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Auston Matthews celebrates his goal with teammate Connor McDavid, right, during a World Cup of Hockey game on Sept. 21, 2016. (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Auston Matthews celebrates his goal with teammate Connor McDavid, right, during a World Cup of Hockey game on Sept. 21, 2016. (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

All eyes on McDavid and Matthews as Oilers take on Maple Leafs Add to ...

It was not your typical game-day morning skate at the Air Canada Centre. Wayne Gretzky was there watching, as was Bobby Orr, along with a media crowd so large it couldn’t comfortably fit into the visitors’ dressing room.

That was the scene ahead of the first meeting on NHL ice between two 19-year-olds who are considered the future faces of the league.

Connor McDavid of the visiting Edmonton Oilers was playing in his hometown for the first time as a pro against the team he loved as a kid, taking on rookie star Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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It’s the opening chapter in what could be a fascinating, long-standing rivalry: McDavid, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL draft, versus Matthews, the first pick in 2016. But unlike many of the great rivals in sports – from Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg – there’s no animus between these two quiet young hockey stars, and they have nothing but gracious things to say about one another.

“It’d be a lot easier for you guys if I came in and said I hate him,” said a soft-spoken McDavid, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his dress pants. “But he’s a good kid.”

Tuesday afternoon, McDavid was named the NHL’s First Star for October, while another exciting Toronto rookie, William Nylander, edged out Matthews for the league’s Rookie of the Month honour after leading all first-year players with seven assists and 11 points in nine games.

McDavid, who grew up in Newmarket just north of Toronto, offered his brief postskate comments in the ACC news conference room, since the visitors’ dressing room was too tight to handle this unusually large throng of reporters. That visitors’ room had been big enough to accommodate a press scrum with NBA megastar LeBron James last Friday when the Cleveland Cavaliers visited the Toronto Raptors. The Tuesday morning hockey-media gathering was much bigger.

“Is this a playoff game?” one reporter joked.

Matthews did his postskate interviews in the Leafs’ more spacious – but packed – dressing room in two waves: TV camera crews first, then everyone else.

“I think it’s pretty obvious – he’s pretty much a complete player, so fast and explosive,” Matthews said about McDavid. “No one has ever really seen a player who can skate the way he can.”

When the Oilers visited Toronto last November during McDavid’s rookie season, he was rehabbing his broken collarbone and missed his first opportunity to play in his hometown against his boyhood team. He did get to face the Leafs in Edmonton last February, and the result had been a brilliant five-point night – his best output of the season.

This time, with his family and friends gathering in a box suite at ACC, was the real homecoming.

Even Gretzky was flying into Toronto for the chance to see McDavid (the NHL’s co-leader in points prior to Tuesday’s game) go head-to-head with Matthews (the league’s co-leading goal-scorer ahead of the contest).

“I remember being 18 and being compared to [Marcel] Dionne or [Guy] Lafleur, and before you know it, you’re 26 and that new kid is coming in and it’s like ‘Is [Mario] Lemieux the next Gretzky?’ It goes by quickly, so I hope they enjoy it,” said Gretzky. “I really think that those two kids – Connor and Auston – have accepted their roles with their teams and the league, and they’re so mature. They’ve had tremendous upbringings from their families, and it’s great for our sport. The game keeps getting better, and these kids are as good as I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure.”

Gretzky reflected back on what it felt like to make his first NHL appearance in Toronto as a highly touted player who had been raised in the area.

“It’s probably one of the great days of your life,” said Gretzky. “It was Maple Leafs Gardens for me; for Connor it’s here [ACC]. So many family and friends are here. It’s the one place you know as a kid, you watch the Leafs every Saturday night … [Connor] is a player who raises his level the higher the game, so no doubt this is a fun night for him.”

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