NHL's next generation of stars are 'special', says Wayne Gretzky

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In his role as the official ambassador for the NHL’s Centennial Season, Wayne Gretzky sat down for a one-on-one with Postmedia to discuss all things hockey. In the first of a four-part series entitled THE GREAT ONE & THE STATE OF THE GAME, Gretzky breaks down the meteoric rise of both Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews — the poster children for the sport’s next generation of stars.


For the Great One, it was a snapshot of future greatness.

Times two.

Last Wednesday, on the opening night of the NHL’s historic 100th campaign, three Hall of Famers — Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri — were waiting for the start of the official ceremonies celebrating the first Edmonton regular season game to be played at Rogers Place, the glitzy new state-of-the-art home of the Oilers.

As part of the festivities, the plan was for Gretzky and Mark Messier to skate out and leave a puck at centre ice for new Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who would then emerge from the dressing room and fire it into the net. Call it a passing of the torch, if you will.

Having a bit of rare spare time on their hands before the fun and frivolity was scheduled to start, Gretzky, Coffey and Kurri started watching the Ottawa Senators-Toronto Maple Leafs contest, the first leg of the Hockey Night In Canada doubleheader that would later include the Oilers hosting the rival Calgary Flames.

And so, like the rest of the country, they saw the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews make history. After 40 minutes of hockey, Matthews already had found the back of the Ottawa net four times, setting a single-game record for goals scored by a player making his NHL debut.

“I’m seeing this special performance take place thinking: ‘I don’t think I scored my first goal until my fifth game,’” Gretzky recounted Monday. “He had four goals in the first two periods. I said to one of my buddies as we were watching: ‘This kid might break my 50-goals-in-39-games record in the first year.’”

The next threat on the record book was the modern day mark for goals in a game with six, held by, among others, former Leaf Darryl Sittler. In fact, that was a possibility Sittler himself was considering as he, too, sat in front of the TV that same night.

“It’s ironic because Jari, Coff and I were sitting around thinking the same thing as well. It was like: ‘My goodness, Darryl’s record is six goals. (Matthews) isn’t going to get his points record of 10 given where he was after two periods, but he really has a chance to score seven goals!’”

“We weren’t even sure if anyone had ever scored seven before.”

In the end. Matthews finished with the four — a remarkable feat in itself. Then, in the next several hours, Gretzky and the rest of the hockey world were privileged to witness another treat, this one authored by McDavid as he scored twice and added an assist in a 6-3 dismantling of the Flames.

“You see how special Connor and Matthews are, and when you see things like that, you understand how much our game is changing,” Gretzky said. “These kids are so much more prepared to take the next step — from pee wee to juvenile to the NHL.”

And, as Gretzky admits, these two talented youngsters are “special,” so much so that they are the faces of the league somewhere down the road — if they’re not pushing the Crosbys, Ovechkins, Kanes and Stamkos’s for that honour already.

As we chat in Gretzky’s suite at a downtown Toronto hotel Monday, word has come down that McDavid and Matthews have been named the NHL’s first and second stars of the week — pretty heady achievements in this, the opening week of the NHL’s 100th season.

Ok, so we get that the Great One considers these teens “special.” But, raw talent aside, what makes them so?

Here’s Gretzky’s breakdown:

1. “EMBRACING” PLAYING IN CANADA: “I know there is a lot more media coverage than when I played. And yes, it can be tougher to play in (the fishbowl) of places like Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton. But you have to embrace it. Jean Beliveau embraced being a Canadien. Dave Keon loved being a Leaf. Mark Messier and I loved playing in Edmonton. And I think Auston and Connor get that.”

2. “AMAZING” HOCKEY SENSE: “They both see the ice so well … What I find amazing is how responsible defensively they are at such a young age. With two great coaches like Mike Babcock and Todd McLellan, they’ll learn the details. But it’s impressive how much they already know about that aspect of the game.”

3. LANKY WINGSPANS: “I know they’re not Zdeno Chara-sized or Mario Lemieux-sized but they both have tremendous reach.” As Gretzky acknowledges, such a physical attribute allows both Matthews and McDavid to better control pucks in tight spaces and shield the puck from defenders.

4. UNSELFISHNESS: “They’re both like that. And understand: You can be an individual without taking anything away from the team. It’s not wrong to want to strive to score four goals a night but there is a proper way to do it. Good for Auston for scoring those four goals. It’s good for Auston, it’s good for the game.” What Gretzky also finds “good:” at no point in the night did Matthews try to show anyone up, yet another trait he and McDavid share.

5. WORK ETHIC: “They both get how important this is. It’s kind of funny when people say of Crosby ‘Oh he’s so talented.’ Well, yeah, but he’s also the hardest worker every time he’s on the ice. I think that rubs off on kids like these who watch him.”


Without any pro-Edmonton bias whatsoever, Wayne Gretzky says there is a skill set owned by Connor McDavid that separates him from Auston Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel and every other young star.

Indeed, according to Gretzky, no one in the sport can step on the gas pedal like Connor McDavid.

And, perhaps, no one ever has.

“The speed aspect of it — Connor has that one extra gear that I don’t know if anyone in hockey has ever had,” Gretzky said Monday.

“I’m truly amazed when I watch him skate and I watch him play. He’s truly a pleasure to watch.”

Gretzky’s comments echo those of New York Islanders captain John Tavares, who told Postmedia in May 2015 that he’d never seen a player with the acceleration of McDavid, who still was a member of the OHL’s Erie Otters at the time.

McDavid was named the NHL’s first star of the week on Monday while the Maple Leafs’ Matthews was second.