When I was a kid, I watched the transformation of hockey live and in real time, and it was all because of Wayne Gretzky. I mean, I loved watching Guy Lafleur whip down the ice and blasting shots past terrified goalies, and I loved watching Mike Bossy score almost at will.
But when Gretzky arrived in the NHL, something was different. The way he saw the game, the way he anticipated the movements of the puck and his teammates, the way his instincts drove him to what seemed to be impossible heights – it was all brand new, and no coach or opposing player had an answer for it.
Forty years later, another Edmonton Oiler superstar is doing the same thing, albeit in a different manner: Connor McDavid is almost single-handedly changing the sport, thanks to his ability to skillfully move with the puck at a speed never before seen. The opposition draws up all types of defensive plans to try and stop him, but as we’ve seen in this post-season, they’ve been unable to do so.
With that said, I think the most interesting element of watching generational talents like Gretzky and McDavid is knowing that, eventually, the rest of the league will catch up to them. That’s the beauty of what they’ve done – they’re dragging the talent around them to new heights. Eventually, there will be young players who are as fast as McDavid, and as smart as Gretzky.
For example, Sidney Crosby is a different kind of player, but he’s almost a bridge between Gretzky and McDavid; he doesn’t have McDavid’s lightning speed, but he does have Gretzky’s vision, and he’s a harder worker in the corners and around the net than No. 99 was, and he has been consistently outstanding in a way none of his peers have been.
And with McDavid, his brilliance is rubbing off on the rest of the NHL. I'm not saying McDavid’s play is the reason why scoring in the league rose this season. I am saying it looks like players have the puck on their sticks for less time than ever – Leafs star Auston Matthews is a great example – and that's partly because McDavid has shown them how it can be done. There will be a young player, eventually, who is McDavid’s equal in terms of speed and skill, and he will elevate the sport to an even higher level. That’s how the evolution of hockey has, does, and forever will work.
In the 1920s and 1930s, imagining that there would be a player of McDavid’s caliber would be dreaming in technicolor. Nobody could’ve foretold there would be a young man whose speed would make opponents look silly. Similarly, our perception of how good a hockey player will be a few decades from now won’t be able to accurately capture their greatness. Someone else will come along, and blow us way, just as McDavid is doing today.
Because his speed is behind his dominance, coaches at all levels of the sport will train youngsters to emulate McDavid. Sooner or later, a player will emerge from the system, and he’ll have a combination of talents nobody before him has had. Maybe he’ll have Mario Lemieux’s big body and outstanding stickhandling skill. Maybe he’ll be a hard-nosed physical force like Eric Lindros was. Perhaps he’ll be a combination of Lemieux and Lindros. But he’ll almost assuredly be unstoppable, the way McDavid is at present.
That’s what’s so thrilling about hockey’s future – it always produces better players. One day, there will be a player of McDavid’s equal, just the way there turned out to be players who could produce the way Gretzky did. Opponents will have no choice but to raise their efforts.
And the game will be better for it.