By The Old Prof
Last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews won both the Hart Trophy and the Ted Lindsey Award as the best player in the NHL. At 25 years of age, he’s a star.
He also plays in one of the toughest markets in NHL hockey. In Toronto, he’s constantly under a microscope. Unique in his skills, his size, and his personality, he’s destined to be one of the best NHL players of his generation.
In this post, I’ll try to answer one aspect of Matthews’ background that helped him get to where he is today. One element of his development happened even before he got to the NHL. It was as an 18-year-old in Switzerland.
Matthews Took a Different Path to the NHL
Typically, most young hockey players play junior hockey somewhere before their draft season. Some take a slightly different path by playing NCAA hockey and getting a university education at the same time. Not Matthews. The young player from around Phoenix, Arizona, took a radically different path to the NHL.
Instead of playing junior hockey, Matthews and his family signed on for an adventure. He chose to play professionally during the last year before his draft eligibility in 2016. To do so, he signed a one-year contract with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League. The 17-year-old, accompanied by his mom and dad, headed for Zurich.
There Matthews played one year with the ZSC Lions of Switzerland’s top professional hockey league. Interestingly, the rules did not allow him to play until his 18th birthday. He had to practice with the team before actually playing.
In the end, Matthews put up a fantastic number of points by scoring 24 goals and adding 22 assists (for 46 points) in only 36 games playing against seasoned professionals – men sometimes twice his age. After that season, Matthews entered the draft and was the first draft choice of the Maple Leafs when June’s NHL Entry Draft came along.
How Did Matthews Decide to Play in Zurich?
In 2015, those who follow hockey knew that Matthews would be drafted early by some NHL team. He had already shown his ability by scoring 48 points in 24 games playing with the U.S. National Under-18 team in 2014-15. Because that skill was obvious, Matthews had a number of options.
Matthews could have joined the WHL’s Everett Silvertips in Washington state. He could also have headed to the NCAA. However, he went a different route by heading to the Swiss National League A.
It was also a choice that paid him a decent salary for an 18-year-old ($400,000 USD). There he took up the team’s fourth import roster position. He also got a chance to play for former NHL head coach Marc Crawford (who coached with the Colorado Avalanche and recently with the Chicago Blackhawks). He also played with a number of other former NHL players (Ryan Shannon, Dan Fritsche, and Marc-Andre Bergeron).
Crawford remembered that Matthews’ parents “came in and toured everything we had in Zurich. They were very determined to try and make it happen. I don’t think it happens without their diligence.” (from “Auston Matthews’ year in Switzerland: Untold stories about the Maple Leafs’ star, Joshua Kloke, The Athletic, 12/02/2021).
Crawford shared that Zurich’s selling points were that the young Matthews would be able to play in an NHL atmosphere with a quality coaching staff that was big on player development.
Matthews Remembers the Experience as Important
In his time with Zurich, Matthews was successful. Only 18 years old, he competed well against men and developed his game under Crawford’s coaching. The choice Matthews made turned out to be an important move for Matthews both personally and professionally.
Matthews remembers that “It was challenging, off the ice, moving to a different country, different language.” Matthews shared how tough it was as a youngster, however, “looking back on that experience, it’s something that I think I gained a lot from. And if I had to do it all over again, I definitely would.”
Matthews Teammates Remember Him Well
The article cited above from The Athletic interviewed a number of Matthews’ former teammates while he was with Zurich. In that article, Crawford shared that the Swiss can be a tough group to break into. They don’t do notoriety much and one has to earn one’s respect on the team.
Matthews did that through his hard work, focus, and total dedication during practice. It also helped that he played well. When his season was over, Matthews had won the league’s Rising Star award and came in second in voting for the Swiss league’s most valuable player.
Here are a few snippets of what Matthews’ Zurich teammates remember about him.
Ryan Keller, a forward from Saskatoon who played six games with the Ottawa Senators during the 2009-10 season and four seasons in the Swiss league, recalled that with Matthews “Everything was done striving for perfection and to score on every shot. I find kids nowadays, a lot of times it’s cool to be nonchalant and to not look like you’re trying. But he was dialled in all the time.”
Reto Schappi, a Swiss forward who still plays with Zurich and has for 13 seasons, noted that Matthews “would try to go diagonal, and he’d get poke-checked. The puck ended up in his feet, knee, whatever. But he had total balance, had total control, and (often) came out of the situation with the puck. And so many times you just think: ‘Wow, he was lucky again.’ And at some point, you have to say ‘This is not luck.’
Schappi added that Matthews was “not a typical American. In Switzerland, we don’t do as much small talk as in the U.S. You’re very passive at the beginning, and then when you have a connection, it’s a real connection. I felt like Auston Matthews is almost like a Swiss guy.”
Finally, Marc-Andre Bergeron, a defenceman who played 490 NHL games with seven different NHL teams noted that he and Matthews became close during their time together. In The Athletic article, Bergeron noted that “I like to say things the way they really are. I told him (the NHL) looks great. But it’s not great. It’s gonna be shitty at some points. You’ll have your best friend on the team at some point is going to be the guy that wants to take your job. That’s the nature of the beast in this business. And I guess I was kind of a big brother that was telling his younger brother: ‘Be careful, my friend. Everything looks fantastic. But behind doors, it’s a little more complicated than it seems.’
Notable Events During Matthews’ Time in Zurich
During his time in Zurich, a number of interesting things happened to the young Matthews and his family.
Event One: Ema Matthews Threw a Birthday Party for Auston and His Teammates
Earlier in this post, I noted that Matthews turned 18 while he was in Switzerland. One important event was when Matthews’ mother threw a big birthday party for her son and the rest of his Zurich teammates. It was a party the likes of which his teammates had never experienced.
After a morning practice, the entire Zurich Lions team got together at the Hallenstadion restaurant. His mom Ema had worked with restaurant cooks who were familiar with Mexican cuisine. Together they prepared a massive Mexican lunch for the team. They made Auston’s favourite meal, including chicken tortilla soup for him and his Zurich teammates.
Phil Baltisberger, a 26-year-old Swiss left-shot defenceman who still plays with the team, noted “Some older guys joked about it and said, ‘Auston, you need to make like a Mexican lunch.’ So he actually did it. And we loved it. That was a point where he got more comfortable.”
Matthews recalls the birthday party. “I love mom’s chicken tortilla soup; she made it for the team for my birthday in Zurich; and, afterward, the wives of almost half the players were asking for the recipe. They all liked it a lot. It was pretty neat and it kind of broke the ice on my birthday.”
Event Two: Matthews Is Embarrassed by His Fame
It’s hard for Maple Leafs’ fans to think of Matthews as easily embarrassed. In truth, he might no longer be. But during his time playing in Switzerland, after an early-season game on October 9, Matthews had a good game and scored twice. His second goal was the game-winner and came late in the third period. The goal gave his team a 3-2 win over rival Davos. After the game, fans began chanting his name over and over.
The experience flustered Matthews. Matthews recalled the game in detail. “It was probably one of the most memorable games of the year because it was the first time Zurich and Davos played since the 2015 National League A final. I was able to score two goals, and the game-winner off a great pass from Robert Nilsson.”
Matthews retold the story: “After the game, the fans began chanting my name and jumping up and down. I was just looking up into the crowd and saying, ‘This is crazy.’ But what I didn’t know was that, when the crowd does that in Switzerland, you’re expected to return to the ice by yourself and salute the fans. I had no idea, and everyone was yelling at me that I had to go back. I was so confused as to what was going on, but once I figured it out, it was pretty special.”
The Player Matthews Is Today
Maple Leafs’ fans have come to know their superstar quite well. He’s now in his seventh season with the team. He’s become one of the – if not THE – greatest player in Maple Leafs’ history.
Yet his start as a professional was anything but ordinary. Many of the skills, lessons, and attitudes Matthews carries today emerged during his season in Switzerland.
[Note: Now, as a hockey writer and no longer an academic, I was drawn to this time in Matthews’ life because I know Zurich from my time working there. It’s a beautiful city (although very expensive), but I can see how Matthews and his family came to love it there.]