If the hockey world ever undergoes a vibe shift, Auston Matthews wouldn’t just survive it—he would be the whole damn face of it. The Toronto Maple Leafs superstar is about as atypical as NHLers come: half-Mexican, from the desert, infatuated with streetwear, besties with Justin Bieber. He’s not quite your traditional, take-it-one-shift-at-a-time, Keith Urban-loving grinder, but he’s just what the sport needs if it intends to one day grow.
When I first interviewed Matthews a few years ago, it was part of a splashy photoshoot for a fashion magazine that got its fair share of chirps from the hockey media. The NHL, after all, is a team-first league where players get elbowed for trying to stand out. But as hockey ratings continue to dwindle and enrollment numbers keep shrinking, more observers are calling on the sport to shed its antiquated customs and allow athletes to express themselves.
And so, the Leafs forward has kept on doing just that. He’s grown out a now-iconic moustache, pierced his ears, and rocked pre-game fits—back when his team briefly flirted with a relaxed dress code—that might make Jordan Clarkson think twice before leaving the house in what he’s wearing. It’s no wonder Lids just announced him as the first hockey player the hat retailer’s ever partnered with. The 24-year-old is the closest thing the NHL has to a bigger-than-the-game pop cultural icon.
“I think a lot of the traditional things are what makes hockey so great and all of us really appreciate and respect that, but I definitely think there’s other avenues and ways the game can be expanded to help it grow and become more popular in a sense,” Matthews tells Complex Canada. “You know, it can get to a place where when a person hears about hockey, it’s not just like, ‘Oh, that’s the sport that middle class white guys play.’”
He points to the Leafs’ recent jersey collaboration with Bieber’s Drew House fashion line as something “hockey probably needs more of.” And if you scoff at him for breaking the sport’s culture of conformity, then consider this: As Matthews has become more comfortable flexing his individuality and steez, his game has transcended as well. He’s on pace to win his second Rocket Richard Trophy in a row, currently leading the league in goals. He’s also the MVP front-runner. So chirp Papi all you want—he probably won’t hear you.
We hopped on a call with Matthews to chat about his status as the NHL’s fit king, his hope for hockey to evolve, his close friendship with Bieber, and his potential future in the music industry. The convo, edited for clarity, is below.
First off, I’ve gotta ask: Are you rocking a hat right now?
[Laughs.] No, not right now. I got home not too long ago, but I was wearing one earlier and I’d say I probably wear one every day. I’m a pretty big hat guy, whether that be, like, a snapback or beanie—or a toque, as they like to call it here.
Right on. I like that you’ve picked up the Canadian word of toque.
I don’t really say toque a lot, to be honest. I hear other guys say it, and I know what it is, but for some reason, I can’t really get down with it. I’ve always said, like, beanie for some reason. I think it’s probably just an American thing, maybe. And the toque part is a Canadian thing. So yeah, I don’t know if I can get on board with the toque thing.
That’s funny. Are there any other Canadianisms that strike you as a bit weird?
I mean, no, not really. Even that’s not really that big of a deal. But it’s funny how similar countries have different sayings and stuff like that. I think one of the things that kinda gets me sometimes is when they add the “u” to words like honour, and like, what’s another one? Colour. That part always kinda gets me.
“I like clothes, I like fashion, so I’m going to wear what makes me happy, and if that is deemed as fashion-forward [laughs] or out of the ordinary for a hockey player, so be it. I think at this point in my career, I’ve earned the right to do that.”
Language is an odd thing! I feel you. Well, let’s talk about your new partnership with Lids. What does it mean to you?
It’s cool for me. It’s a big honour. Like, it’s funny. I was joking about it with my buddy when I went in there and originally shot some content for them. I used to love going to the hat store, like Lids, when I was younger and getting a new hat for the school year or for the summer. I was always super pumped about that. So it’s just funny how things kinda come full circle, but I was really excited about it. I mean, it’s pretty cool to be the first hockey player and Canadian-based athlete to be working with them, so it’s a big deal for me.
That’s dope, man. I’ve seen some of your pre-game fits over the years and you’ve worn a wide array of hat styles, from trucker hats to fedoras to toques—or beanies, as you would say. How many hats do you own?
Oh, I’ve got a lot. It really varies. I’ve got the golf hats, the tennis hats, the bucket hats. I got a hat for whatever occasion is needed. So I think I’ve got a pretty wide, wide range of hats that I can kinda go in and wear just based on however I feel. I can pick one and that’s my vibe for the day.
What are your hat dos and don’ts? Is there a hat style we would never catch you wearing?
For me, personally, I don’t think my head shape works with the dad hats. I don’t think I look good in those, so I don’t really wear many of them. But it’s kinda different for anybody—like, I’m not really one to judge or discriminate. I’m just not a dad hat guy. I mostly wear snapbacks and stuff like that. The fitted hats are tough for me sometimes because if I get a haircut, the hat won’t fit me anymore—it becomes too big. Or if my hair gets a little bit long, the hat becomes too tight, you know? So I like being able to adjust them.
The dad hats are for people with small heads. I feel you on that, man. I can’t rock those.
Yeah, no, I got a big dome.
Same, I’ve got a big noggin. What do you look for when you’re hat shopping? Do you think about how it will match your ’stashe?
[Laughs.] I think the fit’s probably the most important part for me. It honestly just depends on what I’m feeling. I don’t really go for any of the super colorful or, like, neon kinda flashy hats. I like to keep things pretty simple. But every once in a while, I kinda go out of the ordinary and get a blue or green or kinda mix it up so it’s a little bit more flashy. The fit’s the most important part, though. As long as the fit’s really good, then no matter what the hat looks like, you can make it work.
You’ve been one of the most fashion-forward NHL stars the league has seen in a while. Especially as a hockey player, it takes courage to dress like you do. So what’s made you want to stand out with your style over the years?
I’ve always been interested in clothes, fashion, hats, you name it. I just think it took me a little bit of time to [show it]. I didn’t want to be a rookie that just came in and was doing all this stuff. Like, I just wanted to get my toes in, get comfortable, kinda establish myself in the league, and earn respect from other players and other people. And then it was about being comfortable in my own skin and just doing what makes me happy, too. I like clothes, I like fashion, so I’m going to wear what makes me happy, and if that is deemed as fashion-forward [laughs] or out of the ordinary for a hockey player, so be it. But that’s what I’m into, and that’s what makes me happy, and so that’s what I’m going to do. I think at this point in my career, I’ve earned the right to do that. I don’t let the outside opinions of anybody else or what other people think really bother me. I’ve just been doing what makes me happy within the restrictions that we have as far as far as dress code.
“It’s not one of those ‘celebrity whatever’ relationships—like, it’s a true friendship. I know he cares about me a lot and the same goes for myself with him.” – On his friendship with Justin Bieber
That’s awesome to hear because, again, in hockey it’s like players are almost discouraged from standing out. I don’t know if you remember this, but I interviewed you a few years ago for Sharp and we had you dress up in some pretty extravagant fits.
That’s right, that’s right!
Yeah! It definitely got some mixed reactions from the hockey world. I’m wondering, do you remember the reaction to that shoot?
Yeah, I think the funniest one was just that big red coat. I got a lot of reactions from that. But I don’t know, that stuff’s fun. My parents have always encouraged myself and my sisters to be different and just be your own person. You know, be leaders and not followers or sheep. And I think I always resonated with that. When I look back on it now, I think that’s really amazing parental guidance or advice, just because, you look around and so many people are just the same. So why not be different? Why not be unique? Why not have your own twist or flavour to things that makes you different than the rest of the pack? So I guess [being different] is just something that never really discouraged me when it comes to really anything in life—not just clothes or fashion, but hockey as well, or just life things.
So it’s really something that’s been ingrained in you from childhood.
Yeah, yeah definitely.
That’s really dope. How would you say your sense of style has evolved over the years? Is there anything in your wardrobe you’re currently obsessed with?
I think it changes through the years. Like, obviously trends come up and different things catch my eye. There’s things I like and things I don’t like, and there’s things I kinda get hooked on that I can’t stop wearing. So right now I’ve been wearing a lot of the Nike Dunk Lows. For some reason that’s been my favorite shoe this year. I’ve got all different kinds of styles and colours of the Lows that I like to rock with different outfits. But I’m pretty easy going. I kinda just go with the flow as far as what I like, what I’m wearing, or what I’m feeling or hooked on.
The big news this week is that your boy, Justin Bieber, teamed up with the Leafs to launch a collaborative jersey. It looks pretty fire! Did you chat with Justin at all about the jersey concept?
I remember he brought it up like, maybe like a year and a half or two years ago. That was when we first started hanging out. And then I remember the team brought it up and was like, “Yeah, we’re thinking about doing this jersey collaboration.” This is before anything was even set in stone. So it’s pretty cool to see it all come to life now. It’s exciting. I think that stuff like this is what hockey probably needs more of in a sense. Just something different. It’s something that gets people’s attention and even if you’re not a hockey fan, you might look at that jersey and be like, “Oh, that’s pretty neat. That’s pretty cool. This is something that I might wear, like, to a hockey game or out to the bar, to a party or to dinner.” I think it’s more than just a hockey jersey. It kinda represents lifestyle, I guess.
“I wouldn’t mind maybe, like, a light feature on a song or something like that. Something simple. Just to get me on. Just to get my foot in the door of the music industry.”
Yeah, and that’s what’s missing from hockey right now, right? I mean, the sport kinda gets a bad rap for being too traditional or stagnant, and just not really with the times, as they say.
Yeah, I think so. I feel like it’s kinda been a conversation that’s been happening maybe for some time now—I mean, at least the last five years or so—about trying to grow the game and trying to make it a little less traditional. I think a lot of the traditional things are what makes hockey so great and all of us really appreciate and respect that, but I definitely think there’s other avenues and ways the game can be expanded to help it grow and become more popular in a sense. You know, it can get to a place where when a person hears about hockey, it’s not just like, “Oh, that’s the sport that middle class white guys play.” You know, it’s bigger than that and it brings people together, like sport does. So hopefully it can continue to grow and expand and get to that point.
Well, obviously, having Bieber work with the Leafs helps draw more attention to the sport and give it that crossover appeal. Your friendship with him has also drawn a lot of attention. It seems like it’s really blossomed over the years. How would you describe your friendship with Justin? Why do you think you guys click so well?
Yeah, I find it draws a lot of attention. [Laughs.] But I don’t like really love or enjoy talking about it because it feels like…. It’s a weird feeling because I think we have a really good relationship and we’re pretty transparent with each other and his friendship obviously means a lot to me. I think we’ve gotten to know each other really well and spend a lot of time together and really form a nice bond. So, it’s not one of those ‘celebrity whatever’ relationships—like, it’s a true friendship. I know he cares about me a lot and the same goes for myself with him. So, it’s been really cool to get to know him. He’s just a really easygoing guy. Obviously, he’s a big hockey fan who played hockey growing up and loves the Toronto Maple Leafs, so we just kinda clicked on that. And I just think we have similar interests and we’re both pretty competitive guys and we like to have fun together. So, it’s been really awesome just getting to know him and build that relationship with him that seems to just get stronger as time goes by. He’s somebody that I know I can lean on for just about anything; he’s someone to talk to, to vent to, or just kinda B.S. with. It’s pretty cool to have somebody like that in your corner.
That’s awesome. I know that his wife, Hailey, once said she thinks you guys get along so well because you both sometimes wish you had each other’s lives. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
She brings up a great point. I know when I was younger I had Bieber fever for sure. I had the haircut, the flippy hair, all that stuff. He is, like, maybe three or four years older than me, so when he kinda got big, I guess I was around the right age. I definitely loved watching him doing his thing growing up and I had a little piece of me that would always think, “It’d be pretty cool to be this guy.” So I definitely think she hit it a pretty spot-on, because he obviously grew up playing hockey and loved all of that.
Interesting! So might we hear a debut track from Auston Matthews one day?
[Laughs.] I was actually thinking about that the other day. I wouldn’t mind maybe, like, a light feature on a song or something like that. Something simple. Just to get me on. Just to get my foot in the door of the music industry.
Would you rap or would you sing?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m pretty brutal at both, so I’d have to figure something out.