LOS ANGELES – For NHL players, there is one sure sign you’ve truly made it big: When Alex Ovechkin asks you to trade sticks.
“Why not?” said Ovechkin. “Great players.”
The teenagers are formally taking a spot among their peers this weekend at the NHL’s all-star festivities. Along with Connor McDavid, a 20-year-old who is leading the league in scoring, they represent the changing face of the sport.
You could fill a book with the amount of praise being heaped on Matthews, Laine and McDavid by the alpha dogs here.
When Erik Karlsson was asked who he’s most looking forward to playing with in Sunday’s 3-on-3 tournament, he didn’t flinch before saying Matthews. Several players identified McDavid as the favourite to win the Hart Trophy this season. And John Tavares acknowledged that he’s feeling the push from the youngsters.
“They’re just players that can control a game,” said Tavares. “They’re obviously elite talents. It’s good motivation for guys like me to keep pushing myself to get better and know the next wave of guys are coming and to enjoy that challenge.”
Life moves fast.
There was a time when dues needed to be paid before gaining acceptance, but it’s clear that this trio is already being treated as equals.
McDavid brushed aside the suggestion that he’s soon going to be passed the mantle of best player in the game from Sidney Crosby, but no less of an authority than Wayne Gretzky supports the idea.
“That’s the guy that he’s chasing,” said Gretzky. “Connor sees him in his vision.”
Seeing them on a stage like this one so soon after they shook commissioner Gary Bettman’s hand on stage at the entry draft speaks to the shifting tide.
Matthews (23) and Laine (22) are among the top-10 goal-scorers in the league while McDavid is single-handedly leading the renaissance in Edmonton.
They might not quite be the faces of the NHL just yet, but it won’t be long before they’re the marquee attractions at all-star weekend.
For now, each seems to be basking in the moment. Matthews brought his parents and two sisters to Los Angeles and chatted with Justin Bieber after Saturday’s celebrity shootout. He also took some good-natured ribbing from Crosby before going head-to-head with him in two events at the skills competition.
“It’s been a first-class show so far,” said Matthews. “It’s been exciting. You get to meet all these guys, and just to be in the same category is a pretty big honour.”
His biggest mission for the weekend?
Acquiring 25 all-star hats to bring back to his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates – a special request from Leo Komarov, last year’s representative in the game.
“I’ve got to bring them back or else I’ll never hear the end of it from Leo,” said Matthews. “He probably told me 10 times, too. This whole last week he’s just been on me about it.”
Laine said it was “pretty cool” to be asked for his stick by Ovechkin when Winnipeg visited Washington earlier this season.
He watched intently as Finnish countrymen Teemu Selanne and Jari Kurri were selected among the NHL’s 100 greatest players on Friday night, and made no secret of the fact he’d like to join them if a future list is put together when his playing days are done.
“I think that’s everybody’s goal – to be remembered,” said Laine. “If we can play the game that way that someone will remember you when you’re not playing anymore, yeah, that would be pretty cool to be selected like that some day.
“I’ll try to do that every day.”
McDavid attended the NHL 100 event as well and took along his grandfather. That experience will be something that sticks with him long into the future.
While making it abundantly clear that he thinks Crosby will be wearing the crown for years to come, the Oilers captain clearly enjoys being part of the next wave of stars.
“I think it just shows that the game is pretty safe with coming into the young guys’ hands,” he said.
That seems to be the consensus among the people at the highest levels of the sport.
The league’s centennial celebrations are just as much about looking forward as they are celebrating the past, and at this all-star weekend it feels like we are watching the future play out in the present at Staples Centre.
“It seems like it’s easy for them,” said Montreal Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber. “All the kids are so good. It’s exciting because the kids that are coming up are great players. It’s good for the NHL … it’s just going to keep growing the game.
“I think kids will look up to the younger guys now – not just Sid and Ovi and those guys. Kids are looking up to Connor and Matthews and guys like that already.
“It’s hard to even fathom that at such a young age.”