TORONTO, ON - Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews will always be linked together.
The two of them belong to an exclusive and celebrated club. They were both first-overall picks in their respective drafts, and with that comes a certain pedigree and lofty expectations. Everyone is watching, including The Great One himself, who flew to Toronto to witness the first NHL meeting of the two.
"I think those two kids, Auston and Connor, both number one picks overall, they've accepted their responsibilities and their roles in not only the teams and to the League," said Wayne Gretzky. "They're so mature. Obviously, they've had a tremendous upbringing from their families. It's great for our sport. The game gets better. These kids are about as good as I've ever seen."
Video: RAW | Wayne Gretzky
When Gretzky first came into the league he was compared to the other greats in the game. Then, as he established himself, those that came after were compared to him. It's a cycle he's all too familiar with, and he sees that with McDavid and Matthews.
"Before you know it, all of the sudden you're 26 and a new kid is coming in. Then it's, 'is (Mario) Lemieux the next Gretzky?' It goes by pretty quickly. Just enjoy it," said Gretzky. "Both those kids seem to understand their scenario and their responsibility to not only the team and the League but to the cities. They're both really good, young, mature kids. It's great for hockey. It's great to see."
Those in the media and around the game will compare the back-to-back first-overall selections. But to the players, they can't really compare.
"We're pretty different players," said Matthews. "He's obviously got explosive speed and I'm more of a big, power forward. I like to use my body. We're definitely different players."
As different players with different backgrounds, the built up 'rivalry' just isn't there.
"Not really, other than us being first-overall picks in back-to-back years," said McDavid. "That's really the only thing in common we have. I know him pretty well. He's a good guy, I get along well with him. I definitely don't consider him a rival. It would be a lot easier for (the media) if I said I hate him and blah, blah, blah. But he's a good kid and I'm excited to play against him."
McDavid and Matthews didn't really know each other until later on in their junior careers. Matthews says he may have played against McDavid at a very young age at "some tournament in Canada", but he doesn't remember. McDavid says the first time he really understood who Matthews was, and the calibre of talent he possessed, wasn't until his second World Junior appearance.
"I never really saw him in my (younger) hockey I don't think," said McDavid. "I heard of him, going into World Juniors my second time around in my draft year. That would have been the first time I actually saw him play."
"I heard about him when he got drafted into the OHL with his exceptional status," said Matthews. "That was the first time I'd heard of him."
Now the two are very familiar with one another. They were teammates, and occasional linemates, on Team North America at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
"He's just a really special player," said Matthews.
"He's such a good player," said McDavid. "He's quick and he's got a lot of skill and a good shot. He's pretty hard to shut down."
As Gretzky knows from his playing days, when the expectations go up so does the internal competitive fire.
"It fires you up… It's a team game but individually, you have pride too and that's what makes superstars Hall of Famers," said Gretzky. "You have that pride as a player and an athlete. Although the concern is about the team, you get fired up."
"From my perspective, the best athletes want to be in those situations, whether it's Larry Bird and Magic Johnson or John McEnroe at Wimbledon or Mark Messier in a Game 7," Gretzky added. "The best athletes accept that responsibility and they don't look at it as pressure. They look at it as fun. We used to say in Game 7s, 'where else would you rather be?' It's what we dreamed about as kids. If you accept that and understand the responsibility, it makes the game that much more fun."
But now, when they face each other, the two will be in direct competition. Their respective teams both boast some quick, dynamic, young talent, which could also link the squads in comparisons moving forward.
"Obviously, everyone is excited about it," Gretzky said of the two players, and two teams. "You get two premiere young players in hockey that are obviously the future of both organizations. You throw that in with a bunch of other kids who are playing really well, it's exciting for Toronto and Edmonton. It's not just Auston, it's not just Connor. There's some good young players on both teams. Expectations go up with that."
The Oilers and Maple Leafs likely don't face each other often enough for a true rivalry to develop, with only two matchups per season. But as these two young stars grow and pull the League along with them, the two teams are likely to be linked - just like the two individuals who battle tonight for the first time in the NHL.