Below are some thoughts on Night One of the NHL’s 2016-17 regular season, which featured two of the most thrilling debuts in Hockey Night in Canada’s recent history – and two incredible performances from the game’s two brightest young stars, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
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Call this an overreaction. But, fuck… so what?
I really think the NHL is entering a new era, a generational shift in what’s acceptable and what will cut it for the next decade-plus. We’ve seen this a couple times before – I certainly noticed it in 2005 and 2006, definitely not coincidentally because the league emerged from a season-cancelling lockout with a new standard and a revolutionized rule book – shootouts came in, the red line lost its meaning (no two-line pass rule), and hooking and grabbing and anything else you used to do to a guy without the puck (quite plainly called ‘infraction’) were further outlawed and cracked-down on. At the same time, phenoms like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and later Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Evgeni Malkin all graduated from high school to the highway, from junior to the National Hockey League. And these rookies jumped in right away and started leading their teams to prowess, unlike in years past – when rookies were basically left out in the sun until they shrivelled and hand-held for their first five years in the ‘Chel.
Read: ‘Auston Matthews is Ready‘ by Barry Pechetsky, Deadspin (October 13, 2016)
I imagine something like this happened in the early 80s, when Gretzky and the Oilers were scoring something like 15 goals a game and the WHA joined the NHL and expanded the sport’s universe. I imagined this happened when Bobby Orr made his first rush from his net to the other team’s in the 60s. I imagined this happened when Maurice Richard first hit the ice. And I imagine, in the middle of it, that it’s happening now.
(NOTE: Something else happened in 2005 and 2006, though – YouTube. With the ability to watch highlights on loop, to never stop watching goals and clips you’d never forget anyway, to drool over stickhandling and saves with the paddle of a goalie’s stick, the entire experience of being a fan and enjoying the game was changed for as long as it’s to be broadcasted. And our ideas of what a great player is changed, too – every draft pick has their own YouTube montage and scouting video compilation, and if you’re not dynamic or you can’t score a few pretty goals, it’s no longer okay to ‘just’ be a good two-way player now. You have to be electrifying, too. And with websites solely devoted to advanced stats and mock drafts and every team’s salary cap situation, the digital information revolution has thrown hockey into post-modern orbit.)
There’s something truly unique not just about the way Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau, and perhaps Patrik Laine or Aaron Ekblad, in their own way, are playing the game and taking over a league far too ripe for them. But the speed and the power and the fearlessness they show on every shift and every night won’t just dragging their teams up the standings – it will also drag the rest of the league to warp speed with them. Now, Crosby and Ovechkin and Kane and Co. have been doing this for a while themselves, but they’ve always been exceptional because they’re the exceptions.
Now, with a fresh flush of rookies who all deserve the hype and are delivering right away, the entire sport is being forced to board a train that won’t stop for their station. The default Play setting is Fast-Forward. If you’re over 30 and you’re losing a step, and if you can’t make it up in other ways, you’re done. If you were fast in 2006, chances are you’re slow in 2016. Connor McDavid won’t wait for you – he’s hardly waiting for his own linemate, Milan Lucic, who was doing the beep test all night on Wednesday. Experiments like 3-on-3 overtime and the World Cup – which featured an Under-23 team set to ’10’ on the treadmill – have heightened fans’ expectations to a whole new gear.
(Hell, Connor McDavid’s performance last night was almost disappointing, because he missed on so many scoring chances and it seemed like he had the puck on his stick all night and yet he didn’t score a goal every shift… yet, the kid had two goals and an assist and, if it wasn’t for Auston Matthews’ performance two time zones east, McJesus would be leading the league’s scoring race right out of the gate.)
Overnight, this is a whole new game.
You don’t just have to skate fast, but you have to make plays at top speed, too. When we look back and watch highlights from 2012 or 2014, say 10 years from now, I’m not sure we’ll recognize it.