DENVER — If Connor McDavid has come in waves at opposing defencemen, he has washed over the hockey populace in layers during his ascent to the title of hockey’s best player.
Unlike Sidney Crosby, there have been no Olympic moments, no skating through snowflakes to win a Winter Classic for a hockey phenomenon who has played out his career in hockey’s version of Mystery, Alaska.
McDavid is not just sequestered in Alberta, the northwest corner of the National Hockey League map. McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers reside in northern Alberta, where 82 televised McDavid appearances each punishing winter are 82 reasons not to let the bitter cold and 4 p.m. darkness break our spirit the way he broke Jacob Markstrom’s.
There, in a province that lives and breathes the game, McDavid has long held the crown of hockey’s best player. Because out West, they see Matthews and Marner, Kucherov and Stamkos in a 5 p.m. MT start all winter long.
Then McDavid arrives on our big screens, like the main event after an undercard. With all due respect, for a while now, there has simply been no contest.
Today, as McDavid’s maturation coincides with a stage that a Hockey Night in Canada game in November simply cannot match, McDavid and the hockey world are on a next-level date.
By our count, McDavid’s Oilers have been seen nine times on ESPN’s or TNT’s national broadcasts this season. Less than the Flyers and Blackhawks, we’d wager. Certainly less than Crosby’s Penguins.
Starting Tuesday, the Oilers and Colorado Avalanche will command the hockey world’s attention every second night for most of two weeks. Like a Group of Seven painting, or some long lost Donald Fagan track, you can’t grasp McDavid’s brilliance by dropping in monthly, or catching the highlights on the morning sports shows.
For the next fortnight, fans who never have seen McDavid command an NHL ice surface twice in the same month can hit replay every second night on McDavid — hockey’s answer to whatever movie it is you can watch over and over, and it still does it for you.
It even took Scotty Bowman, one of the greatest coaches and sharpest hockey minds of all time, a break-in period before he could accurately decipher just what it was he was watching.
“I didn’t realize how he was pretty well even on making plays and finishing them, you know?” Bowman said this week. “There are a lot of great players in the league, but some of them are one-dimensional. They don’t make plays. Wayne was like McDavid, but the only other one that I could ever think of was Mario (Lemieux). But he was a different player. He didn’t move like this guy.”
Of course, “Wayne” refers to the greatest player ever to lace ‘em up, in the eyes of most.
“He’s playing a different game than pretty much everyone else,” Gretzky said over the phone, as McDavid led his Oilers to a five-game rout in the Battle of Alberta. “The only two guys who compare him to in the league right now would be Patrick Kane and (Nikita) Kucherov — and that’s only in the basis of their playmaking ability. But Connor does it at a speed that I don’t know if those other two guys have.”
“They have his hockey sense, and they have his vision, but he can do it at a speed that nobody else can do it at. And so he’s always one play ahead of everyone else, knowing where the next guy is, where his teammates are. He’s extremely unselfish, but I think the biggest difference is, he competes at a tempo that nobody else is at.
“That I don’t think we’ve ever seen.”
There was a time, not so long ago, that the Crosby caveat existed. A time when the answer to the questions, “Who is the NHL’s best player?” and, “Which player would you want for a Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup?” had separate answers.
Today, McDavid’s defensive acumen, his faceoff work and his determination in all three zones of the rink has eliminated any “ya, buts” from the conversation.
And now he is beginning to lead his team places. Now, he’s taken a franchise that has wallowed, and with co-phenom, Leon Draisaitl, arrived at this Western Conference Final. Now, the distance between McDavid and Crosby that has disappeared becomes just another separator between McDavid and Matthews — and everyone else.
“Over the years he’s gone through a lot of trials and tribulations as far as the team goes, changes in the organization,” Gretzky said. “Through all that adversity, both him and Leon have carried their heads high and been then extremely accountable when things were tough. Now they’re enjoying the fruits of the success of the hockey club.
“Now their level of compete and battle, although it’s always been there, it just seems to be rising.”
Poll all of the nearly 1,000 NHL players in a given season. Add in another 500 coaches, front office types, scouts and such, and we’d wager that McDavid would get more than 1,475 votes as hockey’s top player.
The people in the know, they know.
Now, as the last of the rest of the hockey world gets its chance to see what the others have already come to realize, the conversation gets historical.
Forget today’s players. Who do we compare McDavid to … ever.
“I think that the closest player, but a different position, for me to watch would be Bobby Orr,” Bowman said. “Bobby Orr could really take off, and guys would be scrambling to try to get in position. Then he’s around behind the net, and then he can still make the play.”
Gretzky watched McDavid take his Oilers down the stretch, change his game and lead them in the right direction under a new coach.
“And then on top of that, when they were down three to two against L.A. (in Rd. 1) he put the team on his back and really made the difference — especially in Game 6, and of course Game 7 in Edmonton,” Gretzky marvelled. “That’s what great players do. Bobby Orr did it. Lemieux did it. Messier did it. Howe did it. He’s doing that right now.”
McDavid scored the 2-0 goal that solidified their 2-0, Game 7 win over L.A. Then he scored the OT winner in the clinching Game 5 at Calgary.
He and Draisaitl sit tied atop the playoff scoring race with 26 points — 10 points clear of third place.
And there are those who still wonder if the guy from their favourite team is his equal.
Two weeks from now? That shouldn’t be a problem.