Auston Matthews blazing his own trail to NHL stardom
Along with the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the Matthews family imported a cupboard’s worth of Mexican food through Swiss customs last August. Dried cilantro, corn tortillas, jalapenos, assorted seasonings—all the home-cooking ingredients that Ema would need, but couldn’t find locally, while her only son Auston played professional hockey for the Zurich Lions. “He has a sauce that he really likes, a bottle of sauce that he puts to all his meals,” she says. “We pretty much have to bring the sauce with us everywhere. That was the first thing.”
Such foresight came in particular handy on Sept. 17, Auston’s 18th birthday. A team-wide party was held at the rink where Ema made tacos, fajitas, and her famous chicken tortilla soup. (At a home game the next day, several wives of players approached Ema for the recipe. “Best Mexican meal I’ve ever had,” says forward Ryan Shannon.) The highlight of the festivities, though, was the piñata shaped like a lion, dangled high from wires in the parking lot. The paper-mãché beast showed resilience, surviving one round of from everyone on the organizational flow chart. Then, former NHL coach Marc Crawford says, “we took off our blindfolds and beat the s--- out of that thing.”
Given the milestone’s meaning—and not just because Matthews could now legally drive in Switzerland—the celebration was fitting. By turning 18, the best American prospect in a decade was finally permitted to join the Lions, by then already four games into their season. This had been one of two conditions imposed by the Swiss government in granting Matthews a work permit under “specialist” status. This label rather undersells the talents of the teenage center who would lead USA in scoring at the 2016 World Championships. But after two months of delays and countless headaches, it would suffice for border entry.
The other stipulation required Matthews to graduate high school, which spiraled into several other issues. First, Matthews would’ve been entering his senior year that fall; there simply wasn’t enough time to take classes before the season. Second, the terms were settled in early August, when Matthews was attending evaluation camp for the national junior team, in Lake Placid, NY. So, like often happens on the ice, one swift move by Matthews solved everything. On 48 hours’ notice, he flew back to home in Arizona and passed the GED exam. The day after the test, he hopscotched to Zurich. On Sept. 18, late in the second period against HC Fribourg-Gottéron, he redirected a give-and-go on the breakout, his first goal in his first game. No more waiting around.
Forgive fans of Matthews’s future team for harboring similar feelings. Like the piñata, the Maple Leafs have endured their share of wallops. But hopes are trending upward for the franchise’s centennial season. Coach Mike Babcock has already made a meaningful impact. Forwards Mitch Marner and William Nylander are ready for full-time NHL roles. Goaltender Frederik Andersen came aboard via trade from Anaheim and then promptly signed for five years and $25 million. And now, when Toronto held serve with the NHL’s worst record and won the draft lottery, a singularly unique franchise center was dropped into its lap.
For no one has climbed this high quite like Auston Matthews.
Eight days before the June 24-25 NHL draft in Buffalo, Brian Matthews calls from his company’s headquarters in New Jersey, where he works as the chief technology officer. He commutes there roughly once per month, and timed this cross-country visit to coincide with Auston’s big moment. Ema is not working right now. She's back home in Arizona with Auston and Breyana, their youngest child. “She’s trying to keep the family sane with all the insanity going on around us,” Brian says.
There’s been plenty of that. Brian’s midseason trips to Zurich, usually toting two suitcases—one for clothes, another for more ingredients. Exhibitions for the world championships in Finland. The actual tournament in Russia, where Auston notched nine points in 10 games. An appearance at Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in San Jose, along with four other projected first-rounders. And now the family vacation in New York City, squeezed into the calendar before the Maple Leafs call Auston’s name at First Niagara Center. But let’s start when the madness kicked into overdrive, when Matthews began morphing from another highly touted North American skater into an international trailblazer.
“We thought it was going to be relatively easy.” So says Pat Brisson, Matthews’s agent and co-head of Creative Arts Agency’s division, a man experienced in finding European homes for North American skaters. But Matthews was different. In April 2015, he was playing in Zug, Switzerland, at the under-18 worlds. After two seasons in the Untied States’ National Development Team Program, Matthews was choosing between the two paths all top prospects took at that age—his list of NCAA schools had been slimmed to four, and the Everett Silvertips held his rights in the WHL. “Those are really his two options, and all of a sudden another option comes in,” says Marc Crawford, his future coach in Zurich. “It’s right in front of him.”
The exact moment that Matthews began considering the European route somewhat varies depending on the source, but the gist is this: While Matthews focused on playing in Switzerland, his parents and CAA reps were busy exploring the thought of him spending the 2015-16 season there too. “I met with the parents during the entire tournament, and Auston had no idea this was happening,” Crawford says. At least, not until after the U.S. beat Finland for gold and Matthews was named tournament MVP, at which point Crawford spoke with him for the first time. “They sprung this on him at the last moment and I can only imagine how people who are less mature, less put-together might’ve handled that,” Crawford says.
That night, while the team celebrated at its hotel in Lucerne, Auston and Crawford sat with Matthews’s parents on the outdoor patio. For the next two hours Auston pelted Crawford with questions—about competition in the Swiss National League, where Zurich had reached the finals for the second straight season; about other young players Crawford had steered in the past, like Anze Kopitar, Jamie Benn, and the Sedin brothers. Crawford didn’t live far from the hotel, but finally pulled into his driveway around 2 a.m.
“Talked a lot about our process and what I thought was important, what I thought we could do for him,” Crawford says. “He’s a bright kid. I got the impression that he was way beyond a 17-year-old at the time, he was actually very refreshingly centered and really directed in what he wanted. You could tell that he wanted to be a hockey player.”
The Matthews family has known this for years. For one birthday, Ema and Brian gifted him a white Arizona Coyotes jersey, which would eventually get covered in autographs and meet Daniel Briere. After ripping open the wrapping, Auston pulled the sweater over his head and bolted into the garage. Sensing her son’s excitement, Ema decided to encourage the dream. “If you work hard, you can get a very good scholarship in college,” she told him. Auston stopped stickhandling a puck around and looked at her. “But I want to play in the NHL.” Ema smiled, unsure how to react. “Well,” she replied, “you can do that too.” He had just turned six.
As he grew into the 6' 2", 210-pound battle tank that will soon inherit the hopes of Toronto, Matthews never lost this singular focus. Brian remembers Auston watching Pavel Datsyuk execute a nifty toe drag on television, and then spending two straight days practicing the move until it was perfect. “Even when he scored goals, it was like, ‘I’m happy I scored, but it’s not in the NHL yet,’” says Don Granato, Matthews’s USNDTP coach. Today, a running joke within the Arizona-based Bobcats youth hockey program stems from how Matthews handles summer camp assignments. “He’s the worst coach ever,” head instructor Ron Filion says. “He was playing harder than the kids who were three or four years younger. If you’re looking for somebody to beat up on little kids, you call Papi.”
Even Matthews’s longtime nickname suggests an image that belies his age. Crawford, for instance, likens his puck-protection and stickhandling skills to Stephen Curry. As his popularity soared—taking the streetcar to an August game proved an error when fans mobbed him for autographs—Auston never appeared to be fazed. Despite missing 14 games due to injury, he finished 10th in points. “I wouldn’t have known how to deal with it at all,” says teammate Shannon, who has 305 games of NHL experience with the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators. “He did everything as if he were a 10-year vet.”
And to think the experiment almost never happened.
By last August, the immigration process was still bringing headaches. The Matthews family had toured the Lions’ facility in Zurich right after the under-18 worlds finished, and Auston had settled on signing there upon returning stateside. He believed the Swiss League offered tougher, more experienced competition than Division I or the WHL. Plus, he liked the vibes from Crawford, Brisson says. Still, that was almost three months ago and no contract had been signed. In the time since, Crawford had gotten used to GM Edgar Salis entering his office, shaking head, and saying, “Doesn’t look good. Doesn’t look good.”
The major holdup concerned Matthews’s work permit. Since he had never played professional hockey anywhere else—being 17 years old and all—Matthews was technically ineligible to receive a visa under Swiss immigration regulations. “Honestly, the likelihood of this happening, we had a 10 percent chance,” Brisson says. “And the likelihood of him dropping off was probably at a rate of 90 percent.”
But when initial application was denied in June, but CAA pressed on. USA Hockey officials wrote letters of recommendation attesting to Matthews’s specialties. Brisson reached out to the American consulate in Switzerland. State authorities approved the paperwork, but federal offices in Bern balked, according to Laura Keegan, an attorney at Creative Arts Agency. At one point, Brisson says, the Lions had drafted a press release to explain why Matthews wouldn’t be coming, after all.
“It was tough to wait,” Matthews says. “That was definitely running through my head, wondering if it was going to happen.”
Brisson saw something different, more aligned with Matthews’s reputation for patience: “I kept telling him, ‘They say no for now but we’re going to be very persistent.’ He said, ‘I’m 100 percent committed to going there. You guys do whatever you can.’” Brisson asked again before Matthews left for Lake Placid, and Matthews set a deadline of the following week. The next morning, Brisson received a call from the American embassy, explaining the parameters—Matthews needed to finish high school, and wait until his 18th birthday to play. The contract was finalized by the next day. Shannon remembers thinking to himself, much like Maple Leafs fans did after the lottery, “We won the Auston Matthews sweepstakes.”
“There were a lot of people questioning why we couldn’t make a decision and what was going on with the Matthews and where was all the turmoil?” Brian says. “Most people didn’t understand that most of it was out of our control. It tested our patience and tested our resolve and what we believe was going to be in Auston’s best interest. There were so many moving parts. But in the end, it was the right thing and obviously it worked out for him and his development.” Indeed, Matthews not only became the first North American to spend his pre-draft year playing professionally in Europe, but returned with his status as 2016’s No. 1 prospect intact.
Much of this was owed to a total-family effort. Brian stayed in Arizona with Breyana, who still attends high school. Auston’s older sister, Alex, spent the fall semester in Zurich, tutoring him in online classes, so he could finish his high school diploma. (He still has two classes left: career planning and government.) Ema, meanwhile, quit her job in the restaurant industry to live with Auston the entire year. A native Mexican who received her U.S. citizenship in 2002, she made enchiladas in their two-bedroom apartment. On Sundays, they strolled along Lake Zurich. “This is your job,” she told him, even though he rarely needed reminding.
“He knew that’s why he was there,” she says now.
Those close to Matthews believe this attitude will help him handle the new levels of attention awaiting at his next destination. “When I would challenge him and get on him and get in his face, he’d almost snarl at me,” Granato says. “Like it was, ‘No matter how hard you get on me, I’m getting on myself harder, so it doesn’t really matter what you do.’ All the stuff in Toronto?” Please. “This guy burns from the inside.”
They also believe that, just like Matthews quickly endeared himself to both U.S. veterans at worlds and what Crawford calls “our most jaded Swiss players,” the kid should have no problem fitting in despite the attention. Granato remembers when USNDTP teammates began reflexively rising on the bench whenever Matthews had the puck. “They’re just getting up to see what he’s going to do next.” In Arizona, when word leaks that Matthews will be skating at his old local rink, Filion knows a long line of local youth will soon follow. Just like he asked Crawford about the Lions, so too was Matthews always picking Shannon’s brain about what to expect back home.
“A lot of guys were always interested in what type of cars do guys buy, and what type of clothes, the stuff that surrounds the game,” Shannon says. “He wasn’t interested in that stuff at all. He would always ask questions specific to hockey. What were practices like? He liked talking about sticks, different patterns and flexes and the curves.”
All this trailblazing stuff, though? “As much as it ends up having these post facto effects of it a pioneer-type thing, it didn’t come that way,” says Judd Moldaver, the CAA agent who first thought of the Matthews-to-Switzerland option. “None of that was even creeping in.” But it was inevitable. Barring some major surprise by Toronto, Matthews should become the first Sun Belt product ever drafted No. 1 overall, and the first American taken atop the draft since Patrick Kane in '07. This gives him pride. “You look at the guys coming out of these southwestern markets, people don’t expect they have hockey or produce good players,” he says. “They’re rapidly growing.”
Signing in Zurich was less important in this regard. Besides, it might be tough for future prospects to follow the same path, if only because Crawford describes Matthews’s impact on the Swiss League like this: “They won’t see a player like that for a long, long time.” Last summer, Shannon remembers feeling impressed that a teenager was even considered capable of making the overseas move. But as the process dragged on, he grew skeptical. “There’s a little like, Ah, it might too be good to be true,” Shannon says. “No one had ever done this before. But I was wrong.”
“That’ll be a common storyline throughout his career.”