Somewhere along the way, Auston Matthews decided he would grow a moustache.
It took him weeks to cultivate. But he probably knew what it would look like in just a few minutes.
All he had to do was pop in the latest NHL 20 video game and go to the editing function, where you can change everything about a player’s appearance, from their hairstyle and stick tape to their goal celebration.
Want to see what Matthews looks like with a handlebar moustache or a Brent Burns-style beard? Want to dress him up like a lumberjack or something straight out of the 80s? It’s just a click away.
Matthews, who arrived to last week’s Player Media Tour in a light grey suit with a pair of white Givenchy sneakers, decided on a standard moustache, trimmed pencil-thin and dyed black (IRL, he added Just For Men), giving him a look that was fit for a Columbian drug lord.
“I like it. I like what he’s going for,” said Calgary’s Sam Bennett. “It’s more like Pablo Escobar-ish.”
“Without the beer belly,” added Matthews.
In the world of CHEL (as in NH-chel), gamers have long been able to customize their on-line players to match their own personality. In the actual NHL, players are finally doing the same.
It’s art imitating life. Or, in the case of Boston’s Brad Marchand performing a goal celebration that was straight out of the video game last season, it’s vice versa.
“They’re on very similar paths,” said William Ho, the creative director behind EA Sports’ NHL 20. “We’re seeing (P.K.) Subban and the young stars like Matthews who are really outspoken and into fashion and how they conduct themselves out in the world. But also the gaming trends are that people want to dress them up, unlock more rewards and customize them. That’s why games like Fortnight are so popular. They’re game trends but they align with hockey trends.”
Matthews, who is 21 years old, might be part of Generation Z, but he’s at the forefront of what NHL 20 has dubbed Generation Why Not.
“Coming from Arizona, it was different,” Matthews said in a recent promo for NHL 20, in which he appears on the cover. “Most of my friends played football, basketball, basketball. They asked, ‘Why hockey?’
“And I said, ‘Why not?’ ”
The message extends to everything: Why not grow a moustache or a beard? Why not wear a suit that attracts attention? Why not celebrate a goal in a way that makes you happy? Why not show your personality?
“Through these actions, through this swagger, he’s able to connect with new fans to help grow the game,” said Ho. “And now, in short order, he stands shoulder to shoulder with these other athletes in other sports, the (Conor) McGregors, the (Russell) Westbrooks and the (James) Hardens of the world who are not afraid to be their own person.”
Lou Lamoriello might not appreciate facial hair and Don Cherry famously called the Carolina Hurricanes a “bunch of jerks” for their post-win celebrations last season. But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he welcomes the individuality and fun that is spreading throughout the league, as long as it’s not contrived.
“Everybody being themselves is what I consider authentic,” Bettman told Postmedia News last week. “We’re letting the players — and encouraging them — to express themselves. And that’s what’s important to Gen Zs. In some respects, it’s represented a cultural change to the way teams have always in hockey presented themselves and the cohesiveness of team-first and I still believe that’s an essential element to the game. But younger people, younger players, view how they express themselves differently.”
This is still a relatively new concept in the NHL.
Sure, Matthews is getting props for being himself and having fun — and it helps that he can back it up — but at the same time a player such as Evander Kane, who this month is featured practically nude in ESPN’s Body Issue, is constantly being told that he is too flashy, something he attributes to racism.
“If you don’t acknowledge (the racial element) to some degree, you’re living in the shadows,” Kane told The Mercury News. “It’s an older mentality and something that (hockey) hasn’t caught up to. There’s nothing wrong with lights, camera, action and embracing the entertainment side of sports. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough guys who want to do that or think it’s important to do that. If you look at the four major sports, that’s why hockey ranks fourth.”
That’s changing. Slowly.
For years, Alex Ovechkin wasn’t afraid to have fun with his goal celebrations (remember his “my stick is too hot to hold” routine after scoring 60?) or to add flair to his wardrobe with tinted visors, yellow laces and even demonic goats on his skates.
“We have to have fun,” said Ovechkin. “Without fun, what can you do? I think for us to be on the ice is fun. We have to show it.”
Subban and recently retired Roberto Luongo have also embraced social media to interact with fans and help grow the sport on Twitter and Instagram. More are following their lead. But in the end, players have to do what feels comfortable.
“I think it’s unfair if you compare Auston Matthews to Taylor Hall or me to Taylor Hall,” said Subban. “We’re all different, so everybody’s going to do things different. Whether they have a social media account or not, whatever we do in the public eyes is going to look different. People just have different comfort levels in front of the camera and behind the camera. One thing that we all have in common is we feel comfortable on the ice.
“But as far as the game goes, just allowing players to be themselves, I think we’re seeing more of that now, where guys are more opinionated and tweeting.”
There’s an end goal to this. With more exposure will come more marketing opportunities — and thus, more money for the players and the league.
“We have to look at other sports where players are getting paid like hundreds of millions of dollars off the court,” said Subban. “Some of that is more than just marketing … they’re doing something right. But I think we’re on our way. The way that players handle themselves off the ice is going to help. I’ve seen improvements since I’ve been in the league. I’m happy with the way things are going.”
At the same time, the old-school mentality is not going away. For every Subban or Matthews there is a Bo Horvat, who would rather emphasize the crest on the front of his jersey than the name on the back and disable his Facebook account.
“I think it would be good for the game to show more personality, but I’m definitely not going to be the guy to do it,” said the Vancouver Canucks centre. “Hockey players are wired the exact same way. We’re humble and easy-going and stick-to-the-book when it comes to answers. We’re just so taught to be team-based. I’m definitely not going to be the guy to do it.
“We don’t tolerate that kind of stuff in the dressing room, where somebody thinks they’re better than the game or better than you.”
There’s a time and place for everything. Matthews acknowledges this.
In his first season with the Leafs, Lamoriello was his boss. Matthews didn’t have a moustache. He wouldn’t even dare to show up to a game with five o’clock shadow.
Three years later, he’s now embraced his role in the league. He’s one of the stars. And he’s having fun with it, as we saw at last year’s All-Star Game, when he won over the San Jose fans by taking off his jersey to reveal a Maple Leafs jersey with ex-Shark Patrick Marleau’s name on the back.
“I played three years now. I’m not a veteran or anything, but you kind of gain that experience, you gain that respect from your peers,” said Matthews. “You’re not going to walk in as a rookie and be on the cover of magazines or the cover of the NHL video game. But I think the more comfortable you get as the years go by, the more you can be yourself.”
In the words of Matthews: “Why not?”
KANE HELPED BRING OUT MATTHEWS’ FUN SIDE
You can thank Patrick Kane for helping to bring Auston Matthews out of his shell and into the spotlight.
It was a year ago in a wild back-and-forth high-scoring game when the two traded goals — and celebrations aimed at one another.
First, it was Kane performing an uppercut punch after scoring a tying goal with the goalie pulled that caused the arena to go ballistic. Seconds later, after Matthews gave the Maple Leafs another lead, he held up his hand to his ear in hopes of quieting the Chicago crowd.
Of course, they wouldn’t stay quiet for long.
After scoring yet another goal, Kane brought his hand up to his ear and smiled, as the camera panned to Matthews on the bench.
“That thing with Matthews, I wasn’t thinking about it before or anything. It just came to me,” said Kane. “It’s entertainment. It’s good for the game. We kind of laughed about it after.”
Indeed, few probably remembered that Morgan Rielly scored the overtime goal. But what they do remember are the theatrics Kane and Matthews performed.
“I like going into a game knowing there are 20,000 people out there who could potentially have all their eyes on you at one point in time throughout the game,” said Kane. “And you want to give them a show. You want that night or that moment to be entertaining for the fans.”