Hockey fans were treated to a display of greatness on Wednesday in two games on Opening Night of the 2016-17 NHL season. For some of us, it might have brought back fond memories from a different era. To name just two, I refer to the 8 points and 5 goals Mario Lemieux scored 5 different ways on December 31, 1988; or Wayne Gretzky’s 5 goals against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Edmonton Northlands Coliseum on December 30, 1981 to record 50 goals in just 39 games.
I was on the ice that record setting night in Edmonton and chased the play as Gretzky slid his 50’th into the open net with just three seconds remaining on the game clock and Flyers goalie Pete Peters on the bench for an extra attacker. I doubt that record will ever be broken? But with the young talent entering the game today we should likely never say never!
The four goals scored by Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews, selected 1’st overall in the 2016 entry draft, was almost enough to lead the Leafs to victory against the visiting Ottawa Senators. In spite of the 5-4 overtime loss that the Leafs suffered in their home opener, Toronto fans have something legitimate to get excited about. It has been a lengthy and frustrating wait for the Leafs Nation and it appears their loyalty is soon to be rewarded.
Putting Matthew’s superlative opening night performance aside, by all accounts the kid enters the NHL with franchise-saving credentials. The ‘boy’ was allowed to develop his skills last season in Zurich playing against young ‘men’ in the Swiss elite league where he received NHL quality coaching from Marc Crawford. Matthews has not only gained valuable international experience the past couple of years at world junior championships but excelled amongst his peers at that level.
Aside from the strong, quick shot that Matthews used to redirect passes with one-time accuracy on the goals he scored last night, I was equally impressed with the humility that the young man obviously possesses. He offered a relatively quiet, composed celebration as the red light behind the Senators net flashed and the hometown crowd jumped out of their seats. We’ll never know the extent of Matthews’ internal emotions in these moments but it appeared that the Rookie’s teammates were more excited for the kid than he was!
Matthews has a veteran’s instinct to find the soft spots on the ice and get open to receive the puck in spite of the obvious strength and willingness to enter the hard areas and win puck battles as we saw last night. His poise, humility and self-control will serve Matthews and the Leafs well as they embark on a new beginning. Auston Matthews appears to have everything it takes to be a superstar in the NHL and Leafs fans have to be thrilled.
The Edmonton Oilers opened their new, state-of-the-art home (Rogers Place) with a 7-4 victory over the Calgary Flames in what hopefully might develop into a modern-day Battle of Alberta. Connor McDavid, the baby-faced 19 year old captain of the Oilers led the way with 2 goals and an assist; just one point short of Matthews 4 goal performance.
McDavid has incredible explosive speed but his effortless stride gives the appearance that he is moving in slow motion; that is until the gap quickly widens between Connor and his opponents. McDavid was awarded a penalty shot in the game last night. As he attacked Flames goalie Brian Elliott with variable speed, the young captain’s quick, soft hands and swooping reach reminded me of things I saw from Super Mario almost three decades ago. The moves and goal brought the new Partner and Vice Chairman of the Oilers, a smiling Wayne Gretzky to his feet.
Connor McDavid is also a very humble young man. It remains to see how this young captain will lead. My guess is it will be quietly and by example.
The NHL game is in great shape with young superstars, the likes of McDavid, Matthews and others, who are playing a dominant role at such a tender age. May we as fans, never take their Greatness for granted.