Is Auston Matthews ready to be the new face of the NHL?

With a Calder Trophy and a Stanley Cup playoff appearance in his first season, expectations are high for Auston Matthews in his second year. Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

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When Auston Matthews made his debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs last fall, perched in the 300-level nosebleeds of Ottawa's Canadian Tire Centre was Samuel Siboko, a 20-year-old rapper and quasi-hockey fan. Siboko barely knew anything about Matthews; he was there with a friend because they scored cheap tickets. Four hours later, Siboko walked into the crisp autumn night entranced. He didn't know what he had seen, just that it was special. The 19-year-old Matthews scored a whopping four goals, and Siboko couldn't stop thinking about it. Weeks later, Siboko was in the recording studio that doubles as his living room, listening to a new beat from a friend. He loved it but couldn't match lyrics to its low, lurching chorus. He let his mind drift, but it kept returning to hockey's newest sensation.

"Everyone just kept saying his name," says Siboko, who goes by the stage name SVDVM. "So I was like, 'Let me put it to a beat.'" SVDVM's "Auston Matthews" -- with the inspired hook: "Auston Matthews ... Auston Matthews ... hit 'em with the four like Auston Matthews" -- had a strong run on Spotify playlists and clubs in The Six last winter.

Songs often take inspiration from folk heroes -- rarely rookies. But Matthews' first season was nothing short of historic. With 40 goals and 69 points, the center posted the best freshman season in the Leafs' 100-year existence. He easily clinched rookie of the year, taking home the Calder Trophy as the Leafs leaped from last place in 2015-16 to the playoffs. He has the league's fourth-best-selling jersey. "Any hockey player in this city gets a lot of attention," says Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly. "But it's a little different for Auston."

After the season, Matthews returned to his hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona, and crashed with his parents, looking for all the comforts of family, including his mom's famous tortilla soup. It didn't take long to realize that his safe harbor extended past his parents' front lawn. He started Pilates classes at a local studio, but his name didn't register with the instructor. He went to the mall, and after a lap around the concourse, he noticed: Nobody was watching him. Matthews called a restaurant, gave his full name and marveled when the hostess simply said OK. "You know," Matthews says, "what normal people do." In July, Matthews visited Southern California, where Frederik Andersen, the Leafs' starting goaltender, makes his offseason home. They sat for hours on the waterfront deck of a Laguna Beach restaurant, and only one person approached them.

Pretend for a second we're talking about Aaron Judge, whose bat and towering presence have already made the rookie the new face of the Yankees, if not baseball. Would any of this anonymity make sense? Yet such is the reality for Matthews, arguably one of the most captivating hockey talents in a generation. "In America," Matthews says, "if I'm not at an ice rink, nobody knows who I am."

This is a problem, and not just for Matthews.

Toronto hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1967, and season after season of rebuilds have left Leafs fans wearing paper bags over their heads, even tossing jerseys onto the ice during games. In 2016, Toronto used the No. 1 pick of the draft to select a 6-foot-3, 216-pound kid from Arizona whose mom just happens to be from Mexico: Auston Matthews.

His first goal in his debut against the Senators came 8 minutes and 21 seconds in. Matthews pounced on a loose puck in the slot, swiping it past Senators goalie Craig Anderson. Cameras located his parents, Brian and Ema, in the stands as they kissed, hugged and pumped their fists (in that order). Less than six minutes later, Matthews knocked the puck out of the air, poked it through the legs of Mike Hoffman, then scooted around Ottawa's über-skilled captain, Erik Karlsson, on the boards. Marc Methot flailed on his stomach across the ice as a last-ditch attempt; no match for the 19-year-old's short-side shot. He made Ottawa look silly, getting the puck into the back of the net two more times, and by the end, Ema was sobbing. Her son had made history, becoming the first player to score four goals in his debut. Virtually every NHL player with a Twitter account chimed in. "Since the start of this game I didn't even have a chance to drink 4beers," Kings winger Marian Gaborik wrote. "And he's got 4goals." Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo declared that his backup would play all games against Toronto. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang invited Matthews to his beer league -- no matter the kid was two years away from legally drinking in his home country.

After finishing 40-27-15 -- Toronto's winningest season in a decade -- Matthews had created outsized expectations. A parade down Yonge Street no longer sounded like a punchline to fans.

"He is exactly what the Leafs needed," says Wendel Clark, a former Toronto captain also selected No. 1 overall (in 1985). "He's also what the NHL needs right now. Indirectly, he's promoting the sport in all of North America."

But is he? Or rather: Can he shine in the Maple Leafs system? He was Toronto's lone All-Star last season, and yet his image never appeared on a billboard inside the city. That's very much by the Leafs' design. General manager Lou Lamoriello believes the face of the franchise is, and always will be, a royal blue image of a leaf. Despite fresh successes, coach Mike Babcock is fond of saying the Leafs won't "deviate from the plan." Every rookie is shielded from extra attention, blocked from in-game interviews -- and even barred from taped JumboTron segments like reading mean tweets.

The team's restrained marketing approach to its transcendent talent is all the more remarkable given how much it values Matthews' performance. On a team that signed veterans in hopes of returning to the playoffs, it's telling that the Leafs have not yet named a captain, dangling the 'C' in front of Matthews like an inevitability. Even if he gets the title, the directive from management is simple: Matthews can speak but shouldn't be treated differently from anyone else. And so for the sake of Toronto's plan, imbued by well-worn tradition, the next great face of American hockey remains hidden above the border.

Matthews was born in Scottsdale in 1997, a little over a year after the Winnipeg Jets relocated to Phoenix. His uncle Billy, a Coyotes season-ticket holder, brought his nephew to his first game when he was 2, and by 6, Auston was asking for skates. Ema grew up on a ranch in Hermosillo, Mexico, and knew little about hockey. Brian played baseball in college. They spoke English and Spanish around the dinner table; at home they called Auston "Papi."

In the NHL's ongoing battle for visibility, Matthews is already billed as a success story. Commissioner Gary Bettman told a summit on youth sports in July: "People make fun of us because we fight to preserve a franchise in Arizona, of all places. But one of the stars for the ages, who just played his first year for the Toronto Maple Leafs, came from Scottsdale." Bettman began splattering teams across the Sun Belt as soon as he became commissioner in 1993 -- believing a larger American footprint would correlate with better branding and sponsorships. It's paid off, at least locally. In Matthews' lifetime, the number of hockey players in Arizona has more than tripled, from 2,349 to 7,781. "In terms of interest in hockey [in Arizona], it's been incredible the difference from when I first got here to where it is now," says Shane Doan, who retired in the summer after 20 seasons with the Coyotes.

But the story of hockey's larger growth has been shaky at best. While teams such as the Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning have reached or won the Stanley Cup finals, the ebb and flow of new fan bases has caused the relocation machine to churn. The Jets gave birth to the Coyotes, but in 2011, the Jets were reborn in Winnipeg when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated. The Coyotes have suffered too; in 2009, the team had to be rescued from bankruptcy by the NHL and was run for years by the league.

While leaguewide attendance remains steady, individual teams in places such as Raleigh, North Carolina, and Sunrise, Florida, struggle. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the NHL is a distant fourth in ratings to the NFL, the NBA and MLB.

All of which means the need for a truly transcendent player in hockey is that much greater.

If hockey wants a crossover celebrity, the type of athlete with dazzling skills who reaches new demographics, it should almost thank central casting for sending along Matthews. "People always stop him and ask for pictures," says Rielly. "He always stops, but he's reserved every time. It doesn't seem natural for him. He hasn't gotten used to it; he really doesn't like the attention that much."

At this point, though, he has appeared in exactly one commercial ... for a hockey stick. Matthews is sponsored by Bauer, the hockey equipment manufacturer, and that's about it. He shares an agent with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, someone who has experience being the next face of hockey. Crosby enjoys endorsements from Reebok and Gatorade and is now firmly at the level where he can't wander around a mall unnoticed. But he never makes noise off the ice. He makes himself available to reporters at his locker each day but rarely says anything unpredictable. Everything about Matthews' career -- from an unusual draft-year stint playing in the Swiss league to limited media exposure -- has been curated for a similar arc.

For the past three decades, the NHL's marketing arm has relied on a tightly structured strategy, promoting the league through two appointed rivals, à la Batman vs. Superman. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux graduated to suits and front offices. Then came Crosby and Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, who are now in their 30s. Likewise, Matthews is the natural foil to Edmonton Oilers wunderkind Connor McDavid.

This strategy doesn't allow for individuality, the petty tweets or fashion stunts that mark other leagues. The NHL courts compliance and calls it tradition. Players bow their heads and do what they're told, which softens their Q rating. P.K. Subban, the Nashville defenseman of bow-and-arrow celebration and fur-coat fame, is the outlier -- and he gets called "divisive" for having fun.

It's completely at odds with the rest of the sports world. Aaron Judge landed in a sketch on the Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon before he made his first All-Star team. Texans rookie QB Deshaun Watson fed the hype by showing up for his first game in a tux, then donated his paycheck to stadium workers affected by Hurricane Harvey. The entire world knew about Lonzo Ball before he was drafted.

"I'd like Connor McDavid to go out and date a celebrity," Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin says. "Go to the ESPYS like P.K. I'd love for the game to keep getting bigger and bigger. P.K. is maybe a little extra sometimes, but he's personable."

That extra is what it takes to be a star athlete. In the NHL, though, what sets you apart is often what makes you a problem. Matthews could be a once-in-a-generation star, pushing hockey toward a new -- and diverse -- fan base. But only if hockey lets him.

It's two weeks before the start of the regular season in Toronto, and inside the Leafs' practice rink, Matthews peels off sweaty socks after the morning skate. As soon as he flings his jersey into the communal laundry basket, a dozen reporters descend upon his stall. "Wait, you want me to talk again?" Matthews says. "We did this, like, 10 hours ago." It would be easy to read Matthews' interview apprehension as snarky, but it seems incredulous more than anything. The next big face of hockey almost doesn't realize that people care about what he has to say. So he obliges, and for five and a half minutes he stands stoically and ambles through careful sound bites.

National anthem protests? A no-go because "it's like a dishonor to the men and women who fight for that flag, that fight for the U.S."

It's clear he's trying to exercise his voice in small increments. That's the tricky part about celebrity -- in order to develop a voice, you have to be expected to have one. You have to want it, as much as anything else. Matthews will be a star, but the question is whether he'll fit the NHL's mold or develop into something of his own making. He is 20, and it's a choice he himself has to make. As the scrum unfolds, Matthews is asked a question that will chase him through his career: How does he want to be a role model for Hispanic children?

Standing away from his teammates with his arms crossed, Matthews rocks his weight from his left leg to his right. "Oh yeah," he says, pausing a moment.

"I'd like to -- I think -- in the future be someone kids can look up to."