They say you should never meet your heroes, but that has definitely not been an issue for one Barrie youngster who has now met his idol twice — nearly taking him out at the knees with a giant hug both times.
Barrie's Finn Sposito first met Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews when he was only three years old.
Now, at seven, Finn considers No. 34 to be a buddy, after being personally selected by the player to design the skates he would wear during the 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend was held earlier this month at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
“I designed some skates. I got my pair and he’s got his so we are twins with the skates,” Finn exclaimed in an interview before dashing off to get them are their east-end home.
“I just like arting and I thought he would like it and thought he’d like my dragon and my snake, but I changed my snake to an earth dragon," he added.
At five weeks old, Finn was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited disorder that causes severe damage to the lungs, digestive system and other organs in the body.
The NHL superstar hand-picked Finn to design the skates, with the two meeting, for the second time, at SickKids Hospital in November to work on the design together, which were then adorned to his skates.
In a video, shared by CCM Canada on Jan. 31, Matthews said his uncle, who he credits for introducing him to hockey and often took him to Arizona Coyotes games, had CF.
“Without him and without that connection, I am not sure I’d be playing hockey,” said the Toronto Maple Leafs sniper. “It means a lot to be able to wear it on a big stage like the all-star game and for Finn as well to see his creation and on a bit of a world stage. I'm sure, will be awesome.”
The project was part of a partnership with the Toronto-based hospital and CCM Canada, explained Kate Torrance, vice president, head of brand for the SickKids Foundation.
“Finn is a cystic fibrosis patient at SickKids. Auston Matthews and his family have a box at the Leafs games and they like to invite patients whenever they can," Torrance said. "Because of Auston’s personal connection to cystic fibrosis … he always likes us to invite CF families to the box in particular.
"A few years ago, Finn and his family were on the list," she added. "Finn was already a big hockey fan and a big Auston fan and they shared a special moment and a hug at that time.”
When CCM Canada and Matthews approached SickKids about the special collaboration, Finn was a front-runner because they’d already had this chance to meet and this special connection, added Torrance.
“They’d really bonded when they met when he was little,” she said.
The hospital, which sees approximately 2,000 young patients from Barrie each year, relies heavily on support from the community, so when people like Matthews get involved, they bring their own platform and profile, which helps introduce SickKids and its patients to a whole new community of people.
“From the organization’s point of view, having folks like Auston be a champion for us really just helps keep us top of mind and encourage people to want to give," Torrance said. "From the patients' point of view, we have a lot of young hockey fans … and our patients miss out on so much of their childhood, especially CF patients (because) it’s a life-long disease.
"They’re in the hospital regularly … and don’t get to go to a lot of the same types of activities as other kids," she added. "When people like Auston go out of their way and spend time with the kids, it makes them feel really seen and special.”
Getting to hang out with his hockey idol and be creative was a pretty cool way to spend an afternoon, Finn acknowledged.
“It was great. He scores the most goals. He is the nicest hockey player I’ve ever had in my life,” he said, while showing off his prized possession, on which the NHLer had scrawled: 'To Finn, my secret weapon.'
“It was a pretty cool experience. They hung out for close to an hour chatting like they’re old friends,” said Finn's dad, Matthew Sposito.
The opportunity, added mom Camille, was a once-in-lifetime experience.
“Finn brought his dinosaurs and the two of them were sitting there playing dinosaurs at the table and were just in the moment (as if) they’d been chatting for years that way,” she said.
“It’s a special moment. Just knowing the connection (he) has with cystic fibrosis with his uncle and seeing the two of them interact ... Auston was just really engaged with him," said Matthew. "Seeing all of the cameras that were there, he was focused on him and made him feel special. None of the other stuff really mattered.
"Having the opportunity to distract (Finn’s) disease, and all of the stuff he has to deal with on a daily basis … it's something to change the narrative of his day-to-day life and something else to talk about at school other than his disease," he added.
Despite all of the cameras and behind-the-scenes commotion, the proud parents recall that afternoon feeling “mellow."
“All of that is pretty overwhelming for us, but watching him and Auston in the moment, sitting at that table and chatting, it was like nothing else was there. It was like he was just talking and hanging out with a friend. It was very relaxed on design day," said his dad.
Witnessing the pair together was something that was extremely special to get to be a part of, added Torrance
“Auston is really grounded and down-to-earth. He really connects with kids," she said. "He manages to put them at ease right away. Somebody like Finn, he has a great big personality (and is) boisterous and fun. Watching the two of them felt pretty magical. They click really well.
“Finn likes to do arts and crafts so this project, bringing his passions together of hockey, Auston Matthews and drawing, was like a dream come true. We were weepy in the room as well," Torrance added.
The family also had the chance to attend the all-star weekend in Toronto and see the pair’s creation on the ice. And although that was a bit more chaotic, it was filled with lots of excitement and commotion, especially when Matthews presented Finn with his own pair of skates donning their all-star collaboration.
“They were just very focused on each other and Auston is able to just not worry about any of (the other stuff). He just put the spotlight on him and Finn. It was amazing,” said Finn's dad.
Finn told BarrieToday it was “great” to see their design on the Leafs alternate captain for the first time during warm up.
“He banged on the glass and (said) hello and he smiled,” said Finn.
It’s special to be able to make these kinds of memories and for his son to be given this kind of opportunity, added Matthew.
Giving back to kids like Finn, they added, helps make challenging times a little easier.
“We are just very grateful for CCM and Auston. It’s been a wonderful experience that Finn will remember forever. He’s a little mini celebrity at his school,” said Camille.
The family tries to watch as many Leafs games as they can, said Matthew, adding they even let the kids stay up a bit late to watch the first period.
Although Finn likes to play hockey, he’s still working on his skating skills, so they often play ball hockey instead — and the second grader at St. Monica's Catholic School has even been showing interested in becoming a goalie.