a different beast altogether. Faced with generations of relentless defeat, they harbour vengeful, hostile demons. When you disappoint them, they attack.
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During last season’s playoffs, Matthews fell into a slump, struggling to score against the Boston Bruins. Leafs Nation let him hear about it where they knew a 20-year-old would hear it loudest: his DMs. “If you have a bad game, it’s not like somebody isn’t going to tweet you telling you how bad you are — it’s just going to happen,” he says. “You try not to think about it. It’s somebody behind a keyboard and half the time, they have no profile picture. But I think it plays a bigger role nowadays. Everybody’s on social media. We see all the stuff that’s being said about us — we’re being tagged in it.”
Don’t @ Papi. He will read it.
Over the summer, Matthews did his level best not to think about hockey. He flew to Mexico, went spearfishing, hiked through a canyon, and chilled with family in Arizona. But most crucially, he went shopping. Retail therapy is Matthews’s trip — his preferred way to unplug — and sneakers are his drug of choice. His most prized grail? “I got the Off-White Chuck Taylors,” he says. “I’ve only worn them once because I’m so scared to get them dirty.” (Which is still more often than he’s been donning the Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 v2 Zebras he copped last year: “I feel like those are oversaturated nowadays. I like how they were limited, but now it seems like they’re everywhere.”)
You’ll catch Matthews rocking slicker pre-game looks than the average hockey player. (For the record, he calls Zach Hyman the worst-dressed Leaf: “I still give him a hard time about this clunky pair of winter boots.”) Fashion is his second passion, one he developed while playing for Switzerland’s top pro league as a teen. “They wear some pretty different, out-there stuff in Europe,” he says. “As an American, seeing that for the first time, it was actually eye-opening. And I was starting to get money and wanted to try out new stuff.”
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If there’s one aspect of Dubas’ “Express Yourself” movement Matthews is especially fond of, it’s the chance to more prominently flex his personal style (“a mix of the business look and street look”) as part of his personal brand. A big Russell Westbrook fan, he thinks the NHL could benefit from engaging in its own fashion wars. “Hockey is different,” he says. “Basketball, football, and baseball, they like to market players individually. That’s something hockey hasn’t quite gotten into yet. It has a lot of culture, a lot of embedded roots. It’s very team-oriented. But I don’t think it hurts to push the top players and what they do, what they wear. It helps grow the game.”
Clearly, Matthews understands the NHL’s ratings problem in the U.S.: its players are anonymous. While other athletes make noise by stunting at Fashion Weeks or belting tunes on Carpool Karaoke, hockey players are instructed to keep their heads down. Flashiness is frowned upon. P.K. Subban, he of wide-brimmed hats and rockstar goal celebrations, is the only other NHLer with any flavour, and he’s considered “controversial” for it.
But Matthews could be just the crossover hero the league needs. He’s American and has got the generational talent thing nailed. With his Hypebeast-worthy steez and pre-Pirates Johnny Depp looks, he’s got fashion icon potential. Heck, he breaks the mould just by having an atypical (read: non-white) hockey parent: “My mom grew up on a ranch. Visiting my grandparents — my nana and tata — as a kid, it’s very different than how even my dad or I grew up. It gives you a different perspective, as you get older, as to how privileged we are. Being part-Mexican is something I’m very proud of.”
If he starts speaking up more, he’ll become the kind of superstar Drake namedrops in bangers. “I know,” he says. “I’ve been waiting for it.”
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Expectations are towering for the Leafs this season and Matthews knows it. By adding Tavares to their lineup, they’ve become the betting favourites to win the Stanley Cup. Even players on opposing teams (see: Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane) are picking the Buds to take it all this year. We could say Matthews hasn’t been losing sleep over it, but we’d be lying.
It’s not that he’s worried about collapsing under the pressure. If anything, the presence of another transcendent star like Tavares helps draw heat away from him. And sure, the endless captaincy inquisition and crazed fanbase and army of trolls can be overwhelming, but he’s capable of filtering all that out when he needs to. What truly keeps him up is a question about Leafs Nation. One he’s been asking himself ever since he came to the 6ix, over and over again, compulsively: If we win the Stanley Cup, just how loud will these people get?
“I can’t imagine how insane it would be to win in a city like Toronto,” he says. “Just because they love the Leafs and the players and they’re so passionate. It’s actually something I think about quite a bit. I want to win so badly, and so does everybody on the team. We have a product that can really compete for a championship. When I’m lying in bed at night and thinking about what it would be like, it’s just… it’s insanity. Honestly.”
Plan the parade.