There is no shortage of people worse off because Connor McDavid did not compete at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China. There’s the International Olympic Committee, which could have used an appearance from one of winter sports’ biggest superstars to boost sagging TV ratings for these Winter Games.
There’s Hockey Canada, whose national men’s team might not be leaving the Olympics without a medal for the first time since 2006 if hockey’s best player had been in the lineup. But aside from the three-time Art Ross Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award recipient’s disappointment in not trying to help Team Canada win gold, it could be argued that the biggest loser is the Edmonton Oilers.
NHL Sitting Out Second Straight Olympics
After missing his first opportunity when the NHL decided against sending its players to PyeongChang for the 2018 Winter Games, the Oilers captain was set to make his much-anticipated Olympic debut this year. The NHL had recommitted to participating in the Games, and McDavid was one of the first three players named to the 2022 Canadian Men’s Olympic hockey team, along with Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby and Alex Pietrangelo of the Vegas Golden Knights.
But those plans were derailed by COVID-19 concerns, like most things over the past two years, and with the Omicron variant spreading like wildfire, the NHL announced just before Christmas that it would not be going to Beijing.
McDavid Missing Opportunities to Play with the Best
Unlike nearly every elite player before him, McDavid has not had an opportunity to represent his country alongside and against hockey’s best. The closest he’s come would be the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, but that was a bastardized version of the international best-on-best format. While it featured NHLers, players aged 23 and under were not eligible to compete for their national team; instead, they were assigned to Team North America or Team Europe.
Thus, instead of going to battle for Canada alongside Crosby and Jonathan Toews, sublime veterans who have shouldered the burden of greatness and led their NHL team to multiple Stanley Cup titles, McDavid was teamed with Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews, fellow teenage phenoms that might one day win it all but had yet won nothing.
Greatness Begets Greatness on Team Canada
The cycle of the greatest Canadian hockey players learning from the greatest Canadian players spans eras. Crosby scored the “Golden Goal” for Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games after receiving a brilliant pass from Jarome Iginla. Iginla helped end a 50-year gold medal drought with two goals against the United States in the 2002 Olympic final, a 5-2 victory for a Canadian team captained by Mario Lemieux. Lemieux broke a tie with less than two minutes remaining in the 1987 Canada Cup final when he wristed the puck past Soviet goalie Sergei Mylnikov, taking the feed from Oilers captain Wayne Gretzky on a give-and-go that is one of the most-replayed highlights in hockey history.
The ’87 Canada Cup was transformational for Lemieux, who talked to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun about how the experience of playing and practicing with future Hall-of-Famers like Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Ray Bourque shaped his legendary career with the Penguins. “I really learned a lot by watching these guys and seeing how hard they worked in practice, the dedication they had for the sport,” Lemieux said. “I learned so much, and I was able to take that back to Pittsburgh and eventually win two Stanley Cups with the Penguins because of learning from those guys.’’
McDavid Would Benefit from Playing with Crosby
What one Edmonton superstar was once to his young Penguins counterpart, today’s Pittsburgh superstar could have been to his young Oilers counterpart. When they joined forces on Team Canada in late summer of 1987, Lemieux had yet to win a playoff series in Pittsburgh, while The Great One had led Edmonton to four Stanley Cup Final appearances, winning three times.
In McDavid’s time, the Oilers have won just one playoff round, while Crosby owns three championship rings from four trips to the Stanley Cup Final with the Penguins. Within five years of the 1987 Canada Cup, Lemieux was a two-time Stanley Cup champ. McDavid has five seasons (including 2021-22) remaining on his contract, and if he wins two championships in Edmonton before that deal runs out, Oilers fans will be euphoric.
Few Examples for McDavid to Follow
The Oilers have been missing influential veterans throughout McDavid’s six-plus seasons in Edmonton. Going back to his NHL debut at age 18 in Oct. 2015, and only 12 months later when he became the youngest captain in NHL history, he’s had few teammates that could show him how to lead, and even fewer that could teach him how to win.
Before the Oilers acquired future Hall-of-Famer and three-time champion Duncan Keith last summer, McDavid had played with just two Stanley Cup winners: Milan Lucic, from 2016-17 to 2018-19, and Andrew Ference, who suited up for all of six games when McDavid was a rookie in 2015-16.
From soaking up veteran knowledge to being triumphant at the highest level, McDavid could have returned to Edmonton next week and immediately began applying all he had gleaned in Beijing. Instead, his next chance at such an experience won’t come before the Stanley Cup is awarded at least three more times, with the NHL and NHL Players’ Association currently in talks to stage the World Cup of Hockey in 2024. If the Oilers don’t start having postseason success by then, it may already be too late, and McDavid and Co. will have to figure out this Cup-winning thing on their own. But, if the 26-year-old is the transcendent player many believe him to be, they will.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.