LAS VEGAS — Everyone has a different standard on when they’ve “made it” as a professional. Like when Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews started earning pro-level money and made his first gluttonous purchase: a Rolex.
“That was probably the first thing, in getting to the NHL, that I bought,” he told the ESPN On Ice podcast recently. “I didn’t have a watch, and I like jewelry. I went through some people on the team who knew people, and ended up getting one.”
Another moment of affirmation for the 21-year-old center: Making the cover of EA Sports’ “NHL 20” video game, which will be released on Sept. 13. He joins other recent cover athletes like Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban.
We caught up with Matthews at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas to talk video games, fashion, Sin City as well as what it was like for the Toronto Maple Leafs to watch the Boston Bruins make the Stanley Cup Final and the Toronto Raptors win the NBA title. Enjoy!
ESPN: EA Sports NHL cover boy. Where does this rank in career achievements?
Auston Matthews: I definitely ranks up there pretty high. I haven’t accomplished too much. [Laughs] But it’s pretty awesome. I grew up playing the game. Every Christmas, I would get the latest game, so I was always looking forward to that. To be on the cover is pretty special.
I played Xbox, for the most part. But my first game was for the PlayStation portable, NHL 06. I think Ovechkin was on the cover. That was the first game. That kickstarted it. I played pretty much sports games. NHL, Madden, stuff like that.
ESPN: Do you still play today? More to the point, are you a phantom player in online leagues and people don’t know they’re playing Auston Matthews?
Matthews: [Laughs] Yeah, I wish. Not good enough. I do play, though. I go through these weird stretches where I’ll play a ton of video games and then I won’t turn on my Xbox for like six months, which is what I’m kind of doing right now. But I played P.K. [Subban] a little bit the other day when we were doing some stuff and I kicked his ass. So I know I still got it.
ESPN: How were you able to avoid the FORTNITE craze?
Matthews: I’ve played it. Like I said, I go through stretches were a play a lot of games, and FORTNITE was one of them. I don’t think it ever got to the point where I was playing all night and not sleeping. I didn’t play to the point where it was affecting my life. But I would play three or four hours a day after getting home from practice. Log on and play with all the boys. But nothing too crazy.
ESPN: No, you’re not from Finland.
ESPN: I wanted to bug you about fashion. In the last year, you’ve done modeling for GQ and other magazines. Every time these spreads come out, they go viral. How did you get into fashion? At what age did you decide you were going to dress better than your peers?
Matthews: I’ve always kind of been into it, but not until I actually had money. Switzerland was nice, just because it’s different over there. That’s how it started. It must have been brutal … I can’t even remember what I was wearing in Switzerland, but I was an 18-year-old kid, finally getting a paycheck, so I was like “I’m going to buy some crazy s—.”
ESPN: Because you’re in Europe, where the crazy stuff is.
Matthews: Exactly, so I was like let’s see how it goes. That’s how it started.
ESPN: Did you poke around at the reaction to some of the spreads you’ve done? In particular, the red coat?
Matthews: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean … everybody’s going to have an opinion. I don’t really care, but I’ll peek around sometimes. I’m not going to give some person who’s behind their phone the power to make me feel a certain way. It’s fine. Not everybody is going to love it, or love you. It’s something you accept, and move on.
ESPN: You seem to get it, that there’s a certain template for what NHL players wear to the rink. Then you look at the NBA, which is clearly leaps and bounds ahead of us as far as marketing themselves, and what they wear to the game and in the postgame becomes its down story.
Matthews: They’ve turned it into a business platform essentially. They’re profiting off of what they’re wearing. It’s like a big runway for them. It helps out everybody: The NBA, the players, the marketability of each individual. The NHL’s kind of a bit behind that, but you’re getting younger players that are coming in and they’re not wearing the traditional black suit to the game. They’re wearing different stuff, hats, and whatever. It’s not getting to the [NBA] level yet, but it’s growing more and more.
ESPN: We were talking a little bit before about the Apple commercials that you and Mitch Marner did. It seems like this generation has been a little more assertive in getting their personalities out there.
Matthews: Fans want to see that. I know for myself, when I was younger, when those HBO 24/7 shows came out, it was awesome. I couldn’t get enough of them. I watch them over and over. That’s what fans really like. I think that’s what’s happening more and more: Fans getting a little behind the scenes access to our lives. It’s not just hockey. It’s other stuff we enjoy. Fans love that stuff. And as a fan growing up, I loved that stuff.
For the [Apple] ad, I was video taping, so I obviously had no idea what I was doing. I showed up and they said, ‘Take this.’ They gave me a little tool and told me to follow Mitch around. It sounded easy enough, but it wasn’t. But it was a lot of fun.
ESPN: Was the first time you went to the NHL Awards your first time in Vegas?
Matthews: I played a lot of hockey tournaments here. For some reason the parents loved coming here. Then they’d show up to the rink in sunglasses the next day. [Laughs] But I never got to experience it [until the Awards]. You run into guys, as we’re pretty much staying at the same hotel and going to the same events, nightlife, casinos and stuff like that. Even if you know them or not, it’s nice to say hi to them.
ESPN: On to the Maple Leafs: How long does it take you to decompress after the season ending the way it did?
Matthews: It takes a while. Once the finals are over, you kind of get your mind off the season itself and start to focus on the next season. It leaves a sour taste in your mouth. A “what could have been.” But you use it as motivation. Toronto winning the NBA title … you just see the excitement and the passion and craziness in the street for the parade. Them winning a title … it gives you motivation as well to accomplish the ultimate goal. Toronto is a sports city, and hockey is the top of that list. It serves as a lot of motivation to us.
ESPN: Can you be a fan and watch the Stanley Cup Final? Or does it become tough because Boston’s in it?
Matthews: I mean, you watch, but don’t watch much when you’re out. Just a couple of games here and there. One of my best friends always throws it on, and I’m like “I really don’t want to watch this,” but I’m not going to make him turn it off. So I end up watching a couple of games.
ESPN: The last time we talked was at the All-Star Game when you did your Patrick Marleau tribute. How tough has it been for you to see a father figure move on from the Leafs? [Note: Marleau was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes prior to this interview, and had his contract bought out afterwards.]
Matthews: It was tough. He’s meant a lot to me. He’s meant a lot to a lot of guys on this team. He’s someone I still keep in touch with throughout the offseason. He’s been incredible to me. Just a person with all the experience that he has, not only in hockey but in life, to have that as a [sounding board] has been great. Nothing changes as far as our relationship goes.
ESPN: Last time I saw you, you hadn’t signed your contract extension. But we did talk about Mitch and what that contract would mean for him. It’s become a weird summer with him being a restricted free agent and having what seems like a tense negotiation with Toronto. Has it been at all weird for you?
Matthews: Yeah, I mean, not really. We’ve talked a couple of times. Not about hockey or contracts. Just talked. I think he was here for Matt Martin‘s bachelor party and was texting me to see if I was going, and I had another buddy’s party I was going to instead.
ESPN: I guess the last question is what an NHL player bachelor party in Las Vegas looks like? Are there rooms that I could never see in my entire life that you’re getting into?
Matthews: [Laughs] It’s fun. That’s all I can say. It’s fun.