During the Toronto Maple Leafs’ recent trip through Sweden, William Nylander appeared on a big Stockholm talk show.
He showed up looking like Archie Bunker with a blowout – white undershirt, heavy necklace nestled in tasteful chest hair. A naughty 70-something actress from Wallander could not help herself and fondled Nylander’s biceps. Hollywood regular Peter Stormare was there, too. He was no competition.
Even if you don’t speak Swedish, it was a fun watch. Nylander was asked about riding the TTC, and his dating life, and sexting. He played it coy and it worked. Judging by octaves reached, the host could not contain her delight.
Later, his Swedish Leafs’ teammates were asked about his performance in their native language. None bothered to lie and say they hadn’t seen it.
“The Willy Show,” Calle Järnkrok shrugged, though fondly.
This is what crossover success looks like. Over here, where it’s Our Game™, we don’t have that. We have some guy in a helmet sweating over a mic during the first intermission. For just a few days in another country, Nylander showed the NHL what it’s missing – glamour.
Right now, is anyone in the NHL doing more to front the league?
The default answer is Connor McDavid and he is making news, all of it terrible. McDavid’s Oilers are already so far off the pace that their new benchmark for success is getting blown out in the first round of the playoffs. That’s their Everest.
McDavid is playing like a guy who’s never missed a day of work and insists on coming to the office with pneumonia.
The Oilers’ apparent answer to this disaster is to a) freeze like a small woodland creature who senses danger and b) wait until the off-season to hire everyone McDavid has ever sent a Christmas card to run the team.
A few generational stars get this GM-in-all-but-title treatment (LeBron James, Lionel Messi, et al). But usually they’ve won something first, and more often than not, it doesn’t work out.
A few familiar sub-McDavids are having good years (Auston Matthews, David Pastrnak, Cale Makar, etc.), but not so much that someone who’s on the Wall of Fame at Malmo Airport is rubbing up on them in Swedish prime time.
Quinn Hughes is having a Bobby Orr season in Vancouver. But if you asked 10 people on the street to pick him out of a lineup, you’d have to hope one of them worked for the Canucks.
On Friday afternoon, Nylander’s Leafs played another would-be face of the NHL, Connor Bedard.
This was not a showcase of high-end talent. For example, Toronto’s Ryan Reaves scored. That may never happen again.
Nylander was a spritely presence, but for the first time this year, didn’t notch a point. It didn’t matter. The Leafs were busy giving back a two-goal lead. Chicago won 4-3 in overtime. Bedard assisted on the winning goal.
Two months into his first job, the top line of Bedard’s performance review is ‘Very Satisfactory’. He is the best player on Chicago – not exactly an unreachable standard.
Bedard’s biggest obstacle is the version of himself that was advertised. No one was ever going to be that good, and Bedard isn’t. He’s scored a couple of wild goals, but Chicago still isn’t good. They don’t award points for works in progress.
The other thing Bedard hasn’t managed is busting through the American celebrity wall of noise. After a little ovation to begin with, he’s blended into the background. Every other league has its multihyphenates. Even baseball has one now – Shohei Ohtani.
All hockey has is hockey players. None of them rate a talk-show appearance on their own charismatic merits.
Use the Saturday Night Live index. Three dozen athletes have come far enough to the fore of the collective American imagination that they are worth a guest-host spot on that show. The most recent was Taylor Swift’s purse porter, Travis Kelce.
Five different professional wrestlers have earned that perch over the years, and just one hockey player (Wayne Gretzky).
It’s been 34 years since Gretzky’s appearance on SNL. It’s possible that generations of American hipsters may not know hockey exists.
If you had to pick one hockey player now to manage his way through 90 minutes of sketch comedy, who would it be? Nylander. Obviously.
A Girl with the Dragon Tattoo skit, a fish for breakfast skit and a Bob and Doug McKenzie guest-appearance skit featuring Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. This stuff writes itself.
Nylander is the exceedingly rare NHLer who, when you think of him, you picture in his civvies. He has managed to fashion a personality outside the game. ‘Willy Styles’, a man so preternaturally relaxed he may be comatose. Say what you will, but it worked for Dean Martin.
Every time someone talks about Nylander this way, it costs the Leafs a few more bucks. If they want to re-sign him they are no longer just buying a player.
John Tavares is a player. He tries hard, scores goals, says nothing and goes home. The US$11-million you are giving him buys you some hockey.
With Nylander, the Leafs are investing in a brand. This is a guy who wants to be the face of things. You could see that in Sweden. It comes to him more naturally than his peers.
If Bedard wants to be something more than a well-recompensed hockey star, Nylander is the guy he should be taking his cues from. Bedard has a natural constituency in Chicago, but his silky style doesn’t fit the city’s two-fisted preferences. If he wants to rise above the Bears, Bulls and Cubs chatter, he’ll need to be louder.
This is not to say that Bedard should want that. McDavid plainly doesn’t, and he’s done fine. He even has some (judging by his expression, highly grudging) endorsement work.
But the NHL should want it. It should want it very badly.
And right now, if you had to pick a star, it’s the guy in blue and white who wants to go on TV to tell stories that aren’t about pucks in deep.