You know it’s a big day in the Center of the Hockey Universe™ when the building is crawling with generational superstars. And that’s just the guys who are sitting in the stands.
At the morning skate in advance of the Edmonton Oilers visit to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey were huddled in a corner of the rink. Not far away was Bobby Orr, who showed up at the rink after having breakfast with his client, Connor McDavid. Gretzky, who is now partner and vice-chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group, made no secret that he flew in for the game because it represented a chance to see McDavid and Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews go head-to-head for the first time as NHL players.
“I’m excited about the game,” Gretzky said. “It’s going to be fun to watch tonight. Like every other fan, this is going to be a fun night for hockey fans from coast to coast. They both play with speed and both teams play hard.”
You’d have to go back a long, long time to find a period in which either of these teams was creating this much excitement. And there has never been a time when both the Oilers and Leafs were the subject of this much positive attention. The Leafs spent much of Gretzky’s prime as league doormats and represented nothing more than an opportunity for The Great One to pad his stat line. But now you’re dealing with one team that is on the cusp of becoming a legitimate contender, led by McDavid, and another that has a long-term future that has never looked brighter, led by Matthews.
“The game is in great shape right now, every which way we look, and it’s getting better all the time,” Gretzky said. “These two kids are a big part of the success of this league and they have a great future in front of them and as Gordie Howe said to me, ‘You work hard every day and good things will happen.’ ”
Good things are happening for both players at the moment. McDavid enters the game as the NHL’s leading scorer and is giving every indication he’s prepared to accept the mantle as the world’s top player. The Leafs have struggled, which is no surprise given their youth, but Matthews is just two points behind McDavid in the scoring race and has come better than advertised. Neither is a Gretzky, in substance nor style, but even Gretzky acknowledges there are attributes both players have that he did not possess.
“I wish I could skate as fast as those guys,” Gretzky said. “I wish I was as big as those guys. It’s a different time. I say this all the time. I played in the right era, I played with right players, I had the right coach. Glen (Sather) built his team around the Winnipeg Jets of the '70s in the WHA and he wanted a skating, offensive team and I benefited from that. These guys today are bigger and stronger and everything is better.”
McDavid has never played an NHL game in the Air Canada Center, but he’s got a lot of experience there. First, he was part of Canada’s World Junior team that won the gold medal in 2015 and performed here with Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey. But this is a completely different beast for a player who grew up in a nearby suburb cheering for the Leafs. It prompted Gretzky to harken back to his first game as an Oiler in Maple Leaf Gardens, a 4-4 tie between the Leafs and the Oilers on Nov. 21, 1979.
“It’s probably one of the great days of your life,” Gretzky said of his debut in Toronto. “You grow up watching games on TV here and dreaming one day of – for me it was Maple Leaf Gardens and for (McDavid) it’s this arena. I’m sure he’s ecstatic. I know he’s going to be tremendously excited and he’s going to have a great game tonight. He’s a player who raises his game to a higher level the bigger the game. This will be a fun night for him. My first game here, my dad said, ‘Remember, first impressions are lasting impressions, so make sure you have a good game tonight.’ ”
Gretzky took the advice to heart. He was in on all four Oiler goals that night, scoring two of the 51 goals and adding two of the 81 assists he scored in 1979-80. In his second visit that season, all he did was score two goals and four assists in an 8-5 Oilers win. If McDavid can do anything close to that, it will be an epic night indeed.