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New crop of NHL legends in making at All-Star Game

Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine among young talent on display

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- One hundred years from now, who will be the next 100 Greatest NHL Players? How many will have played way back in days of yore at the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Staples Center on Sunday?

We can only imagine. But it's easy to imagine with young stars like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, and it's easy to be inspired by the first 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian.

"I think that's everybody's goal, to be remembered," Laine said. "If we can play the game the same way, then someone will remember you when you're not playing anymore. That would be pretty cool to be selected like that someday. I will try to [work toward] that every day."

As the legends were unveiled at "The NHL100 presented by GEICO" at Microsoft Theater on Friday, it was striking how each generation blended into the next, how the game had changed so much over a century but the culture had changed so little.

From Maurice Richard to Gordie Howe to Bobby Orr to Wayne Gretzky to Mario Lemieux, with so many superstars in between, the NHL went from wooden sticks with flat blades to composite sticks with curves, from goalies without masks wearing skinny pads to masked Michelin men. The game grew faster, harder. The culture remained humble, reverent.

Legend after legend showed respect for the men who came before and after.

"It was very rarified air, but the one common denominator that they all shared and was palpable was a love of this great game," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "And if you're going to be a player in this league, we want you to love what you do."

As the legends came off the stage, each autographed a posterboard backstage. On it was the NHL100 logo. Beneath it were the words: "100 years is just the beginning."

Five of the 100 will play in the All-Star Game on Sunday: Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews. They are still adding to their resumes. Others who will play in the All-Star Game (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) aren't far behind and could raise their stature over time, and nine of the players who will play in the All-Star Game are 23 or younger.

"There's a lot of potential," Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck, 23, said. "As younger guys, we look at this as pretty unique. We get to come here and be in an All-Star Game with five of the guys who are in the top 100. Those are guys that we looked up to, watching when we were a little bit younger. I think we just try to take it all in and enjoy it."

We saw a glimpse of how the next generation stacked up in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in Toronto in September, when Laine played for Team Finland at age 18, and Team North America -- comprised of players 23 and younger from Canada and the United States -- defeated Team Finland and Team Sweden, and nearly defeated Team Russia. The young players were fast, skilled, exciting, the darlings of the tournament even though they didn't make the semifinals.

"It kind of just shows you the future of the League, that team," Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones said. "It was special. As a defenseman, you'd sit back and you'd watch the forwards, all four lines. You'd watch them go, and you're like, 'Oh, man, if this was a real team, in three or four years, it would be scary.' It was insane, the speed of our team."

Laine will play in the All-Star Game. So will six members of Team North America: Gaudreau, Jones, Trocheck, McDavid, Matthews and Nathan MacKinnon.

Crosby remains the best player in the world, according to no less of an authority than Gretzky. But McDavid, 20, leads the NHL with 59 points, four more than Crosby. Matthews, 19, is tied for fourth with 23 goals, five behind the leader, Crosby. Laine has 22 goals even though he missed eight games with a concussion.

Video: WPG@CHI: Laine buries one-timer on the power play

"Just crazy young talent," Toews said. "Everyone talks about how the game is getting better and better every year, and I even feel that. This is my 10th season in the League now, and these guys are stepping in and producing and doing what they're doing right away. So God knows what they'll do at the stage of their career where I'm at right now. Those guys are going to change the game. They're going to make it better down the road for sure."

They're making it better already.

"You're seeing this little spike now," said Steve Yzerman, one of the 100. "I think this, to me, is a generation of kind of unique guys. There was a gap between, say, Bobby Orr and Wayne. Mario came along just after Wayne. And Sid comes along. And now it looks like there's another group in there right behind that look like they're going to be special players to elevate the level of competition, just like Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky. Tiger Woods did it for golf. A couple of these kids look like they'll be able to do that."

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