Then, as the moment of his first NHL game against his idol approached, a broken collarbone just three days before the Penguins were to play in Edmonton robbed McDavid of his chance. He was a still on I.R. three weeks later when the Oilers played in Pittsburgh, so the next season when McDavid finally lined up for an opening draw that night in Pittsburgh — Nov. 8, 2016 — he’d waited a lifetime to smoke Sid in the faceoff circle.
“I was excited to play him, a guy I grew up idolizing,” McDavid reminisced the other day. “On the opening faceoff, I was all excited. Gonna bear down and try and win a draw against him…
McDavid pauses for effect, and looks his questioner in the eye.
“He snapped it so far back… It was pretty funny.”
As the two get ready for Saturday’s meeting, their seventh, McDavid has been the more productive player head to head, with 3-7-10 to Crosby’s 2-2-4. Crosby will settle for his team being 6-0 against McDavid’s Oilers — and a highlight reel OT goal one night in Edmonton — a metaphor for their careers since McDavid was thrust into the lineage of Gretzky, to Lemieux, to Crosby, to McDavid.
They are equal parts the same player, yet completely different, with Crosby fixed in an Eastern market on a team that has contended for the Stanley Cup for over a decade while McDavid plays out West, and has made the playoffs just once in four seasons.
McDavid has donned a tuxedo and collected his hardware in Las Vegas at the end of year awards show, while Crosby has taken his directly from the hands of commissioner Gary Bettman, bedecked in his CCM gear in a sweaty arena in June.
“He’s the ultimate consistent guy,” compliments McDavid. “He’s been in the league for (15 seasons) now, and every year he has a great season. Their team’s always in the playoffs… He’s just so consistent.”
James Neal has flanked both over his years, as a winger both in Pittsburgh and Edmonton. He sees some Crosby in McDavid, for sure.
“The work ethic. The dedication to details. Not just wanting to be the best, but to be the best in the world,” he said. “The way they carry themselves. The way they work and they practice. Everything has a purpose; everything is gearing towards the next game or the next situation they’re going to be in.”
McDavid and Crosby are two of just seven players to have won both the Hart and Art Ross Trophies before their 300th career game, joining Jean Beliveau, Bobby Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux and Alex Ovechkin.
They are two generational players who have had the term “Face of the Sport” thrust upon them — whether they were ready for it or not.
“From a young age they’ve both been on … a pedestal,” observes Neal. “They’re up there, and everything is about them all the time. And rightfully so, because they’re that good and they’ve put the work in to be that good.
“They know what’s going on, how things are perceived and how things work. And they do everything they can to include everyone, and make everyone feel like a big part of the team.”
Crosby is no more outgoing than McDavid, though he spent a decade more than McDavid dealing with the media commitments that come with the job.
“Experience helps — that’s probably the biggest thing,” Crosby said of handling the off-ice responsibilities. “You’re still learning, even after a number of years and different situations that come about. I wouldn’t say there is one specific thing, or a certain age. The more you go through things, here is a comfort level that goes with that.”
We asked Jonathan Toews about that recently. A quiet, polite Manitoba kid, he became the youngest captain in Chicago Blackhawks history at age 20.
On a veteran team, suddenly Toews was the one who had to answer to the media every night.
“You have to constantly push yourself outside your comfort zone,” Toews said. “There are things that don’t come naturally to you, and you have to try to learn some of those skills. Whether it’s having a voice, or being a presence, just clueing in on the little details that have nothing to do with you, sometimes.
“You have to pay attention.”
Toews had the help of veterans like Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, as well as a running mate in Patrick Kane who was happy to borrow the spotlight once in a while.
“Kaner and I always had each other, in that sense,” Toews said. “It eased the pressure. As a (young) captain, I had guys like Seabs, Duncs, Sharpie and Hoss — guys who were like big brothers. We had a bunch of great leaders in our room, so there was never that much pressure on one guy.”
Try being McDavid, a guy with two Art Ross Trophies in four seasons who constantly has to answer to the media why his team lost again. Clearly, McDavid does his part on most nights. Yet a good captain doesn’t blame the rest of the team either.
It’s a tough place to be for a young guy, and although McDavid is still finding his voice when the media is in the room, Neal says that he and Crosby have a certain moment when they speak behind closed doors.
“At the right time,” Neal said. “They’re both really, really good team guys — great people off the ice. They want to help, and that being a good person goes a long way. Every day life, the way they do it, they’re both real normal guys.
“It’s really cool, the aura. What goes along with what they do in everyday life. From when they go to dinner, to when they’re at the rink. How excited kids are to get their autograph. How many people want to meet them at dinner. How many people come up to them… The stuff they go through every single day, it’s pretty crazy. The way they handle themselves is pretty impressive.”
That McDavid is now ready to tell a self-deprecating story like the one about losing that faceoff is a sign of growing confidence off the ice.
And on the ice, there are two things McDavid wouldn’t mind crossing off his list.
A Stanley Cup one day, and beating Pittsburgh — on Saturday.