GLENDALE, Ariz. – In the end, it was all about family.
For all of the symbolism and meaning baked into Auston Matthews’ first NHL game in the arena where he fell in love with the sport, it was the hugs and smiles and pictures in the hallway afterwards that will resonate most.
The NHL’s holiday break is here. The Matthews clan will celebrate Christmas together at their home in Scottsdale.
Auston’s father, Brian, remarked that it felt like a circle completed while watching his son play at Gila River Arena on Friday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-1.
The game seemed secondary to the moment. Matthews returned to the ice after changing out of his equipment to pose for a photo with hundreds of local youth hockey players. Then he joined a large collection of family, embracing his mom and dad and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.
Asked what he’ll cherish most about the experience, he replied: "We won."
"That’s probably the most important part," said Matthews. "That’s definitely what I’ll remember. It’s special. It’s nice to have my family, my grandparents, parents, sisters here and a lot of friends as well."
This is a family that has sacrificed a lot for his success. They continue to do so now.
Brian Matthews is living in Toronto to help Auston keep his new world as small as possible – leaving his wife, Ema, and daughters, Alex and Breyana, back here in Arizona. Last year it was Ema who moved to Switzerland while Auston played for the Zurich Lions.
When you add it all up there hasn’t been as much quality time spent together as any of them would like.
You could sense that as the anticipation built outside the visitor’s dressing room on Friday night. The rest of the Leafs had packed up and rolled out quickly – with some players taking flights directly to other holiday destinations and others heading for a team charter that would fly back to Toronto through the night.
Matthews was the last to emerge from the locker-room. Just a 30-minute drive from home, he was in no rush.
There was much joy when the 19-year-old finally emerged and started greeting his family. Some of them had come from Mexico, where his mother was born and raised. His grandparents, Bobby and Beverly, had just watched Auston play live in a NHL game for the first time.
A couple young cousins sheepishly asked for an autograph.
His sisters wore matching blue Leafs sweaters and posed for photos with Mitch Marner and Frederik Andersen. Eventually, they got one with their brother, too.
It has only been a few months since Auston Matthews joined the Leafs but he already feels like an integral part of the organizational family. He’s extremely popular in the dressing room and his teammates badly wanted to get him a win here in his hometown.
"The most important thing is he’s a great guy," said veteran Leafs forward Leo Komarov. "You can see he played in a men’s league last year in the way he behaves and treats himself. He’s really good for us."
On the ice, Matthews was solid as usual on Friday. He had a couple dangerous looks on Mike Smith from in-close and picked up an assist on Connor Brown’s goal early in the first period after forcing a turnover and impressively keeping the puck onside at the blue-line.
He heads into the holiday break with 16 goals and 26 points in 33 games – an impressive start to his NHL career. That sort of stuff will be important again on Monday, when Matthews is due to fly back to Toronto, but for now he joins the rest of the NHL in indulging in some rest and relaxation.
"It’s got to be a big thrill for him and his family," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "He should really enjoy today. It’s not very often that anybody is treated like this, where a city feels like they do about him.
"So he should enjoy that, enjoy tonight and enjoy Christmas with his family."
Judging by the laughs and a couple quiet tears, they certainly appeared to get the holiday season off to the perfect start.