Breaking Bread with Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews on his Mexican heritage

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Auston Matthews and his mother Ema. (Photo: Alex D’Addese)

How much of your past impacts your present? What role does your family origin play in the person you become and how you view the world?

I’m always curious to learn how the most elite athletes ascend to their greatness, especially if it’s an antithetical path. That is certainly the case for Auston Matthews, who is having the most prolific offensive season in his already stellar young career.

But coming out of Arizona born to an immigrant mother from Hermosillo, Mexico is not the typical path to hockey stardom. Maybe it eventually can become the norm as Matthews’ impact has meant greater interest in hockey in Mexico and other Latin countries. So much so, the NHL debuted a Spanish website and celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month for the first time this season. None of that happens without Matthews and we’re just scratching the surface of what his impact could truly be.

So, I met up with Matthews and his mother Ema at a local authentic Mexican spot in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto called Xola. Over Azteca Soup, tortilla chips and guacamole, and Horchatas, we talked about his childhood and the embryonic stages of her learning about the sport of hockey.

Sportsnet: Thank you for breaking some bread with me here at Xola. In your family and your culture, food, how important is it for you?

Ema Matthews: Very important because that’s how – that’s what I am. I am, you know, I’m Mexican. I like to cook, Mexican. That’s all I know.

SN: What are your memories as a kid around the dinner table?

Auston Matthews: Good memories. When we’d go visit her family and her parents down in Mexico, just the spread that they’d have. It was always fun. Everybody was always looking forward to dinner time and eating. They kept the tradition, obviously, even when we went back home, I don’t remember having a bad dinner. Always plenty of food to go around.

SN: How often do you get back to Mexico?

AM: Probably once a summer. Used to go much more. A little busier now. I haven’t been back in a bit. Just for vacation. It’s always nice to.

SN: Naturally hockey, not the native sport in Mexico. That’s soccer, but you’ve got some hockey fans in the family now. What is their relationship like with the sport?

EM: Oh, well, everybody started learning hockey now. Pretty amazing because obviously we knew that was a sport, but really didn’t pay attention because for us it was kind of a silly sport, you know, what are they doing? But when we got married, my husband and I, we lived in Los Angeles and the L.A. Kings were there. So, my husband used to watch hockey all the time and he was trying to always call me to watch and I was like, I don’t understand that. Until my son start playing, obviously, and I started learning it. So, it was easier for me. I didn’t know what offsides were. Now I know.

SN: I’m sure it’s come a long way for your family back home now that one of the biggest stars in the game is Auston.

EM: Totally. They started watching it all the time. And I understand that in the town where I’m from, they have bars showing hockey now because of my son!

SN: Bars showing the sport, now there’s a Latin website for the NHL and they are celebrating the heritage for a month. I mean, a lot of that is due to you. How does that make you feel?

AM: I think it’s amazing. I think just like anything, you know, always room for improvement and growth but it’s always a treat. Going back and playing in Phoenix and seeing all my family from her side coming up from Mexico and from different parts of that Southwest area that they all live in, it’s always nice seeing them.

SN: Mexican dishes, that’s mom’s domain? Any cooking skills for you, Auston?

AM: No, I just post up on the couch. I’m not a big cook. I mean, I wouldn’t throw dad under the bus too bad. He’s pretty good at cooking too, he’ll help. Usually they kind of do it together when they cook, regardless of what they’re cooking. But I mean, it’s always good. I’m just not really the kitchen type.

SN: Cooking is often a tradition in families that’s passed down from generation to generation. Are there any family traditions, with your heritage that have been passed down to you?

EM: That’s a good question. I think he has seen a lot about how close families in our culture are. He always comes in, wants to spend time with us and gather with the family. I mean, our family is always eating, you know, that’s how we get together and we have fun. We talk a lot.

AM: And like she said, like we were really close and you know, you go through ups and downs and I know they are always the people that are with you. I mean we’ve had plenty of our share of ups and downs. It’s just nice, she supported me, you know, throughout my whole life, childhood, no matter if it was hockey, or really anything.

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Auston and Ema Matthews outside Xola in Toronto. (Photo: Alex D’Addese)

SN: You’ve always fascinated me because your upbringing is different than a traditional hockey player. And I think a lot of your personality comes probably from the fact that you have a different background. Your goal celebrations, your fashion, your passion, how much of that is due to your upbringing and the Mexican heritage that you have?

AM: I think a lot of it. I think both my mom and dad, just preached, be yourself every day. Be humble, but obviously have fun with what you do. They always told me that and told me the same thing today, “You know, if you wanted to quit hockey today and be a chess player…” I was like, all right, relax. I probably wouldn’t do that. But if you want to quit hockey and do something else, we’d support you.

EM: If you want to do something, give your all. Do what’s going to make you happy and we’ll support you.

SN: It’s nice to say that, you showed it with your actions. You were working multiple jobs so he could play on a travel team of a sport that you really didn’t have a connection with. Why was that so important?

EM: Because that’s what my son wanted. That’s not what I wanted. That’s what you want, OK, we’re going to support you and give you 100 per cent and he has to do the same. Our culture, you know, we all work as a team. So that’s what we did.

SN: Did you have your times sitting at a cold arena thinking, “What am I doing? I never envisioned my life would play out this way?”

EM: No, actually, in Arizona we always look forward to the cold arena, so, for me it was OK. I have a little bit of a break from the heat (laughs). No, I mean, it was fun. I didn’t understand the game, but just to see your kids enjoying and having fun, it makes you happy.

SN: You didn’t understand the game and lots of times when you don’t know something, there’s a level of fear. It’s a contact sport that you don’t have a long relationship with it. Were you afraid? Was there any trepidation when he started to play hockey?

EM: Oh, of course. As a mom you’re always afraid for your kids when they do anything. If they’re going to fall down in whatever, if they’re playing, if they get hurt.

AM: That’s the only time she would scream (laughs).

EM: I was going there. That’s right (laughs). Oh, yes. You get upset when somebody comes in and hits your boy, but I have to learn that this was part of the game, so it was hard. It’s still hard for me.

SN: What’s it like for you having a non-traditional hockey parent?

AM: It’s great. Even before I played here, I’d come and skate and you see, the parents are almost so hard on their kids and they’re just all over them. My mom was just kind of there supporting me. Thank you. My dad was kind of the one that, pushed me, I think in the right ways. I think he’d tell you, we had ups and downs obviously, a feeling out process. I think the way that they supported me, even from a young age and kind of the way they handled the way I played and handled, bad games, good games, I think, we all learn from it, but in the end, I thought they did a pretty good job.

SN: Your hockey story to me is also interesting because you’re playing for your family and your team, but also there’s so many young kids looking up to you, specifically kids of Latin descent who naturally wouldn’t have had an introduction to the sport. Have you noticed that?

AM: I mean, I notice it a lot when I go home and start skating in Arizona. There’s always kids at the rink and just getting stopped and stuff, but it’s definitely different. I mean, you look at like Canada and you know, different provinces, Ontario for instance, you guys have so many guys that come from the area and so many guys to look up to that came from that area. But there aren’t too many with Spanish backgrounds. So, it’s pretty humbling to be somebody that anybody would look up to. Selfishly for myself, the whole Hispanic side of it, and the Southwest region of the States, it’s pretty sweet.

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Auston Matthews. (Photo: Alex D’Addese)

SN: How far do you think it could go? Do you see pre-season games in Mexico or a Mexican foreign player or a franchise in the future? What do you think could happen by the time you’re done playing?

AM: I mean, I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but it’d be awesome to see a pre-season game or something there. We go over to China, which is great, and it helps grow the game. And Germany and Switzerland, make the rounds over there. It helps spread that awareness and grow the game within different parts of the world. I think it’d be amazing to see a pre-season game in Mexico.

SN: What would something like that mean to you?

EM: Oh my gosh. Can you imagine? Oh, that would be great. It would be a prideful moment for me because, well, my kid started there. And I hope, I’m sure it will. I’m sure. I know Mexico City has an arena.

SN: What would you say to parents of Latin descent who have a kid that wants to get into hockey, but the parents are a bit unsure. What message would you give them?

EM: Actually, they come to me. A lot of them. They come and say, you know, “Oh, my son wants to play hockey, but you know,” and I say just let them try it. Always let them try. This is a sport that they keep them really busy, and once they get into it, they love it. So just try it and, believe me, your kid is going to love it.

SN: There’s many stories on how you got the nickname “Papi.” And some people have said it’s David Ortiz, because you loved him and wore 34. Can you set the record straight?

EM: It’s our culture. I’m Mexican, this is Spanish culture to call our only boy, Papi. I follow the tradition.

AM: Pretty much the only people that still call me that would be my parents. And then like some of my closest friends that I grew up playing hockey with, that’s kind of what people knew me around the rink as, and in the hockey community in Arizona. Well, I guess for my dad more, I knew he was mad at me when he called me Auston. I still know he’s mad at me when he calls me and says Auston (laughs). Pretty much there’s only a handful of people that still call me Papi.

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SN: In the room what do they call you?

AM: They call me Matt, Maddie, and then I got Tony last year somehow. And it stuck. And now everybody calls me Tony on the team, which is a little bit weird, but no Papi.

SN: Being here in Toronto and being able to consume so many different cultures and foods, what’s that been like for you?

AM: I mean, you have so many different options aside from just Mexican food, Italian, Greek, there’s so many different options and there’s so many different cultures that have resided here and started their own things. It’s great for me. I love food and I love trying different things.

SN: How’s your Spanish?

AM: Alright. It was my best subject in school. We don’t really speak it much. My mom and dad will speak it to each other, but for the most part we’re pretty English. But I got it. We went down to Mexico for a little vacation. I had to step up my game and I kind of learned some stuff back again, but I’ve already lost it. I can understand pretty well. I can understand it way better than I can speak.

EM: He lost it because I wanted to practice my English.

SN: Any Spanish smack talk on the ice, just so guys don’t know what you’re saying? Cállate (“Shut up” in Spanish)?

AM: No, I don’t really talk on the ice anyway. I don’t even speak English (laughs).

SN: What do you want people to know about your Mexican lineage?

AM: I’m grateful to be a Mexican American. I’m proud of where I come from. I feel pretty fortunate to have her as my mom and my dad. Especially, when you get drafted and you do a lot of soul searching, you kind of look back on your childhood and how you got here. And it’s always a little bit emotional when you think of, just everything you had to go through. So, I think it’s great.

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