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Kelly: McDavid is the latest in the NHL's long line of athletic cyborgs

When Connor McDavid made his Toronto debut this week, there wasn't enough room in the visitors' locker room to fit all the people who wanted to hear him speak. Nor was there enough space in the wide swath of hallway outside.

So Air Canada Centre staff did what they don't do for mononymic NBA superstars – not Kobe or LeBron or Steph – they booked him a meeting room.

In a best-case scenario, these would be the first rhetorical shots fired in this generation's defining rivalry – Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews. At the least, some light jabbing. As such, it had a Hollywood feel. It seemed rather less momentous once McDavid began speaking.

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Standing wretchedly behind a Plexiglas podium in an ill-fitting shirt/slacks combo, hands jammed in pockets, mumbling awkwardly, he looked like he was getting ready to be waterboarded. This is not someone who enjoys attention.

When the subject of Matthews came up, McDavid began backpedalling so hard it's a wonder he didn't go through the wall behind the stage, Kool-Aid Man-style.

"I definitely don't consider him a rival," he said of his rival. "I think it'd be a lot easier for you guys if I came in here and said, 'I hate him.' "

A lot easier for us, sure. It'd also be a hell of a lot better for hockey.

A month into his sophomore season, McDavid has arguably become the best player in the game. He is a joy for the old-timey purists – magnificently talented and preposterously humble. But outside hockey's cult compound (i.e. Canada), he comes off like another of the NHL's long line of athletic cyborgs.

It's not his fault, in the same way it's never been Sidney Crosby's fault or Jonathan Toews's fault or Steven Stamkos's fault or … the list of great modern players with cardboard public personas stretches back into infinity.

It's hockey's fault. Hockey reduces what we must assume could have been walking, talking, feeling men to buff, bland Stepford Wives. If they are having fun being twentsomething rock stars, man, you would not know it to look at them. No group of athletes is more collectively grim. It's like the Jesuits started a rec league.

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McDavid is only the latest inheritor of this tin crown.

In Crosby's 11 years in the league, I dare you to come up with a single interesting thing he has ever said or done off the ice. And no, wooden appearances in treacly Tim Hortons commercials do not count. His is one of the most dominating runs of excellence in the history of any sport. Aside from the trophies, it has left no impression.

When you look back on Crosby's contemporaries – say, Tom Brady or Serena Williams or Usain Bolt – they have created an encyclopedia's worth of notable and even iconic moments in their careers. Not just on the field of play, but in things they've said, feuds they've stoked, the occasional outrage they prompted.

As a general rule, great athletes find a way to manipulate the platform of their stardom into a travelling circus. Once the tent's folded up, we recall the personality of the performer better than his/her accomplishments.

Most sports cannot thrive without this heat from the top. One bore at No. 1 puts the whole enterprise in a coma. Where would international sprinting be in the global imagination if Bolt had the charisma deficit that is so prized in the NHL? Wherever it was before he arrived, when nobody paid any attention.

Athletes rise (or sink, which can be just as valuable) to the cultural expectations of their sport. There's a reason boxers, as a general rule, are such preening, ill-mannered, fascinating louts. Because they know that no one cares about a fight if they don't have any opinion on the fighters.

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Why is the NFL a monolith? Because Joe Namath once delivered his Super Bowl prediction while lounging poolside. It's a straight line from that inaugural act of outrageous peacocking to the incredibly successful, loudmouth league of today.

At their most fascinating, sports are a variety of soap opera – heroes and villains; storylines and conflicts that run for years; once one star ages off the show, another, even more lovable/hateful one shows up to take his place.

Not hockey. No, no, God forbid. We wouldn't want any one of the multimillionaire entertainers to do anything entertaining. It's unseemly. Everybody here is equal, though some are more equal than others. It's no wonder the Soviets were so good at this game.

When someone grows a personality – P.K. Subban is the first name on this list – he is slapped down so hard that he regains consciousness outside the gates of Dollywood.

(It's notable here that Subban, a guy who can't make his national team, may be the only NHLer casual American fans would recognize on the street. Because he's the only who's just as interesting out of uniform as he is in it.)

If it's hockey's fault, it's also hockey's problem.

Revenues have been boosted by over-optimistic TV deals and the endless thrust of expansion, but the game isn't growing anywhere outside Canada. The World Cup was proof of that.

The tournament's marquee match-up – Canada v USA – got 766,000 viewers on ESPN. It's a big number for hockey in the States. That same week on the same network, a repeat of NFL Primetime shown at 3 a.m. got 804,000. At 3 in the goddamn morning.

Why? Because you can always find a few aesthetes who will love a game on its own terms. But you cannot reach the masses until you've given them characters they can care about – either positively or negatively. Forget about bigger nets. If hockey wants to broaden its appeal, they need to talk about their anti-culture problem.

Every other major league in the world has learned that lesson. Which is why every other major league in the world is, and will remain, a bigger deal than the NHL.

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