Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr made sure they were in Toronto to witness the first NHL meeting between Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
McDavid and Matthews didn’t see what the big deal was, but to those on the outside the significance was clear. This was the first meeting between the two players who will define the next generation in the NHL, much as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin repped the league for the past dozen years and Mario Lemieux and the Great One did before that.
"I really think that those two kids, Auston and Connor — both No. 1 picks overall — they’ve accepted their responsibility and their role, not only to the teams, but to the league," Gretzky said hours before Matthews’ Leafs topped McDavid’s Oilers in overtime on the first of November.
The page has now begun to turn from Crosby and Ovechkin toward McDavid and Matthews, who were each nominated for a major NHL award this season.
Like Crosby before him, McDavid is poised to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP in just his second season and become the first Oiler to do so since Mark Messier in 1990. He was the only NHLer to hit the 100-point plateau and only the fifth player in the last 20 years to pot at least 30 goals and 70 assists in one season — joining Lemieux, Crosby, Jaromir Jagr and Evgeni Malkin.
The youngest captain in NHL history also became the third youngest scoring champ and a reason to stop and stare at the TV any time he appeared on screen.
Matthews needed less than two periods to become must-watch himself, with the first four-goal debut ever. He would go on to become only the sixth teenage rookie to score 40 goals, including a league-leading 32 at even-strength. His 40 goals and 69 points were records for a first-year Leaf and he’s rightly expected to win the first Calder trophy for Toronto in 51 years.
For as much as their potential unites them, McDavid and Matthews have plenty that differentiates them as well — just like Crosby and Ovechkin.
Crosby was the humble, clean-cut Canadian known to say and do the right thing; Ovechkin was brash and bold, the Russian unafraid to buck the trend. Ovechkin scored with a big, heavy shot while Crosby seemed to pick the game apart with his mind and sheer will.
McDavid, meanwhile, makes his way by manipulating the ice with uncanny vision, skill and this "one extra gear that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a hockey player", as Gretzky once described it. Matthews is more about power through quickness, a video-game-like ability to handle the puck and a six foot three, 216-pound frame.
"He’s so fast and explosive," Matthews said of McDavid, his linemate with Team North America at last fall’s World Cup of Hockey. "Nobody’s really ever seen a player that can skate the way he can."
Their origins differ too.
McDavid hails from just outside the hockey hub of Toronto, a prodigy fans spent years waiting to see. Matthews came from nowhere in hockey terms, an American from the Arizona desert.
McDavid, tellingly, hadn’t gotten a glimpse of Matthews until he saw him play at the world junior championships in 2016 — months before the Leafs made him their first No. 1 overall pick since 1985. Matthews got wind of McDavid, who went No. 1 to Edmonton a year earlier, when he was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League at age 15 with exceptional status.
"I think I actually played him when I was younger, but you’re not really knowing who anybody is when you’re 10, 11-years-old," Matthews said.
Crosby and Ovechkin quickly dragged their teams in the NHL’s elite class and McDavid and Matthews already have their clubs pointed in similar directions. McDavid led the Oilers to their first playoff appearance in more than a decade and a first round win over the San Jose Sharks.
Matthews was the guiding force in the Leafs’ second post-season appearance since 2004 and near upending of Ovechkin’s Capitals in the first round.
No two teams, arguably, boast more long-term potential for Stanley Cups than Edmonton and Toronto and it’s because of the two stars leading the charge. The league will draw more eyeballs to various screens as a result and more dollars to the coffers because of tickets and merchandise.
It was the American who actually finished with the NHL’s fourth-highest selling jersey, a touch better than McDavid’s No. 97 in sixth spot.
"I definitely don’t consider him a rival," McDavid said before that first meeting. "I think it would be a lot easier for (the media) if I came in here and said ‘I hate him! Blah, blah, blah.’ But he’s a good kid. I’m excited to play against him."