Auston Matthews Smiling During Scrums: What Does It Mean?

Late in the third period of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, an altercation ensued between the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and the Philadelphia Flyers Travis Konecny. By that time, the game’s outcome was no longer in doubt. And, as some games do, frustration took over. The game became chippy.

Because the game had been physical all night, it wasn’t a surprise that tempers flared. Konecny and Matthews had been going after each other all game. Both players were engaged in the kind of aggravating back-and-forth stick work and cross-checking that occurs all too regularly in such games. 

Related: Third-Period Dust-Up Could Become Maple Leafs Turning Point

Then it suddenly escalated. Konecny tried to goad Matthews into a fight, but Matthews resisted. Konecny was unwilling to take no for an answer. When Konecny pushed, several of Matthews teammates’ – most obviously Mark Giordano and Michael Bunting – leaped into action. 

But they were not alone. Calle Jarnkrok and Rasmus Sandin followed suit. All came to answer the perceived threat to teammate Matthews. In the end, penalties were given out and the game ended – warriors to fight another game.

Matthews’ Response Has Become an Issue of Concern 

Although the fight happened within a five-minute period, there were tons of leftovers to digest. These include issues for both Maple Leafs’ and non-Maple fans alike. 

Most of the remaining issues occurred because, during the time when all this physical action was taking place, Matthews did little. He allowed his teammates to engage in fisticuffs and wrestling. In addition, he got that “smirky” smile on his face that we’ve seen before as Maple Leafs’ fans. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In an article on leafsnation, Michael Mazzei describes the entire incident well:

“Konecny tries to hit Matthews who is parked in front of the net. Matthews takes exception to the collision and immediately goes after him with a few slashes, which continues for a few moments before Mark Giordano comes flying in to fight Konecny. After things start to calm down following the scrum, Matthews again starts shoving Konecny before Bunting steps in and starts shoving the Flyers forward to the ice. Throughout this entire ordeal, Matthews is grinning from ear to ear as if to tempt Konecny into continuing the altercation.”

That’s one take – “as if to tempt Konecny.” In his post, Mazzei also recalls an earlier (as many Maple Leafs’ fans do) scrum during the Montreal Canadiens 2021 postseason series where Matthews was rag-dolled by Ben Chiarot and “smiling the entire time.” 

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Mazzei’s take is that Matthews had “learned his lesson from two years ago and knows that grinning while getting rag-dolled will not do himself any favors. Now, Matthews is sticking up for himself while also being a troll by smiling at his opponent as if to say “you are no match for me.”

Mike Rupp Weighs in with a Different Take on Matthews’ Body Language

Of course, there are other perspectives. The NHL Network’s Mike Rupp shared his thoughts about the incident. His biggest problem was not that Matthews didn’t fight; however, he pointed to the body language Matthews used during the incident. 

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Rupp believed Matthews stood outside the melee smiling while his teammates stuck up for him. Similar to Mazzei,  Rupp pointed to Matthews’ smile. However, Rupp’s take was that “playing the cool card doesn’t work.” 

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Rupp doubled down to say that, while it might look good for Matthews on social media, “inside the locker room it’s going to wear thin.” Rupp commented that “he’d seen this time and time again with Matthews” and implied Matthews was disrespecting his teammates by his attitude. 

Other Explanations for Matthews’ Behavior

Thus far, most who’ve discussed this topic have agreed that Matthews was smiling because he was amused by the physical activities around him as his teammates engaged the Flyers’ players. They might be correct. In fact, Matthews might – as Rupp accused – be trying to look cool and posture for social media. I don’t buy that, but I simply can’t know for certain.

However, there might be other explanations. Some allow for the possibility that Matthews is in control of his reactions; however, others would believe that Matthews’ reaction to the situation might not even be within his control. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There are three possible explanations aside from the “Matthews is trying to be cool” possibility. 

The first explanation is the basest. It has to do with the fact that (a) humans are animals and (b) we’ve evolved over history from a difficult and distant past. That explanation points to the fact that, when animals (as ancient humans were and we remain today) are threatened, they bare their teeth as a way to frighten their attacker off. 

Matthews’ smile could be an ancient and uncontrolled reaction of “baring one’s teeth when being attacked.” Again, I can’t know if his reaction is that. However, I do believe scientists could find that explanation possible.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

A second explanation puts Matthews in total control; and, in fact, gives him strategic control. By smiling when he’s being attacked, he’s showing his aggressors that they are not in control – he is. From a strategic perspective, his goal would be to make the aggressor even angrier than they are as a way to provoke a possible lack of control. 

A third more complicated explanation comes from Freud’s psychoanalytic work – Anna, not Sigmund. [Note: Anna was the sixth and youngest child of Sigmund Freud.] Freud theorized that humans often reacted in the exact opposite of how they really felt. She named this syndrome “reaction formation.”

She pointed to numerous experiences where humans sometimes do the exact opposite of what we feel when they find themselves in really tough situations. For example, some people can’t stop laughing at funerals. It’s not that they find funerals funny, and it doesn’t mean that they are extremely sad. The point is that human behaviour is filled with uncontrollable reactions to threatening situations.

I Can’t Know Why Matthews Smiles, But Neither Can Anyone Else

There are answers to the question of why Matthews smiles when he’s being rag-dolled or feels threatened on the ice that have nothing to do with his being “cool.”

In fact, a whole cosmology has been created about why one smiles when being threatened. Some people just can’t help it. When outsiders see these actions, they seem illogical and confusing. 

Sometimes, smiling or laughing breaks the tension. Sometimes smiling or laughing works to unsettle the aggressor when a person feels cornered. Some people smile or laugh to upset those who are seeking control and to re-exert control back to themselves.

From the outside, it might seem as if Matthews is making a joke out of a serious event, isn’t taking things seriously enough, or is disrespecting his teammates. That said, I can’t imagine, having heard Matthews stand up for his teammates in other situations, that he disrespects them or belittles their contributions to the team and to himself specifically.

Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: Austin Matthews By the Eye Test

If his teammates were to posit such intentions into Matthews’ smiling, that would be sad. What they might be seeing from Matthews could either be a defense mechanism or generate from other strategic motives.

From the outside, we just can’t know.

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