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Hockey McDavid at risk of becoming another NHL Picasso who paints houses

Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid (97) is seen during second period NHL action against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena, in Vancouver, B.C., on Jan. 16, 2019.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

After winning their first Stanley Cup in 2012, the Los Angeles Kings tried to correct the franchise’s original sin.

Among the support staff and hangers-on who were given championship rings was the best and unluckiest player in their history, Marcel Dionne.

Dionne put up remarkable numbers, but none of his L.A. teams amounted to anything. He never participated in a Stanley Cup final or dominated a Canada Cup. His talent was frittered away by incompetent management and bad luck – the former often mistaken for the latter.

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After retirement, Dionne would be gently teased about his quixotic career by his Quebecker contemporaries, many of whom had ended up on the Montreal Canadiens.

All of them – the Savards and Lafleurs – are legendary winners. Dionne is instead a cautionary tale: Be careful how you go, especially when you get traded.

Dionne is in his 60s now and has apparently achieved some distance, and therefore some humour, about the whole thing.

“Now when I go somewhere, I say ‘you can’t make fun of me,’ ” he told a reporter after getting his ring.

But there is something undeniably sad about Dionne’s oeuvre. He was the Picasso who spent his most inspired years painting houses.

It’s still early days, but you are starting to get an ominous, Marcel Dionne feel from Connor McDavid’s career. His ability is undeniable. There is no serious argument over whether he is the best hockey player on the planet.

But McDavid, 22, has tied himself for the long term to a team that can’t figure it out. Some sports franchises couldn’t organize a two-car parade. Over the past decade, no one on the Edmonton Oilers' executive has a driver’s licence.

When Edmonton drafted McDavid three years ago, it was seen as a sort of architectural miracle – a club installing the foundation stone of their rebuild last.

From a personal-performance perspective, McDavid has lived up to his almost impossible promise – that he would be Bobby Orr- or Wayne Gretzky-good nearly from the off.

In return, the Oilers did the least helpful thing possible – go from being a very bad team with good future prospects to a middling one with none. They sit just outside the playoff picture, in no man’s land. Not good enough to matter; not bad enough to start again. Ask the Toronto Maple Leafs. They allowed themselves to be trapped there for the better part of 50 years.

It’s commonplace that every major sport thrives on its stars, but we rarely stop to think about how crucial that relationship between supreme talent and public interest is.

How did Magic and Bird revitalize the NBA? Not by being great. They were, but so was Marcel Dionne. They caught the imagination because they were great and they won. They won in equal measure and predictably. Their talent matched their achievement.

McDavid’s talent has been buried under bad trades, constant in-and-out and inexplicable dips in collective form. Perhaps the Oilers went on a team-building trip to a burial ground and disturbed some crypts. Because they must be cursed.

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We’ve reached the point in this nonsense where McDavid has been criticized for not pulling his teammates up to his own level. This would seem to suggest that Rocket Richard scored all those goals because he was getting Hall-of-Fame pep talks from Jean Béliveau.

To paraphrase a great Brazilian sports mind, “My husband cannot pass the puck and save the puck at the same time.” McDavid’s job is to carry the show. The supporting cast is the responsibility of the conductor, Oilers' president and GM Peter Chiarelli. Criticizing McDavid for the team’s inability to win is blaming Pavarotti because the string section is out of tune.

This would be a purely civic problem if McDavid were Borje Salming – a good player who’s gotten a rough deal and is out there on the ice every night dying a little inside.

But since McDavid is the league’s very best player, it’s hockey’s problem. If a business can’t find a way to get its best product to market, it is by definition failing.

This week, another small blow. Thanks to a game of negotiation chicken, the NHL and NHLPA have decided that they won’t stage the World Cup of Hockey in 2020. It was devastating news for … (scanning the headlines) … no one, apparently.

You’d like to say good riddance, but that’d only be true if players were likely to go to the Beijing Olympics instead. For now, that’s still off the table.

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McDavid has never starred in the colours of his country at a major international tournament. (And no, the world juniors doesn’t count.)

The NHL is a sport with global aspirations. It sees itself in the same rough mould as soccer or basketball – a game with the potential to appeal to everyone everywhere. How did soccer manage it? It wasn’t anything intrinsic to the game.

Soccer took over the world by cleverly persuading Pele’s mother to give birth to him. Pele did the rest. Basketball worked the same model with Michael Jordan – the top player in the world on the top team in the world (the Chicago Bulls) in the top tournament in the world (the Olympics).

Hockey might have done it (on a less grand scale) with Gretzky, but wasn’t in the position to deploy him properly. It was still futzing around between the Canada Cup and the Olympics, and the broadcast infrastructure didn’t exist.

Now it has the moment, the infrastructure and the player – but doesn’t have a way of exposing new fans to McDavid. His team is no good and he isn’t given the chance to play for his country.

If McDavid can’t fully display his talent in Edmonton, he ought to at least be given the chance to do it for Canada. But based on its current view – you might call it “Neither the forest nor the trees” − the NHL won’t allow that either.

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Right now, it’s the game’s major structural blind spot.

It is as if the league has decided to put its greatest human resource in storage during his most productive years because it can’t yet figure out how to turn him into a huge pile of money. Unfortunately, hockey players do not keep like wine.

The law of averages suggests that McDavid will be a top player for at least the next decade. Whether by skill or random chance (so, random chance), it also suggests that Oilers will be good at some point in there. McDavid will probably have his moment, but you would have said the same thing about Dionne twelve years in Los Angeles.

If you care about hockey – and regardless of whether you root for the Oilers – you ought to hope that happens. The sport can’t be great if its best player doesn’t get the chance to be.

The Oilers face a double responsibility – to their own customers and to everyone else. The team’s management could hardly sink much lower in public estimation, but one presumes they have their pride. I doubt they want to be known as the people who wasted one of the top five ever.

For the NHL, there is nothing but culpability. It was given a generational gift, and has spent the past three years hiding him in the basement. However this ends is on the league.

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And what can McDavid do? Nothing but what he already has – be great. He’ll get his ring some day. Let’s just hope it isn’t a postcareer pity ring.

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