When the NHL’s braintrust tuck themselves in at night, what do you think they dream of?
A sudden global cooling that turns Houston and Phoenix into Sudbury?
Going out to lunch with IOC boss Thomas Bach and stiffing him with the cheque for a change?
How about a great generational rivalry to give the league a shot at aiming higher than leading off SportsCenter once or twice a year?
It’s been a long time since the heyday of Wayne Gretzky v. Mario Lemieux. And given how seldom the two met at their respective peaks, it wasn’t that much of a heyday.
For the past 20 years, the NHL was given only one bold-face name to work with.
That guy, Sidney Crosby, never found his hockey doppelganger. The NHL tried pairing him with Alex Ovechkin, but the league couldn’t bring itself to fully engage the Cold War narrative that might’ve cemented that couple in the minds of non-hockey fans. At the time, back when we were still buddy-buddy with Russia, it seemed tacky.
In retrospect, what they really got wrong was the timing. If Crosby v. Ovechkin had debuted five years ago instead of 15, they could play the last five minutes of Rocky IV before every meeting. America would eat that up and ask for seconds.
Bad luck isn’t enough to excuse the NHL. It was given a best-of-all-time type player, one with roots so homespun it feels like he was born in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, who won multiple championships and led his country to multiple Olympic golds. The only 21st-century North American team athletes who compare are LeBron James and Tom Brady.
But the NHL was unable to inject Crosby into the general conversation south of the border in the same way it managed to with Gretzky.
One stat proves that failure – zero. That’s the number of times Crosby was host of Saturday Night Live.
Granted, he was right not to. That show is terrible. Every pro who goes on there humiliates themselves. (The exception that proves the rule: Peyton Manning.)
But still. SNL is the dividing line between being a massive sports superstar in the United States and being able to call yourself a household name.
What the NHL would like more than anything, what everyone with a stake in the league should dream about about as they drift off, is a household name.
The latest effort at pushing someone through that barrier is under way now in Edmonton and Toronto.
Connor McDavid of the Oilers is the best hockey player in the world. That’s a consensus. Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs is the best goal scorer in hockey. That’s not quite a consensus, but it’s getting there.
The two were booked in for a three-night run this week. Saturday was a fizzle – Matthews was off injured; McDavid was a non-factor in a 4-0 Leafs win. The two will try again Monday to get something rolling.
What’s the biggest thing going for either one of them? The other guy.
McDavid on his own is another Crosby, without the championships or gold medals. Every true sports icon must exist in close and frequent opposition to another player of nearly equal talent.
Why was Larry Bird so iconic? Magic Johnson. And vice-versa.
In a perfect world, our two heroes start out enemies, have some period of violent confrontation, then fall in love on the downslope of their careers. Maybe they can buy a cottage together in the Poconos and make a documentary about fishing.
There are other pros to a McDavid/Matthews pairing. They’re both still young. They play for storied franchises (this won’t work if one guy spends his career in Florida). They have one advantage over Gretzky and Lemieux – the potential for cross-border tension: McDavid is Canadian, Matthews is American.
The cons? Neither guy has much of a personality, at least not one he’s willing to share with the world. There’s no animus between them. Rivalries require at least a minimal amount of dislike. So far, as best we can tell, these two happily ignore each other. Also, those storied teams they both play on haven’t proved they can win, with or without two of the best players in the world.
Another thing we’re still negotiating – which one of these guys will be the first among equals?
McDavid is the clear choice, but that means he has to grow a persona. A big one. In a hurry. Can you imagine McDavid embracing the Instagram lifestyle? I just checked his Instagram. It looks like it’s run by an artificial intelligence that does all its clothes shopping at Canadian Tire. For God’s sake, you’ve got a dog. Put a bunch of dog shots in there. People love dogs.
That’s another reason Crosby v. Ovechkin didn’t work. The lesser player had more charisma. It took a while for it to come out. By the time it did, it was too late.
Matthews isn’t exactly electrifying in a scrum, but he does seem to want stardom and its trappings more.
Again, that’s not enough. If household name is the goal, Matthews can’t just be great at hockey. He has to be objectively better than McDavid. And I can’t remember the last time Matthews skated through an entire team. That’s not his game.
The time to figure out if this marriage can work to the mutual benefit of the players and their employer is right now. McDavid and Matthews play each nine times this year. There will never be a greater likelihood of them meeting in the playoffs. And then they’ll likely get to do it again in national colours in Beijing next February at the Winter Games.
If McDavid v. Matthews hasn’t at least started happening within a year, it’s not going to. What does the NHL do after that? Mitch Marner v. Leon Draisaitl? Yeah, no.
You only get so many of these chances. That so few of them work out is what makes the ones that do special.
A good first step might be reminding both guys that the great ones get to the hall of fame. But the Great Ones are bigger than any hall. That tiny handful of names (or in hockey’s case, name, singular) ring out forever.
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