America loves heroes, particularly in the military or in sports. But in NHL history, the best player of his generation is always Canadian. Since the 1940s, the best player who is always head and shoulders above everyone else comes from Canada, virtually an unbroken golden chain. Its members, in order, include Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Sidney Crosby. Connor McDavid is currently speculated as Crosby’s successor. All have won at least one Stanley Cup.
There have been no Americans or Europeans who have been the best players of their generation. Alexander Ovechkin was billed as Crosby’s rival when he entered the league at approximately the same time but he has no team championships in the NHL or internationally like Crosby has. Probably the non-Canadian player who has come closest to being acclaimed the best player of his generation is Jaromir Jagr, Lemieux’s sidekick in Pittsburgh, still currently playing and who is now the number two scorer in NHL history behind only Gretzky.
For the Americans, the best they could do is Brett Hull, Bobby’s son who was born in Canada but who became an American citizen and often played for the United States in international tournaments. Another top Canadian, Brian Trottier became an American citizen and played for the United States internationally. And there have been distinguished native born Americans like Joe Mullen, Mike Modano, and Jeremy Roenick, etc. But never the number one NHL player.
So the best Americans can do is have Canada’s top player as a member of an American NHL franchise and win Stanley Cups for them. Currently Pittsburgh is the beneficiary with Crosby winning 3 Stanley Cups and having a good chance to win many more before he retires and McDavid takes over.
But for the United States, it is still not the same as having a native son as the best player. There is no legendary American hockey player like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan to inspire young American minds. And because the NHL has never had such an American player, its status in the United States suffers when it is compared to other “traditional” American sports. Hockey in American eyes remains a Canadian game and the NHL ranks number 4 behind the NFL, MLB, and the NBA.
Currently the best American hope for the future appears to be Auston Matthews now playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Jack Eichel playing just down the road in Buffalo. And Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets may be the best future European. But all three will have a tough time supplanting McDavid who recently signed an 8-year $100 million contract with Edmonton. It will be quite a future rivalry among them, plus any other new top kids who enter the league in the future.
Even if they don’t topple McDavid off his projected throne, all three have a chance to write a distinguished legendary career of their own. If Matthews should lead the woeful Toronto Maple Leafs back to the Stanley Cup after 50 years of bad ownership and management and wandering in the wilderness, he’ll be an all time legendary hero in that city, no matter where he comes from. And if Eichel and Laine deliver Buffalo and Winnipeg their first Stanley Cup, they’ll become all time heroes in their cities too.
But in terms of becoming the ultimate hockey idol, it is still the dream of a Canadian boy. We are still waiting for the American and European Gretzky, Orr, Richard, etc., to appear.