It’s a great time to be a hockey fan.
Just over a week into the 2016-17 season, we’ve already seen some incredible performances by some of the league’s youngest players — Auston Matthews’ historic four-goal debut, Patrik Laine’s hat-trick rally and Connor McDavid‘s big debut as the youngest captain in league history, to name a few.
It’s a group the likes of which we haven’t seen for a while. Decades, even, according to Wayne Gretzky.
“This is so unique and so special,” Gretzky said during an NHL Network interview that aired Thursday night. “You look at each and every city around the National Hockey League, to the young players that each town has right now, and you’re going, ‘Oh my goodness. One seems to get better than the other.’”
The Great One is not only impressed with their in-game efforts, but also by the kids’ appreciation for the game as many of them take their first strides on NHL ice.
“What’s more important about it, too, is how they’re respecting the game and how they treat people and how much enjoyment you can see they’re bringing to their clubs, and how much fun they’re having.”
Here are a few of Gretzky’s observations:
On what McDavid shares in common with Sidney Crosby and Bobby Orr:
He sees the game a lot like Crosby. He works hard, and that’s very important. He’s very unselfish. And he has this gear — this extra gear. People say to me all the time that Bobby Orr had that extra gear, and that’s what Connor has. He has something so special that I have yet to see in a hockey player.
On his reaction to Matthews’ incredible NHL debut:
I’m thinking, “OK… my [50 goals in 39 games] is in jeopardy… and maybe the 92 [goals in a single season] is in trouble…” I had all these thoughts. [Laughs]
It’s hard to score in the NHL. And it’s really hard today, with the goaltenders being as good as they are and the players as good as they are. So what he did was remarkable. Good for him. It’s great for Toronto.
On the Maple Leafs:
We need the Toronto franchise in the National Hockey League. Brendan Shanahan’s done a wonderful job putting together a good staff and a good coaching staff. I look to the Toronto Maple Leafs to have a very good team in the near future.
On what impresses him most about Laine:
When you see this young man go toward the net, he seems like he’s smiling before he even scores. He’s got an enthusiasm and an energy that he’s brought to the National Hockey League and to the city of Winnipeg … it’s great for the Jets, and it’s great for the National Hockey League.