ST. PAUL -- Matt Dumba whipped up to Saints Coast Barber Studio on West Seventh a couple of weeks ago pushing a mustard-colored 1968 Mustang Fastback straight out of the “Fast and the Furious” movies.
He got out to reveal a crisp graphic tee, some skinny jeans to match, and of course, a fresh pair of Nikes that tied the whole outfit together.
He opened the door to the modest five-seat shop, tapped longtime barber Chris Osborn and plopped down in the chair, effortlessly bouncing back and forth between sarcastic and serious during his 45-minute haircut.
Everything about the scene personified Matt Dumba. There’s more to him than meets the eye, though outward appearances are probably a good place to start. He stands out on the ice as a superstar in waiting, equipped with a rocket launcher from the point and a sense of creativity akin to Pablo Picasso on skates.
He stands out off the ice as a 25-year-old who looks nothing like the prototypical NHL player, his olive skin a darker complexion than most, his shredded physique canvassed in tattoos.
There aren’t a lot of guys in the league like Dumba and that’s kind of the point. He’s unafraid to stand out in a league that for the longest time has been all about fitting in.
“I don’t even think guys are doing it on purpose,” Dumba said. “That’s just what it’s become. We have to put ourselves out there and be vulnerable and be willing to have some backlash. I feel like sometimes people get caught up in worrying about that. I don’t know. I just see myself as someone that doesn’t want to live their life like that.”
As much as the Wild are going to rely on Dumba to inject some life into a rather stale product, the NHL could soon be relying on him to do the exact same thing. He’s marketable because he’s unabashedly himself.
And with the league lagging behind the times, a player like Dumba could be the answer.
“It feels like everybody has kind of been molded into this generic being and don’t ever want to say anything or step on any toes or push any boundaries,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Alright. If we start building robots, the game is going to become stagnant.’ ”
‘You can’t fight them all’
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Dumba is so comfortable in his own skin. He’s had a couple of decades of practice.
As a kid growing up in Calgary, Alberta, he looked up to Flames star Jarome Iginla because of his skin color just as much as his skill set. He would emulate him as best he could whenever he laced up the skates, gaining inspiration from the fact that there was someone playing at the highest level that looked like him.
“That was huge for me,” Dumba said as Osborn’s clippers connected with the side of his scalp. “He was the only guy with any skin color on the Flames at that time. That’s pretty much how it was with the teams I played on. Maybe one guy or two guys with any skin color.”
That made Dumba an easy target. His father, Charles, is Romanian and German; his mother, Treena, is Filipino — and that was something the other kids always latched on to whenever they wanted to bring him down.
“I feel like little kids are oftentimes the meanest,” Dumba said. “My parents always taught me to have tough skin. Those little kids were picking on me because they couldn’t play with me. All they had was their words. That pushed me at that age. I just wanted to silence those little kids who were being dumb.”
That mentality followed Dumba during his rise up the ranks. It took him a while to live up to his potential after being taken with the No. 7 overall in the 2012 NHL Draft. He took too many chances on the ice early in his career and found himself out of position on many occasions.
That made him a lightning rod for criticism from keyboard warriors who wondered aloud if Dumba was ever going to figure it out.
But Dumba hasn’t ever listened. He developed a balanced sense of brashness during his youth and has refined it over the years, recognizing that the haters are always going to exist while not letting what they say consume him.
“You’re not even really listening to it at this point,” Dumba said. “What’s that saying? ‘A lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinion of sheep.’ No matter what, those haters are going to try to get the last word on Twitter or Instagram or whatever. You can’t fight them all.”
All the while Dumba hasn’t forgotten what it felt like to have someone like Iginla as a role model. He wants to be that person for a little kid that might look a little different than his teammates.
“Just trying to be an example and encourage kids to fight through all that stuff,” Dumba said. “You just always have to try to take that high road. Those ignorant people always trying to pull us down are eventually going to fall to the wayside as we continue to climb. Just focus on you and being the best version of yourself.”
After rupturing his pectoral muscle during a fight with Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk last season, Dumba took anyone with Instagram on a behind-the-scenes journey as he worked his way back to 100%.
“Just look at his Instagram videos,” teammate Marcus Foligno joked during training camp. “He’s got a whole comeback documentary coming out.”
That was by design.
Not only did Dumba have more time on his hands than he knew what to do with, but he also wanted to make a concerted effort to stay connected with fans while he wasn’t playing. There were firsthand accounts of his recovery process, professionally produced videos here and there, and sometimes even life updates about what he doing at home while the team was on the road.
“I figured it was a good way to connect the game with the younger generation,” Dumba said. “I mean, everyone is on their phone looking at social media trying to figure out what this person is up to or what that person is up to. I want to be someone that people can engage with on social media.”
Like everything Dumba does, though, that was met with backlash, especially from those stuck in the mold of how they think professional athletes are supposed to act.
“There are people out there like, ‘Oh. He put up this Instagram video. He’s not focused,’ ” Dumba said. “It’s like, ‘Nah. That’s just our generation.’ If someone does step outside of those lines, then they’re looked at as an individual, and a lot of times, that’s not viewed as a good thing.”
That’s something that still doesn’t make sense to Dumba.
“You can be a great teammate and still do that stuff,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s attached to a negative stigma. There are plenty of outspoken players that are great teammates and would put anything on the line for their guys. That’s what I want to be known as.”
Don’t expect Dumba to change. He jumped at the opportunity to participate in the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last month, an event that public relations staffs usually have a hard time selling to players. He also has continued his social media accessibility, posting a short video clip on his Instagram on the eve of the season opener against the Nashville Predators, and a picture of himself and his muscle car before a recent road game against the Winnipeg Jets.
“It’s pretty badass,” teammate Ryan Hartman said of the 1968 Mustang Fastback. “You don’t see a lot of guys in the league driving cars like that.”
That’s pretty on-brand. You also don’t see a lot of guys like Dumba so willing to give a glimpse into their everyday lives.
“If we can get more guys and more teams to be more engaged and connect the game to the younger generation, that it’s only going to help,” Dumba said. “Just making the game fun. That’s all it’s ever been, and I think sometimes we forget that and it gets a little too serious.”
‘I’m just being myself’
For as long as Dumba can remember, music has been part of his identity. It’s served as an escape during hard times, a soundtrack during good times, and a common thread that binds different parts of his life together.
Just look at his friendship with Jonas Brodin, for example. They were roommates at Wild development camp back in the day and connected right away despite the fact that they could barely talk to each other.
“I didn’t speak very good English,” Brodin said, crediting Dumba for making him feel comfortable. “We would play songs to each other, just kind of back and forth. We were both young guys. We just connected right away.”
While Dumba would switch between old-school Lil Wayne and Kanye West, Brodin would spin some Swedish House Mafia; in the process, they forged an unbreakable bond that’s extended to include young teammates such as Joel Eriksson Ek, Victor Rask, Luke Kunin and Jordan Greenway.
The crew frequents restaurants around Minneapolis — Burch Steak and Zelo are favorites — and play card games like Shnarps and cribbage to pass the time on the road. There’s also a rotating taco night when they’re back home, and Dumba will have everyone over to his place for his trademark stuffed chicken.
These moments of downtime are necessary for Dumba, as are his biweekly trips to the barbershop; they provide a chance to take a step away from the game, if only for a moment.
“That’s a big part of being successful,” Dumba said. “You turn it off for a bit and come back to it and kind of feel good about everything.”
He had never turned it off for as long as he did last season as he recovered from the torn pectoral muscle. He spent a lot of time away from the team as he rehabbed, and the Wild plummeted without him in the lineup.
His energy is impossible to replicate.
“That’s something that we missed at the end of the season,” teammate Jason Zucker said. “Sometimes when teams are going through tough stretches, they need guys like him that are absolutely insane to come in and have some fun and kind of lighten up the room a little bit. He does that for us.”
It helps that Dumba is well on his way to becoming one of the NHL’s best players — as hero Iginla did in a 21-year career that ended in 2017. And while his star seems sure to rise, those close to him know he won’t change.
Ask anyone in Saints Coast Barber Studio.
“He’s literally the same dude I met five years ago,” Osborn said. “That’s probably the coolest thing. He comes into a shop full of people like it’s nothing. He just jumps in with conversations that we have going on like anybody else.”
That’s largely because Dumba is so secure with who he is. He has absolutely no problem standing out, like he always has — though he’s not doing it to prove a point.
“Not at all; I’m just being myself,” Dumba said as Osborn put the finishing touches on his fade. “I just started to tap into that and I’m 25 years old. I don’t think that comes easy for anyone. As soon as you can accept yourself, it’s a lot easier to live that happier lifestyle.”