TORONTO — It’s crazy how history repeats itself. But here we are, 40-some years later, and we can’t wait for the same hockey game to start.
Toronto’s prodigal son will return Saturday night, skating out of the visitor’s gate under the glare of the Hockey Night in Canada lights in the jersey — must we say it? — of those damned Edmonton Oilers.
First, it was Wayne Gretzky, the Brantford kid who is the best there ever was.
And Saturday night, Newmarket’s Connor McDavid — the most dynamic, productive and exciting player in the game today, by a margin that increases each season like a Secretariat lead as he rumbled down the stretch.
In only the second Saturday night game here in his career, we all suspect that McDavid would love to follow in the steps of The Great Gretzky, who saved his best for those Beatles-like visits to the old Maple Leaf Gardens back in the ’80s. There, amidst throngs of screaming fans out on Carlton St., Gretzky averaged a goal and 2.6 points per game in his career.
“You would be scrambling to get tickets. Having to go pick ’em up so my Mom and Dad had their tickets before the game,” recalled Paul Coffey, the Hall of Fame defenceman who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Weston. “But coming into Toronto, whether you’re 18, or you’re 35 and still playing (like Coffey was at the end), it’s exciting.”
“We’d land there for those games, and it was a different feel,” began Glenn Anderson, yet another Hall of Famer from those Oilers teams. “A lot of guys were coming home. Guys had played (for Toronto) in the past. It was Hockey Night in Canada.
“All the clichés came out,” he laughed. “Whether they were true or not, all the clichés came out.”
The story was told and re-told of Edmonton’s media relations man Bill Tuele walking outside the Gardens into the waiting mobs of ticket scalpers with one of Gretzky’s signed Titan sticks as currency, when there had been a mix-up and parents Walter and Phyllis Gretzky had been left without tickets to the game.
McDavid, as is his way, downplayed his weekend in Toronto.
“I don’t have a ton going on,” he shrugged after Friday’s practice. “Most of my family has moved away and I have buddies that are out and abroad. My brother is away as well. Not a lot of people circling it on their calendar.
“I’m just having dinner with my mom and that’s about it. It shouldn’t be bad at all.”
Anderson isn’t buying McDavid’s “aw shucks” shtick for a minute. He expects a game from McDavid on Saturday that will still be echoing through the hockey world come Wednesday or Thursday – especially after going pointless Thursday night in Boston.
“As a professional athlete, you want to perform your best games ever in the city where you’re from, or where you’ve been traded from. You just want to prove a point,” said Anderson, whose Oilers team record for game-winning goals is already well within McDavid’s sights. “Connor is going to try to put on a show. But Connor puts on a show every night, regardless.
“He’s at the top of his game right now,” Anderson said. “So you clear your schedule to make sure that you can watch him perform. He is that good of a player.”
Incidentally, when McDavid says his visit “shouldn’t be bad at all,” he means expensive.
On the road, there are tickets made available for the visiting players, but they must be purchased. No freebies.
In Anderson’s day, the Maple Leafs charged $50 per ticket for family and friends. If you needed extras, you waded into the black market with a Gretzky twig or a wad of twenties.
Today, the system is much more sophisticated. Rather than finding the Will Call window before the game or haggling with the unwashed, players simply supply a credit card number to the meticulous team services staff, who take care of everything.
Tickets, however, don’t cost fifty bucks anymore. In Toronto, they cost $650.
“That’s, like, crazy!” said Anderson. “I had no idea.”
Hamilton-born Darnell Nurse will wear out his Mastercard this weekend, but as little as possible.
“I keep it tight. High requirements,” smiled the well-compensated Nurse. “You’ve got to be born in the same house; raised in the same house. Our grandparents (qualify). We keep it tight, but with that said, there are a lot of people in our family. It’s a big family.”
Today, Coffey still wants to be in the rink for Toronto-Edmonton. He’s won three Norris Trophies an four Stanley Cups, but on a night like this one he’s no different than you or I.
We all want to be in the centre of the hockey universe when Connor McDavid returns to Toronto — on a Saturday night, no less.
“In years gone by you’d have Bob Cole, and before me it was Foster Hewitt. It was Hockey Night in Canada, man. In Toronto,” Coffey said. “Now you’ve got four of the game’s best going at it, with Connor and Leon and Matthews and Marner. We laid a pretty good beating on them last week in Edmonton (5-2 Oilers win), so we’re going to expect their best. And we’d better have our best.”
“When I was growing up it was called the ACC,” said Nurse, Edmonton top blue-liner today, just as Coffey was back in the day. “You’d go there, watch games, and always dream of one day having your family there in the stands. So it’s always a little bit special when you’re able to do that.”
Here’s what we know about elite, elite players like the ones we’re talking to here: They all have egos.
Some keep them in check better than others, but you don’t get to where they’re at without wanting to be better than the people around you. Without wanting to be the best.
Coffey agrees with Anderson.
McDavid can talk a good game about a three- or four-point night not being his priority — “I want an Edmonton Oilers win, that’s all I want. If … I have to play a lesser role then that’s OK too. The biggest thing is coming in here and winning a big game,” — but deep down inside, he wants both.
A big night for the team, and a big night on the score sheet.
“There’s a reason why Connor is the best,” Coffey declares, “and there’s a reason why he keeps exceeding his numbers every year. He walks into that rink and it’s all business. I don’t care if it’s Winnipeg, or Carolina. ‘I’m here to play the best I can. That’s it.’
“I still have visions a couple of years ago when he turned Morgan Reilly around. And that’s a damn good defenseman.”
What new visions will we have come Sunday morning?
Isn’t that the beauty of it all?
We get to watch the game, and see for ourselves.