EDMONTON — Up here in Northern Alberta, in that long ago time when people routinely affixed stickers onto the fenders, trunks and rear windows of their cars, there was a particularly memorable one back in the early ’80s. It came hard on the heels of the Great Oil Boom of the ‘70s.
It was called a ‘bumper sticker,’ and it went like this:
“Dear Lord, Please Give Me Another Oil Boom. I Promise I Won’t Piss It All Away This Time.”
How does this pertain to hockey? Well, if you grew up here, watching the Oilers of the ’80s, there is a similar admission that almost everyone would make. So let me go first.
We took Wayne Gretzky for granted. Like the oil rush, we thought the gushing rig of hockey feats that was the Great Wayne Gretzky would never run dry. That the ’80s would run into the ’90s, and all that success would carry seamlessly into the next century.
But, in our defence, it all looked so easy.
Gretzky’s Oilers, for five years in a row from 1981-86, scored over 400 goals per season. (Historical perspective: Last season Tampa led the NHL with 296 goals.)
Gretzky won seven consecutive Art Ross trophies in a row, three times by amassing at least 100 more points than the 108 that earned Connor McDavid that same Trophy last season. In 1981-82 he scored 92 goals. No one in today’s NHL scored 92 goals in the past two full regular seasons combined.
A three-point game by Gretzky barely made the sports anchor’s script the next day, so accustomed were we to watching him pile up points against the Warren Skorodenskis, Murray Bannermans and Reggie Lemelins of the world.
Then, it ended. And as it turns out, hockey here hasn’t been quite as much fun for most of the next 30 years.
Then, along came McDavid. He wears the same Oilers uniform, and for two straight years has won the same Art Ross Trophy.
“It’s really special,” Milan Lucic said of the matchup. “It’s a game a lot of people tune into and I know, as an athlete, it’s a game you want to be in, playing in front of and with greatness. It’s kinda like back in the day when Mario and Wayne would play against each other.”
As the debate wears on over who is the best player in the game, Crosby and McDavid are on every single ballot — usually eating up the top two spots. This is the reigning champ versus The Next One. The very tandem that makes us look at our watch and wonder aloud to the NHL when it’s going to give its head a shake and get back into the Winter Olympics.
“That’s what’s thrilling about being a fan, a coach, a teammate, a player,” said Todd McLellan. “You get to watch these stars go head to head. They’re both extremely proud players, but successful players. They’re fun to be around, and you have to pay attention, because usually when they’re on the ice, something good’s going to happen.”
That Team North America did not make that final at the most recent World Cup is such a shame, when you consider who the top centremen were on each team. There are 10 years between them, which makes games like Tuesday night’s a rare gem, with Sid still in the latter years of his prime, while McDavid — at just 21 years old — is expecting to get better and better for some time yet.
What does he admire most about Crosby’s game?
“It’s his full, 200-foot game,” marveled McDavid. “He’s dominant in the faceoff circle, solid defensively, and obviously his offence speaks for itself. He’s kind of that perfect mix of everything. He’s got that flash, but he’s also got that grind that makes him hard to play against.”
In the arc of his career, McDavid is pretty much right on track with Crosby. Through their first three seasons, McDavid averages 1.22 points per game to Crosby’s 1.38. In his fourth NHL season, McDavid has seen his faceoff percentage jump 10 points to just over 52 per cent. It only took Crosby three seasons to win more than half his draws.
Head to head, McDavid (2-5-7) has crushed Crosby (0-1-1) in the four games they’ve faced each other. How has McDavid witnessed the matchup?
“Well, I don’t think we’ve ever beaten them,” said the Oilers captain, whose team is 0-2-2 vs. Pittsburgh. “So, that would be not very good.”
It happens just twice a year, unless one of them is injured. Then, the two best players in the game may only see each other once in a season.
They meet Tuesday night, in Edmonton.
Don’t piss it away.