Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
exclusive for khl.ru

I really do not want to lead this article with Mathew Maione’s cover of The Lumineers at the 2019 KHL All Star Game. It is far too predictable a start for a man who is anything but.

The 29-year-old Canadian defenseman with a degree in biology and psychology captured the world’s attention with a serenade at center ice, but he nearly nabbed Eurovision attention as well after collaborating with a Latvian rock band on their 2019 song contest submission, “Awe.” 

This season, Maione has called three of the KHL’s six countries home, making appearances with Kunlun Red Star Beijing and Dinamo Minsk before settling once again with his former squad in Riga. He joined Canada’s Spengler Cup team in the midst of a Far East road trip, making an 11,000 km detour to Vladivostok en route to Davos, Switzerland. While this schedule might have been enough to make Marco Polo’s head spin, Maione takes the adventure in stride—maintaining a sly sense of humor and a degree of self-deprecation seemingly misplaced for the KHL’s beloved rockstar.

I caught up with Maione on the phone as he recovers from a late-season injury. We discussed his whirlwind of a year—from an engagement and Spengler Cup win, to Alex Pietrangelo’s Stanley Cup party.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): After a bit of a KHL world tour, your return to Latvia must have been special. The fans have a special bond with you.

Mathew Maione (MM): It is always a good feeling, coming back here. The city is amazing, and the fans are incredibly supportive—even now, while we are lower in the standings. Last game, we had over 8,000 people. Those aren’t bandwagon fans—those are true fans. That’s really hard to find in any sports franchise, in any city. It’s the same coaching staff and GM as last year, and they know me as a player and person. It’s easy for me assimilate into the team. Ģirts Ankipāns put me in a lot of good situations to succeed last year, and not only did we have team success, but I also had individual success. I am glad to be back here.

GK: From what I understand, you’ve even recorded a song with a Latvian band?

MM: Yeah, it was amazing…this was last year. They were participating in the Eurovision Song Contest and came second [by jury vote] with that song. And I’m telling you, it’s because I sang it [laughs]! They weren’t able to move forward because only one artist from each country can advance. The guitarist and his girlfriend actually came first, so I kindof have a connection there!

It was an unbelievably humbling experience, because as a hockey player you go out there and you know exactly what you need to do. You know the conditions that you are going to be in, and how to execute. When you’re in a recording studio or working with a band, it’s a totally different dynamic. I learned a lot about the music industry, just being able to read off of each other in a different manner. On the ice, you read off of physical play and positioning. When you’re [performing], it’s timing and trust in each other’s abilities. Everyone has to be pulling their weight in order for the song to sound the way it should. In theory, it’s very similar to any other sport because you rely on others, but when you’re not confident—which, playing with professionals, I am not!—it’s a very intimidating experience. It was a lot of fun once I relaxed.

GK: I know you only just arrived in Riga, but they’ve obviously not had the best season. What do you think the team needs to focus on?

MM: It’s hard for me to tell because I haven’t been here for very long, and I got kneed a couple weeks ago. I will be back in a few weeks, thankfully.

GK: So you will come back before the end of the season?

MM: Yeah, I’ll be back. I got so lucky honestly because that hit was insane. Being around here, the guys work so hard. The system that they play is forecheck, active sticks, in your face. I know from playing against teams that employ that style, it’s hard to play against. It’s not like they are getting blown out or that they aren’t competitive games. It’s 2-1, 3-2. With some injuries early in the season and not getting the bounces…I’ve been on teams like that. One thing leads to another and obviously some bad luck takes part in that. I look at the LA Kings. They were dominant for five years, won a couple of Stanley Cups, and now they’re struggling. It’s just the cycle of hockey.

I think Riga will reevaluate a little in the off-season, and see what they can improve. But I’ve only been here a month now, so it’s hard for me to say what they’ll do.

GK: Riga is hosting the All Star Game next season. Home turf. Are you preparing from now?

MM: I’m not preparing a thing—I’m just trying to get a job for next year! I want to be in the league next season. I’m a hockey player first, and that’s what got me to the KHL All Star Game. All of those guys are voted-in for their play on the ice; that’s what you get paid for.

GK: Do you know what’s crazy? The last time we spoke, we were both in China. I know your stint with Kunlun Red Star was brief, but what did you make of your time there? 

MM: It was definitely a unique time—we were in Shenzhen first, then Beijing. I am glad that I had that experience, not only for my career but also for my life. I really learned to take care of myself and focus on what I could control, especially when I couldn’t control other things. I enjoyed the guys and I saw a lot of cool stuff. China has so much to see. I was only there for three months, and I didn’t even scratch the surface—the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven.

GK: Quickly back to your stint in Minsk. You will forever be known as a teammate of the legendary #99 Gretsky.

MM: [Laughs] I met [Slava Gretsky] a couple of times, but I don’t think we played together. I got interviewed and was asked if I had any advice for him [for the All Star Game]. It was an amazing campaign on Dinamo’s part—I mean, what are the chances of another Gretzky? I told them that he just has to soak it all in because you never know when you’re going to be [at All Star Week] again. I was there last year, but I wasn’t there this year. You have to take in all of the experience and have fun with it.

My favorite part of last year’s All Star Game wasn’t playing guitar on the ice. It was meeting all of the guys. You don’t play them much because they’re in a different conference, or certain guys you haven’t seen in a while…reconnecting, picking their brain and sharing that experience was the most special moment for me.

GK: You stole the show in Kazan, and the attention wasn’t limited to Russia. Your Lumineers cover went viral in North America too. Could you ever have imagined when you agreed to do it?

MM: You know what, at first I said no. They wanted me to do it, and I said no because it was my first year in the league. I wanted to respect the game and the organization in Kazan. They kept on calling and were like, “Come on—they are putting a lot of effort, a lot of money into this. A lot of people are working hard to get this event first class.” They did a great job too. Everything was taken care of, and we even had some traditional meals and saw traditional dancing and music.

When I saw how much effort they put into it, I was thankful just to be a part of it. But for the video to go viral? I honestly didn’t even think it would be broadcast or anything back home. I was just trying to make sure that I didn’t make a fool out of myself, and I was practicing for quite a while. My biggest concern was that I didn’t want to take away from the game, or take away from those players like Mozyakin and all these historic guys with records in the KHL. I wanted to respect them, respect the game—but also add a little light-heartedness.

It’s a little nerve-wracking up there and not the ideal conditions to perform music. You don’t have an ear-piece, so I couldn’t hear myself sing or play. People were clapping which was awesome—like, thank you for buying in!— [laughs] but it is hard to keep your rhythm and your tempo. I think it sparked some of the stuff that happened with the NHL. 

Some guys have hidden talents, and I took a stand on the fact that hockey players have a lot more depth and a lot more to offer than just playing hockey. Guys have other dreams, aspirations, or passions—things they like to do outside of hockey. Sometimes fans just see the player on the ice, but they don’t see the person. That was one of the goals I set for myself, to try to defend us hockey players a little bit!

GK: You even got [CSKA head coach] Igor Nikitin to crack a smile!

MM: [Laughs] Maybe he was smiling because he was like, “What is this guy doing?”

GK: You recently won the Spengler Cup with Team Canada, and it looks like you had an amazing experience.

MM: It was unbelievable. Friends, family and everyone just spending time together for Christmas in Davos. Have you been?

GK: Yes—and I went to see HC Davos play at that old wooden arena. It was so loud!

MM: It’s actually quite funny because it looks like they’re trying to upgrade and renovate [Eisstadion Davos]. It’s a very uniquely-designed rink, that’s for sure. It’s really loud. I’m glad you can understand what I’m talking about with the atmosphere and everything.

I think it might have been loudest when Ambri-[Piotta] was playing. Ambri’s fans are unbelievable. They’re a smaller town really close to Italy, so they were very passionate. They lost in the semifinals to Třinec, the Czech team we played in the finals—and even watching it on TV, you could hear how loud the fans were. I can’t imagine if we would have played them. I think we had over 150 Canadians there, so it was a pretty big crew of us. Putting that jersey on is special for any Canadian, I would say.

GK: I think I saw that your girlfriend was there, and your family?

MM: Yeah, my fiancée was there!

GK: Fiancée! Congratulations! You had better serenade her on the big day, or no hockey fan will forgive you…

MM: We’re getting married this summer. You know what, I’ve been serenading her for years and she didn’t think I was that great [laughs].

GK: She’s marrying you anyway though!

MM: Yeah, it’s probably for my intellect.

GK: Getting to play in the Spengler Cup during the KHL season is pretty uncommon. How did the opportunity line up?

MM: For me, it was perfect timing. It didn’t really work out with [Dinamo] Minsk even though we thought it was going to. The team went in a different direction, and [Team Canada GM] Sean Burke was trying to get ahold of me, seeing if I was able to participate. They wanted me to get [to Davos] as soon as possible if that was the case. If I would have stuck in Minsk, I don’t think the team would have let me leave. Because I was released, I went from Minsk to Vladivostok, Vladi to Amur, Amur to Beijing and then Beijing to Davos! [Minsk] was on that Eastern swing, so it was a lot of travel in the prior four days.

GK: That is an absolutely ludicrous route to Switzerland.

MM: And I only had a couple days’ notice! Can you imagine for my family—my brother came, he’s playing Western New England University hockey. He’s in your education system over there in the States! Obviously my fiancée came, and my parents came. It was pretty short notice and everybody dropped everything. I was really fortunate and happy that they could share the moment; it wouldn’t have been the same without all of them there.

GK: You used to play alongside Alex Pietrangelo. Were you invited to any of his Stanley Cup celebrations this summer?

MM: We went to high school together, played in the OHL—so I’ve known him for a long time now. He brought the Cup back to King City and we had a private golf event and a party. I was just so happy to see all of his success. He’s such a hard-worker, amazing player. Great family guy. It was amazing to see him, as a captain, picking up the Stanley Cup. That picture of him with all of the confetti going—it was such a special moment. I feel like I won it too, you know?

GK: I hear he ate his grandmother’s pasta from the Cup! Pietroangelo’s nonna versus yours…who’s the better cook?

MM: There’s no comment to that! I think every nonna does an amazing job!

GK: I am Italian too, so I know that’s a loaded question.

MM: That is very loaded—I cannot believe you asked me that, Gillian. I may never forgive you.

GK: I’m sorry! But seriously, you have Italian and Greek roots. You must be eating pretty well.

MM: The Greek side does [Orthodox] Easter. It’s one of my favorite celebrations—my uncle runs that. He gets up at 4 or 5 in the morning and starts the fire. When it’s at the right temperature, we put the lamb on the spit. We have beef, pork, chicken…so if you’re a vegetarian, you probably won’t like it. It’s a full-day event, and we go in the morning to help him out. It’s an unbelievable thing. He lives on a cul-de-sac and it’s pretty much on the driveway—so he invites the neighbors, and every year there is somebody new. It’s always funny to see the first-timers, you can pick them out of the crowd. It’s all about celebrating and spending time with each other.

Last week, my [Italian side] of the family made their own sausage. We have some really good cultural staples and stereotypes [laughs], but it’s amazing. My fiancée is not of Italian or Greek descent—she’s more of a mutt! English, Scottish, Canadian. We call her a caker. She’s learning all of the cultural stuff, but she’s an unbelievable cook. I really lucked out there.

GK: You won gold at the Winter Universiade in Italy—that must have been especially fun, given your heritage.

MM: We played in Trentino in 2013. What an experience that was, like an Olympics. I was able to see the ski jump live. I was like, these people are insane! You think hockey players are crazy? [Laughs] You have to have a screw loose because you could not pay me to jump off of that! But we got to see a lot of events that, unless you were at an Olympics, you would never see. We had some fellow Canadian athletes supporting us at our games, family and friends. And we won…so that also makes it better!

GK: On the subject of your college years, you took the time to finish your degree. In the hockey world, that’s often not possible or not the case.

MM: I went to the University of Prince Edward Island for four years. I had the time of my life and made lifelong friends. Forbes MacPherson, the head coach there, treated me unbelievably [well]. He played pro for years, and I learned so much from him. The mini-culture on the island is so different. It seemed like we were the underdogs in a town of 30,000 people, and we were competing with much larger teams from around Canada with higher budgets. It made us come together as a group. I was very lucky to go there.

As far as school—it was a little difficult at first, I’m not going to lie. Being in the sciences, I had five courses plus two or three labs. At times, I was taking seven or eight written exams on top of the hockey schedule. I have an undergrad [degree] and there’s no real plan of going back right now, just trying to live the dream and play hockey. At some point, I think I might build upon the base I have with psychology and biology. With hockey, it’s easy to relate to those subjects. You tend to learn a lot more about your body playing sports than you do elsewhere. It was easy for me to gravitate toward those subjects.

GK: Do you act as personal psychologist to any of your teammates?

MM: [Laughs] No! I don’t broadcast it. I’d be surprised if guys knew, unless they checked my Hockeydb and knew I had a degree. But no, I am not scheduling any appointments right now. I have to brush up on my skills, and obviously there is going to be a small fee.

GK: I imagine you secretly diagnosing the locker room like, “That guy—borderline personality disorder. That guy—textbook narcissist.”

MM: I mean, sometimes those thoughts creep into my head. [Laughs] No, I’m just joking.

GK: Is there any myth you have to consistently debunk about your KHL experience?

MM: That’s a very good question, and I think there’s a lot. How about living in China? People were like, “There’s a team there?” And I was like yeah, they’re trying their best and investing in us. They’re doing their best to get hockey going in an untapped market. People from North America that haven’t been to Russia see things in the news, and they don’t know how beautiful it is. You go from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok, and there’s such beauty. The kremlin they have in Kazan, the structures in Moscow.

One misconception that I had, personally, was the geographical vastness of Russia. The travel from one end to the other is amazing—the time changes! That was humbling and eye-opening for me.

I’ve met some great people all over the KHL—China, Russia, Riga. The guys that come over here are pleasantly surprised, and obviously there are some cultural differences, but you need to be open-minded and have a positive attitude. I’ve enjoyed my time playing in the league, and I am very blessed to be doing what I love while seeing the world.

GK: Speaking of all that travel, what do you do on the plane?

MM: I download some shows on Netflix and I have a lot of podcasts. Joe Rogan is amazing, Momentum, Tim Ferriss, The Full 60. The School of Greatness with Lewis Howes. As far as music, I just hit shuffle and let it go.

GK: What’s a song that you’re learning right now?

MM: I’m relearning Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. When I FaceTime my fiancée she gets a little upset like, “Not that song again!”

GK: I think you need to play what she wants to hear…read the room!

MM: She likes Tom Petty, but I don’t have the voice like Tom's! Well, I don’t have a voice like Eric Clapton either…but that’s a classic song.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
exclusive for khl.ru

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