EDMONTON -- “There’s a lot of respect that goes along with playing hockey…”
Connor McDavid was looking the interviewer in the eye, and really digging in for a Sunday sitdown with Sportsnet, an exercise that, in the past, has been a chore from both sides of the journalistic fence.
If you, the hockey fan, have suffered through years of Connor McDavid interviews where he has held his tongue -- saying as little as humanly possible, but enough to get to the finish line of his media avail -- then you should also have noticed that McDavid’s media profile is changing.
A career paved with six seasons and over 400 games of deference towards the officials, the game and his opponents -- every answer about the coming Olympics salted with a “if I can make the team,” -- the time has come for a 24-year-old McDavid to ease into being more than just the face of the game.
Now, he feels comfortable letting his voice have a bigger role.
“For me, it’s definitely taken me a long time to open up a little bit,” he told Sportsnet on Sunday. “I’m still not… What I put in front of the camera is not necessarily who I am each and every day. But I try and do my best for the fans, and for the game. I do try to be better at it.”
McDavid spoke out on a missed tripping call on Monday night. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Why did he choose to speak out so forcefully, with the regular season still over a week away? What has transformed a young player who would normally give us a word salad, into a leader who speaks his mind about how the game is played and officiated?
It’s time. That is what has changed.
“There’s a lot of respect that goes along with playing hockey. You’ve got to earn everyone’s respect, and once you feel like you've been able to do that, you get a little more comfortable,” he said. “You feel like you can say something. Like you’ve earned the right to say something.”
McDavid blew out his knee on this play, when then-Flames defenceman Mark Giordano took out his feet and McDavid went crashing into the goalpost. In the aftermath, he said almost nothing about Giordano’s role in the mishap.
On Monday Flames defenceman Brandon Tanev jammed his stick between the feet of McDavid, who was at top speed. No call was made, but when McDavid sat down at the post-game podium, there was no chance he was going to walk out of that room before getting a few things off of his chest.
It’s a welcome change.
“They have the right to defend their net, to defend me trying to get in there,” McDavid began. “But when the stick comes into the feet, like Tanev’s did, it’s a dangerous play for me and for the goalie. I don’t want to go flying in there, the goalie doesn’t want me to go flying in there. And the guy that’s left safe is the defenceman that’s sloppy with his stick.”
If you’ve followed McDavid’s career through the media, your ears would have perked up like mine did when he called an opponent’s effort “sloppy.” That could be a first for McDavid over the six years since we first met him, a time when he has bent over backwards not to come off as a generational talent looking down on or speaking ill of another player who does not possess his skill set.
“Obviously we want to increase offence, and the (defenceman) has to be able to defend his net as well,” McDavid said. “But when the stick gets caught up in the feet and sends someone flying into the net, I think you’d like to see that start being called a little more.”
This is the year that McDavid gets to play for Team Canada. When Canucks, Maple Leafs and Flames fans alike will put down their differences and get behind the guy wearing No. 97 on his back and a red maple leaf on his chest.
McDavid will wear a letter at the Olympics for Team Canada, and if he is not the captain -- which we don’t suspect will happen -- it will be the last Olympics where the ‘C’ isn’t sewn over his heart.
McDavid is the best offensive player in the game. Nobody would argue that.
Is he the best player, period? Well, he hasn’t won any Stanley Cups, or played in a best-on-best since the 2015 World Juniors.
But this February in Beijing, that begins to change. And following that, come May, we’ll see if the Edmonton Oilers can do their part to building the kind of resume that Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky can claim -- with Stanley Cups to go with Canada Cups and Olympic gold medals.
And as that process unfolds, we are seeing this young phenom grow up, and grow more comfortable.
The face of the game, it seems, may yet become the voice of the game.