Connor McDavid Deserves Star Treatment From the NHL

The long-standing argument over the existence of ‘star treatment’ in sports gained another exhibit on February 6 courtesy of Edmonton Oilers winger Connor McDavid. During a second-period power play against the rival Calgary Flames, McDavid drove wide around Mark Giordano and cut toward the net. Chris Tanev tripped him, sending McDavid into Calgary netminder Jacob Markstrom. The resulting collision earned the Oilers’ center, and not Tanev, two minutes in the penalty box for goaltender interference.

As if the call wasn’t bad enough, the whole scene eerily resembled the low point of McDavid’s young career when on a similar play against the same opponent, Giordano, beaten again, dove at his feet. McDavid crashed into the post, hurting his knee so badly he thought his leg was in two pieces

Then there was the time Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning shoved an off-balance McDavid 20 or so feet away from the boards following a rush. That subsequent impact left Edmonton’s then prized rookie with a fractured clavicle, causing him to miss 37 games.

Now, McDavid’s resilience is worth celebrating. The return from the knee injury quickly became the stuff of a legend: after months of intense rehab, he was back on the ice opening night doing stuff like this. And in his first game following the broken collarbone, McDavid turned the Columbus Blue Jackets inside out.

But there’s also something to be said about how little the NHL has done to protect an all-time great player. Tom Brady tore his ACL, and the NFL changed what constituted roughing the passer so that defending players couldn’t dive at a quarterback’s legs. Connor McDavid escaped the same collision that threatened his career at 22 unharmed and was penalized for his troubles. 

Let’s give McDavid the Brady treatment, then, and propose a new rule. If a player trips an opponent into the goal, they should be assessed a five-minute major. That sort of punishment should dissuade defensemen from the sort of desperation dives that send forwards flying (and their goalies would thank them, too). Of course, that only speaks to a singular issue of a larger problem. 

The NHL has never been more skilled, hockey has never been played at a faster pace, and McDavid still routinely makes professionals look utterly silly. Having just turned 24, he may already have more highlight-reel goals and assists than any other player in league history. (This is from 2019-20 alone). 

You owe it to your fans, players, and the league as a whole to keep that kind of star healthy and on the ice as much as possible. The NHL has failed at this before. In fact, it was a specialty of theirs in the 90s. 

Consider the unofficial anointing of young Canadian hockey prodigies in the modern era. It started with Wayne Gretzky. Then came Mario Lemieux and soon after him, Eric Lindros. Sidney Crosby was the first can’t-miss prospect of the 21st century before McDavid became the first Gen Zer to join the lofty group. 

It’s fair to say all of those players lived, or have lived, up to the considerable hype. The only exception might be Lindros. Why? In large part because the NHL did very little to curtail head shots, and a series of concussions severely shortened his prime. 

Lemieux’s career deserves a closer examination, too. He battled and beat cancer, was slowed by a bad back, and yet it was the clutching and grabbing that pushed him to retire (the first time) at 31. Lemieux had called the NHL a “garage league” in 1992 and stated, “The advantage is to the marginal players now. They can hook and grab, and the good players can’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

The NHL finally cracked down on obstruction penalties prior to the 2005-06 season, a full 13 years after the best player on a team headed to a second consecutive Stanley Cup publicly voiced his displeasure. Even then it took a year-long lockout to happen. (It’s also worth noting Lemieux, this time as owner of the Penguins, wrote a letter to Gary Bettman in 2011, outlining a plan to address suspensions and player safety as he watched Crosby play just 63 regular season games as a 23- and 24-year-old). 

McDavid may never have the crossover appeal to recreate a modern ProStars alongside LeBron James and Patrick Mahomes. His starpower is probably more in line with Mike Trout, whose all-time talent is undeniable even as he’s been stuck with a mediocre franchise. 

Just as MLB could do more to properly market Trout, the NHL needs to act now to capitalize on McDavid’s prime by catering to their most gifted star. Scoring rates remain stagnant. The league is set to collectively lose billions of dollars this season. With limited spectators, and none in Canada, it’s now mostly a television-only entertainment league, and the television contract is up in the U.S. this year. Seattle enters the fray in a matter of months. 

This is all while McDavid is on pace for nearly 100 points in 56 games, skating alongside the reigning Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner in Leon Draisaitl. You can’t guarantee anyone’s health or production, but you can make significant efforts to protect your best players. To paraphrase Lemieux, let McDavid do what he’s supposed to do.

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