Will we ever understand what makes Connor McDavid tick?

Connor McDavid. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

Everyone saw him coming, but it was different then.

A ridiculously talented teenage defenceman playing junior hockey in Oshawa, but it’s not like the games were on television, like the highlights would show up that night after the evening news, like there was all-sports TV or that Internet thing. You had to actually be there, or else rely on the newspaper reports, a few scattered mentions to start, then more frequent and ever more breathless.

A story in The Hockey News, a between-periods appearance on Hockey Night in Canada, and finally everyone started to catch on. The phrase "generational player" hadn’t been invented yet, but of course that’s exactly what Bobby Orr was.

And now here we go again. The same thing, and not the same thing at all.

Connor McDavid may turn out to be the most interesting guy in the world. He may be as naturally shy in front of the cameras as Orr was (try to find that interview with Ward Cornell when Orr was still a General, where you can see him almost shaking) or as remarkably self-possessed as 13-year-old Wayne Gretzky, sitting down to chat with Peter Gzowski. He may be somewhere in the middle.

But with all the insulation between him and the hockey-loving public—with all those layers of agents and advisers, with the media training designed to avoid controversy and leach out originality, having learned the Sidney Crosby trick of being available and fulfilling his obligations and being sure to say nothing interesting at all—who’s ever going to know what makes him tick?

The machineries of hockey stardom have certainly evolved.

It was revolutionary that Orr even hired an agent, Alan Eagleson, that he held the Boston Bruins’ feet to the fire in contract negotiations when they already owned him, lock, stock and barrel, thanks to the good old C-form. It was a game changer when he started landing endorsement deals that would normally have gone to actors, when he started to be treated like a star, minus the hockey prefix. When he got married in his hometown of Parry Sound, Ont., one summer, it was covered like a news event in the days before most people knew the word paparazzi.

In the face of that, Orr did his best to shut out the world. He was both shy and self-conscious, always worried they’d decide he was a small-town hick.

Gretzky, the beginning of whose career nearly abutted the end of Orr’s, arrived in a fundamentally different hockey and media landscape. But he chose to live in public, to allow his private life to become grist for the mythology mill. His wedding in Edmonton was right there for all to see. You knew about his folks, you knew about his wife and his kids, and you knew he could face difficult questions but avoid damage the way he did on the ice when a goon was bearing down on him. Nothing landed, nothing bad ever stuck.

The few who have since borne the mantle of not just the best player in the game, but of a player who on some level transcends the sport, have handled things their own way, with ever-decreasing levels of intimacy. Mario Lemieux succeeded in remaining unknowable even while battling back from injury, and from cancer. Crosby, who had the spotlight shining on him at an earlier age than anyone before, found a way to maintain distance even as his every move was being tracked—even in the era of social media. Consider how much you’ve seen him, consider the books, the commercials, the Olympic microscope, then consider how little you really know about him.

The new kid arrives with a slightly lighter load on his shoulders. Orr was the poster boy during the great 1960s expansion, and Gretzky for a whole other renegade league before becoming the NHL’s Sunbelt stalking horse. Crosby was there to make everyone forget the dead-puck era—and to make sure Canada won that gold medal on home soil.

McDavid merely has to revive a once-great franchise, keep the dollars flowing in a brand-new arena and prove right off the hop that there’s a gap between him and the game’s other young stars, who are great but not historically great. Soon enough, he’ll be expected to supplant Sid, who has reached mid-career, and whose numbers suggest he might already be taking the first steps down the other side of the mountain.

He’s already famous, he’s rich and will get much richer—there’s a cadre in his employ whose job is to make sure of that. Nothing on the hockey side suggests that he isn’t up to the task on the ice—or even that there will be much of learning curve.

Maybe it’s selfish, but it would be great to eventually find the human being attached to the brand.

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