BROSSARD, Quebec – In 2014, we saw a Winter Classic in front of more than 100,000 people in Michigan’s Big House, Olympic medals awarded in Sochi, an outdoor game in California and a Stanley Cup won in the double overtime drama of a Los Angeles summer night.
And on the final day of the year, we will see a game between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old that’s been talked about and hyped as much as – and maybe more than – any of the others.
It’s Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel Wednesday afternoon at 4 in Montreal’s Bell Centre in a preliminary round finale of the World Junior Championship.
And that’s what it is. Sorry.
It was Downplay City all over the Bell Sports Complex Tuesday afternoon because this is, after all, Team USA and Team Canada playing in battle of unbeatens and the right to claim the No. 1 seed out of pool play.
But the political correctness was too much for these ears.
Maybe in the medal round, particularly if there’s a rematch with a gold medal at stake Monday in Toronto, the focus will return to the teams.
But for one game at least, the result will be framed in the performances of the young guns who will go 1-2 in next June’s NHL draft.
“It’s not at all about me vs. Connor,” insisted Eichel, the 18-year-old from Boston University. “It’s a huge matchup for the top seed in our bracket. It’s Canada and the US.”
“It’s there a little bit,” McDavid, the pride of the OHL’s Erie Otters, said of the focus on an individual rivalry that’s yet to have much history built. “It’s been something there for a long time now, but at the end of the day it’s the U.S. versus Canada, not about me versus him.”
Canada coach Benoit Groulx was hardly convincing in making his case either.
“It’s not Connor against Jack Eichel. Those are two guys among 44 players that will play against each other,” insisted Groulx. “”For me, it’s no big deal.”
So are these guys all New Year’s Eve party poopers or will the home of the Montreal Canadiens simply reign as Cliche Central in this one? Plenty of folks do know what this is about. Team USA power forward Hudson Fasching, the Sabres prospect from the University of Minnesota whose stock is growing every day here, didn’t hide his excitement about the confrontation.
“It’s definitely something. It’s huge,” said a beaming Fasching. “There’s a lot of media coverage, and it will certainly be interesting to see how it all pans out.”
Contrast that to McDavid, who barely spoke above a monotone during a chat with a couple dozen reporters on an indoor soccer field that’s part of the Habs’ sprawling suburban practice facility.
Asked to assess his own three-points-in-three-games showing in the wake of his broken hand, McDavid said, “It’s been all right.”
When I asked McDavid if we should assume he’s not happy with just “all right” and is still trying to get back to where he was before the injury, he would only say “I guess.”
Eichel, who has a goal and an assist in three games, tends to be a little more chatty than McDavid, but he played it only slightly less conservatively.
“It’s exciting. But it’s even more exciting to be at this tournament in general,” Eichel said. “It’s been a lot of fun so far, and I’m sure tomorrow night is going to definitely be a blast.”
It should be noted that 17- and 18-year-olds generally aren’t the stars of this tournament. The 19-year-olds have a big advantage and often prosper thanks to an age difference that pretty much has no impact in the NHL between players that are, say, 25 and 26.
Neither McDavid or Eichel, strangely enough, are even centering what’s become the top line for their teams. Canada’s breakout players have included Sabres prospect Sam Reinhart and linemate Max Domi, who both have two goals and three assists. Detroit prospect Dylan Larkin leads Team USA with three goals and five points.
While the McEichel Derby is the key subplot to the game, there are others. Tops is Groulx’s bizarre decision to start Eric Comrie in goal over Zach Fucale, the Montreal native and Canadiens draft choice who started the first three games and gave up one goal. Weird timing to say the least.
Hockey’s glorious past was celebrated earlier this month in the Bell Centre when legendary Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau lay in state there after his death.
In the same building, just a few weeks later, it’s time to get a remarkable head-to-head glimpse of the game’s future. McDavid knows the hopes of a nation are riding heavily upon him.
“You always want to be a difference maker, no matter what kind of game it is,” McDavid said. “It’s a bigger stage tomorrow, but hopefully I can make a difference. It’s exciting obviously. World Juniors. Canada-USA. It’s hard not to be.”
The 4 p.m. start is also a bit of a wrinkle for Canada, which has played its three previous games at 8 and will have to change up its game-day routine.
No biggie really. Said Team Canada captain Curtis Lazar, showing a clear grasp of what’s going on: “We could play this game at 6 in the morning and I think it would be just as exciting.”