For NHL clubs, greatness seems to come in bunches. Just as was the case in Pittsburgh with their parade of Hall of Famers, highlighted by Nos. 66 and 87, Edmonton’s been gifted two of the greatest to ever play the game in Nos. 99 and 97.
And similar to the mentorship Sidney Crosby received from his Penguins predecessor in Mario Lemieux, Connor McDavid‘s had the chance to learn from The Great One through his first few illustrious years in the NHL, with Wayne Gretzky returning to the organization in 2016 as vice-chairman of Oilers Entertainment Group.
The generational pair recently sat down for a lengthy discussion for GQ Sports, released to the world Thursday while McDavid’s 2019-20 campaign remains on hiatus, awaiting the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are a few highlights from the conversation between the two all-time Oilers greats:
1. Gretzky thinks McDavid’s faced far more pressure than he did in his younger days
There’s no question Gretzky faced immense pressure to perform as he rose to become the most prolific scorer the game had ever seen, especially in an era that allowed far more physicality inflicted upon superstar talents. But even so, it doesn’t compare to what McDavid’s dealt with from his youngest days in the sport, says Gretzky — here was their exchange on the subject:
Gretzky: “The one thing I can relate to is I understood, and understand, the pressure that you’re under, and the microscope. And you probably even had more of a microscope than I did because in this day and age it’s a smaller world, and there’s more media attention. And the reality was, although there was a lot of focus on me, you were a can’t-miss No. 1 pick at 16 — at 16 and 17, I still had half the hockey world saying, ‘Well, I’m not sure if he can play. He might be too small. He might be too slow.’ So, my path, my journey was a little bit different than yours because you had so much pressure from the age of probably eight, nine, that, ‘Okay, this guy’s probably going to be the first pick overall.’ And each and every year, you got better and obviously delivered.
“… I was under a microscope, but I still had so many people saying, ‘Well we’re not sure. You know, he’s a good player but wait til he gets to the next level’ or ‘wait til he gets to junior hockey’ or ‘wait til he gets to pro hockey.’ So I had these doubters that really fuelled my fire, really pushed me to go to another level. Your pressure came from within, having to be successful and live up to the expectations because people would say every night, ‘Is this guy any good? I’ve got to see this kid play at 15 or 16’ and each and every year, you’ve gotten better and delivered.
“I don’t think people realize the pressure and the microscope that guys like you and Sidney Crosby and Mario (Lemieux), when they come into the league, it’s a lot harder than people think. And you know that better than anybody.”
McDavid: “Yeah, I mean, there’s so much pressure. Especially in Edmonton, you know what that’s like — going through what they went through over the last decade and whatever. You know, you’ve got to win.”
2. There’s a distinct difference between winning titles for a bigger city vs. a smaller one like Edmonton, and No. 99 would know
Though McDavid’s already amassed two Art Ross trophies, two Hart trophies and a Lester B. Pearson Award, his half-decade in the league has brought just 13 playoff games so far. So, what would it feel like to lift the Cup in a city like Edmonton? Gretzky has a better idea than anyone else, having done it four times in Edmonton before getting a taste of playing in L.A., St. Louis and New York. According to The Great One, there’s just something different about claiming it for a smaller city.
Gretzky: “In Edmonton, it just seems like… it’s hockey and church and the Oilers, and that’s what goes on in Edmonton. And that’s a good thing when you’re winning. And when you’re not winning, it’s really hard to leave your apartment, as you know.”
McDavid: “Well, what’s it like to win there?”
Gretzky: “Oh wow. … We were talking about this with a friend who was playing in a big city, and they said that people who have season tickets go to about 10 per cent of the games. In Edmonton, I could look across the stands and see the same people every single night, and know that so and so’s in that corner, and they’re in this corner, and they’re there. And you knew around Christmastime that they were going to go to Hawaii or Florida or Palm Springs and somebody else would be in those seats. But every other game, those people were there.
“…So I think the biggest difference about winning in Edmonton versus bigger cities is that everybody, when you win, you’ve seen them every night, so you know that they’re as excited about it as you are, and they feel that they’ve done as much to win that Stanley Cup as you did as a player. So when you guys do win, and you will win a Stanley Cup, the feeling is just over the top. And you work your whole life to do that … When you actually lift the Cup, it’s pretty special. And you will lift it one day. You’re too good.”
3. Through all that the two Oilers greats have accomplished, they still cherish the memories of their earliest days in the NHL
It’s fair to assume it would be tough to pin down the top moments from a career that included nine Hart trophies, 10 scoring titles, four Cups and two Conn Smythe nods. But in fact, two come immediately to mind for Gretzky. And though McDavid’s first five years in the league have looked like a half-decade-long highlight reel, his first meeting with his childhood idol remains his marquee memory.
Gretzky: “Two things I remember most — my first faceoff was against Stan Mikita. Stan Mikita was one of my dad’s favourite players. And all I remember thinking was, ‘Wow.’ He beat me on the faceoff. And then lifting the Stanley Cup was something that you just can’t describe, and I know one day you’re going to get that feeling.”
McDavid: “… Kind of like Wayne said about Stan Mikita, when I first played Sid, that was really exciting for me. My first year, I got hurt and missed both games against Sid. So my second year I got to go into Pittsburgh and play Sid. Again, we took the opening draw — the whole time I was watching him during the anthem, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Sidney Crosby over there. I’m about to play against him.’ And then same thing, the faceoff, I don’t even think my stick touched the ice, he swept it back so fast. But it was a special moment for sure.”
Gretzky: “You know, it’s so quick it happens, beacuse when I was like you at that age — you’re looking across at Sid, I was looking across at guys like Bryan Trottier. Everybody’s comparing you and then all of a sudden it’s like that, that they’re going, ‘Okay, is this guy the next Connor?’ Before you know it, you’re going to be hunted down, it happens really fast.”