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NHL history comes full circle at Centennial Classic

Auston Matthews, Anthony Mantha join past stars to begin yearlong celebration of League's 100th anniversary

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- In the end, amid the ceremony and spectacle, the ultimate expression of where the NHL has been and where it is going was made on the ice.

The 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic was an outdoor game designed to romanticize hockey's roots and begin a yearlong celebration of the League's 100th anniversary.

The rink was set in the middle of a giant '100' in Exhibition Stadium on a cold, clear winter's day. The first 33 of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, representing the first half-century of League history, were unveiled. Two Original Six teams started slowly, then battled back and forth in the third period before a crowd of 40,148.

The box score will show that center Auston Matthews scored his second goal of the game 3:40 into overtime, lifting the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 5-4 victory, after Detroit Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha scored his second of the game with 1.1 seconds left in the third period to force OT. But it will not show the significance.

Matthews was born in California. He was raised in Arizona. He did not grow up in a traditional hockey environment playing shinny outdoors. Yet he fell in love with the game by rooting for a team in the desert, the Arizona Coyotes, and became the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Now Matthews was the star of a big event in Canada. Now he has 20 goals and 32 points, leading NHL rookies, at age 19. Now he is part of the future of one of the League's oldest, proudest franchises.

This is how far the NHL has come.

"It was a blast out there, a lot of fun," Matthews said. "Definitely one of the best moments in hockey I've ever experienced for myself. It's pretty special."

Video: DET@TOR: Matthews shines at the Centennial Classic

Mantha was born in Quebec. He is the grandson of Andre Pronovost, who played 556 NHL games for the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Red Wings and Minnesota North Stars in 1950s and '60s; won the Stanley Cup four times; and played with 11 of the 33 greatest players unveiled before the game, including Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Gordie Howe.

Now Mantha was on the ice with his grandfather in Section 109. Now he has five goals in his past five games, at 22. Now he is part of the future of one of the League's oldest, proudest franchises, one of his grandfather's former teams.

This is how the NHL is connected to its past.

"He told me stories about the Rocket a lot, how he was the best player he played with, about Jean Beliveau," Mantha said of his grandfather. "It's just a lot of history."

Think of that history. The NHL was born Nov. 26, 1917. It played its first games Dec. 19, 1917, when the Canadiens defeated the Ottawa Senators 7-4 and the Montreal Wanderers defeated the Toronto Arenas, as the Maple Leafs were known then, 10-9.

Players once wore wool sweaters, swung wooden sticks with flat blades and couldn't pass the puck forward. Franchises came and went. Then the NHL went through the Original Six era and expansions and modernizations.

Video: DET@TOR: Mantha lights lamp twice in Red Wings' loss

Now it has 30 teams, with another on the way next season in the Vegas Golden Knights. Players wear high-tech fabrics, swing composite sticks with curves and play games outdoors in football and baseball stadiums before thousands of people.

"There is nothing that can replace history, and the history of our game is as good as, or better than, any other sport in the world," said Wayne Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer and Centennial Ambassador. "That's what makes it so special."

After answering questions from fans at The PreGame fan festival Sunday, Gretzky ducked into the Centennial Fan Arena, a mini, mobile Hockey Hall of Fame on two truck trailers that will tour NHL cities this year. He surprised fans who were looking at the exhibits.

"I was about to walk out," said Robert Ketis, 36, of Guelph, Ontario. "And then I was like, 'Wait, no, I'm not.' "

Gretzky approached a glass case displaying sticks.

"Is there a Gretzky stick in there?" Ketis asked.

"Yes," Gretzky said.

Video: Bettman, Gretzky reflect on 100 years of the NHL

Sure enough, there was a stick with a high-polish aluminum shaft Gretzky used in 1993 with the Los Angeles Kings to score his 100th and 101st Stanley Cup Playoff goals.

Gretzky grew up going to the Hockey Hall of Fame when it was at the Canadian National Exhibition. Now here he was back on the same grounds, studying exhibits again. One showed him and his hero, Howe.

"We all grow up with the same dream," Gretzky said.

Gretzky participated in the ceremony unveiling 33 of the greatest players. There were the families of Beliveau, Howe, Richard, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante, Terry Sawchuk and more, and there were Johnny Bower, John Bucyk, Glenn Hall, Red Kelly and Dave Keon themselves.

"We are honored to be honoring them," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

The best way to honor them? To carry on the tradition, to grow the game, to make it better and better, to put on a show like Matthews and Mantha did.

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