NHL

Matthews vs. McDavid is must-see for NHL legends

Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in NHL history, felt he had to be there in person to witness the historic first ever NHL meeting between Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.

Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr on hand to see 1st matchup of budding stars

Toronto's Auston Matthews faces off against Edmonton's Connor McDavid for the first time in their careers. (Getty Images)

Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in NHL history, felt he had to be there in person to witness the historic first ever NHL meeting between Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.

Now a member of the Edmonton Oilers management, Gretzky flew into Toronto specifically to attend Tuesday's matchup between McDavid's Oilers and Matthews' Maple Leafs. Also on hand at the morning skate was Boston Bruins great Bobby Orr, who is McDavid's agent, and Hall of Fame defenceman and former Gretzky teammate, Paul Coffey.

The 19-year-old cornerstones of two iconic Canadian franchises will long be compared, but McDavid and Matthews are two very different players from very different backgrounds.

"Other than us being first overall picks in back-to-back years, that's really the only thing in common we have," McDavid said before playing his first NHL game in Toronto, where he used to attend games as a fan of the Maple Leafs.

Matthews remembers first hearing about McDavid when he was granted exceptional status into the Ontario Hockey League as a 15-year-old. The McDavid hype was that strong that soon, hardly surprising given that he grew up in the Toronto suburb of Newmarket, Ont. and excelled from a very early age.

McDavid, by contrast, didn't hear a word about Matthews, an American from the hockey wilderness of Scottsdale, Ariz., until the 2015 world junior championships when the two faced off in a matchup between Canada and the United States, with the Americans losing 5-3.

The hype was just getting going around then for Matthews, who went to Phoenix Coyotes games as a kid (some coached by Gretzky) and had to work hard to find ice-time as well as challenging competition.

"It's one of the things that has changed a little bit in the Southwest," Gretzky said of Matthews' rise. "The best athletes at eight, nine, 10, 11, played baseball, tennis, golf (before) and now some of the best athletes like Auston are saying, 'you know what, I want to play ice hockey."'

Unlike McDavid, who was thriving as a teenager for the Erie Otters ahead of his entry into the NHL, Matthews opted to forgo junior hockey, spending last season in the Swiss Hockey League. The two paths merged when Matthews then played alongside McDavid for the first (and probably only) time at the World Cup of Hockey earlier this fall, the twosome causing fits for foes as linemates with Team North America.

"Nobody's really ever seen a player that can skate the way he can," Matthews said of McDavid. "He does everything at such high speed, thinks the game extremely well so he's a fun player to play with."

Matthews took note of the subtle plays McDavid made with the puck, how he kept his head up and was always moving. But he said in general the two are nothing alike on the ice.

"I'm more of a big, power forward (who) likes to use my body so we're definitely different players," Matthews said.

A teammate of both at the World Cup, Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly saw similarities on paper.

Each has own style

"But I think they kind of have their own style to be honest with you," Rielly said. "Different sizes, different skaters, but they can both get the job done."

Matthews' game is predicated on elite skill and the power of his six-foot-three, 216-pound frame. McDavid, a touch smaller physically at six foot one and 190 pounds, inspires fear in his opponents with his bursts of speed and ability with the puck.

One similarity, however, is the responsibility both have as marquee talents on hopeful Canadian franchises. Both are expected to front their teams' rise back to respectability, and beyond, as faces of the NHL's next generation of talent.

Both players played down rivalry chatter ahead of their first matchup. Matthews went to great lengths in describing it as "just another game", though chuckling a little bit as he said so.

"I think it would be a lot easier for (the media) if I came in here and said 'I hate him! Blah, blah, blah,"' McDavid said. "But he's a good kid. I'm excited to play against him."

Gretzky wouldn't have any of that talk. Though the primary concern was always about winning that night, the now 55-year-old said he would always get "fired up" to face off against fellow greats like Mario Lemieux or Guy Lafleur.

"From my perspective, the best athletes want to be in those situations," Gretzky said. "Whether it was Larry Bird and Magic Johnson or John McEnroe at Wimbledon or Mark Messier in a Game 7, the best athletes accept that responsibility and they don't look at it as pressure they look at it as fun."

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