CHICAGO – Away from the fire, the relationship between Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane resembles a mutual admiration society.
Matthews scoured Kane’s highlights on YouTube as a kid and counts him as one of his favourite NHL players. They now spend a few days together doing skills work with Darryl Belfry each summer. And of those sessions with Matthews, Kane recently gushed: "Sometimes you skate with players that are so far ahead of the players skill-wise it makes you push yourself a little bit more, too, so I’m excited to be around him."
The dynamic shifts inside the cauldron of competition. These are transcendent players capable of elevating moments beyond their circumstances. They both want to be the absolute best, beyond question, and there can only be one skater with the crown.
So it was on this unlikeliest of shared stages – the third game of the NHL’s regular season, on sleepy Thanksgiving Sunday – that Kane and Matthews produced a flash of hockey happenstance so bright it left you wondering if you saw it correctly.
Once Kane scored to make it 5-5 between Toronto and Chicago with 1:24 to play in regulation, Matthews restored the lead 22 seconds later. The puck was on his stick for a nanosecond and he celebrated his fourth point of the night by cupping his left hand to his ear inside a deflated United Center.
Then Kane brought back the roar by tying it 33 seconds later, celebrating his skipping shot through traffic with a wry smile and the exact same "can you hear it?" meme he’d seen from Matthews.
"He did it first," said Kane, with a hint of indignation.
The message was clear: It’s not quite your moment to overshadow me just yet, young Padawan.
"Well I mean I didn’t really like [his celebration] at first," Kane told Sportsnet. "I know it’s an emotional game out there, but I didn’t really like him doing that. Even the ref was saying maybe he could have called an unsportsmanlike on that or whatever.
"Yeah, when we scored to tie it up, I was happy to kind of give it back to him. We kind of smirked at each other on the bench after that."
It was this perfect little window into the sporting soul of these two players. (For those of us holding a Canadian passport, call it a chilling reminder of how scary Team USA would have been had the NHL players gone to the Pyeonchang Olympics in February…)
This is where the NHL is going, if it’s not already there. We can see the future playing out almost every night around the league.
Kane will eventually be considered a forefather of the movement – a player once profiled as too small to thrive in a man’s league, but who simply skated too well and handled the puck too well to be denied. He inspired many in the generation coming behind him. He made the game look fun.
And what was the barrage of goals and celebrations at the end of Sunday’s game if not entertaining? Hardened NHL coaches walked out of the building chuckling about what they’d just witnessed.
"Yeah, I thought that was good," said Mike Babcock.
Long after we eventually forget Toronto won the game 7-6 on a Morgan Rielly overtime goal or even that John Tavares registered his first Maple Leafs hat trick, here’s guessing we’ll remember the interplay between Matthews and Kane.
It’s the sort of thing that can’t be scripted or duplicated.
"You think you got the game locked up but obviously 30 seconds left, big goal after they just scored one so sometimes all you can do is laugh," said Matthews. "He’s obviously a premier player in this league and somebody I look up to. He was one of my favorite players growing up watching so when that happens you just have to sit back and laugh."
This was a serious shot of enthusiasm at the outset of a year with big hopes in Toronto. It’s still extremely early, but Matthews found himself atop the NHL scoring race when the night was over at eight points – just ahead of Toews, Kane and Rielly, all at six.
No one has scored more goals per minute than Matthews since he entered the league two years ago, and yet he went to work this off-season on better disguising his release and switching to a more upright skating stride that allows him to better see the ice.
There can be no detail left behind for a player that wants to score 50 goals and hit 100 points. A player that wants to follow Connor McDavid’s lead and chase down the greats.
"I wouldn’t call him a tinkerer, but he’s trying to pick up dollars and pennies," said former Leaf Connor Carrick, who trained with both Matthews and Kane over the summer. "He wants every goal off the rush where he’s got the spectacular shot, toe-drag, delay, shoot, score. He wants 15 of those. But he wants to pick up the two or three that are stopping at the net, he wants to pick up the two or three that are the shot, pass, tips because he’s in a good spot. He wants his possession numbers to be better where he works on the track and he works on stripping and going.
"I think the career today is a little more curated than before. That’s fun, that’s how it should be. The NHL should be a choice."
What stands out about Matthews is not just a sublime skillset for a man his size, but his sense of occasion. There is a certain "je ne sais quoi?" to his sporting brilliance. You saw it with his four-goal NHL debut in Ottawa and the overtime heroics in the outdoor game at BMO Field on New Year’s Day 2017 and the way he responded to a controversial overturned goal last January by scoring another one and pointing the way a referee does to signal that the puck is in the net.
Then there was the level he found here in Chicago against some childhood heroes. This was his first four-point game in the NHL since that out-of-this-world debut.
"I’ve got a lot of respect for him. I didn’t really like what he did there, but what are you going to do?" said Kane. "It’s an emotional game. I’m sure I’ve done some stupid things and stupid celebrations before, too. He’s still a pretty young kid and these are big games for him.
"But, yeah, a lot of respect for his game and the way he plays and he’s a remarkable player. He’s going to be a great player for a long time.
"Just a heat of the moment type of thing, you know?"