Watching the relationships develop between seasoned veterans and rookies within professional sports is always entertaining. It brings to mind the interviews where rookies talk about their veteran teammates using “mister” and veterans refer to rookies as “kids.” Rookies will always be learning lessons from veterans; in the National Hockey League, however, the tides seem to be changing. NHL players are getting younger and younger every year. The days of former Detroit Red Wings rightwing Gordie Howe—who played until he was in his 50s—are long gone. The league used to be a game of small advantages that were only learned by spending time in the league. The older players learned that it was advantageous to work smarter—not harder. This, however, is no longer the case.
Now we’re looking at a league that currently showcases its young players—and rightfully so. At any given professional hockey game, it’s hard not to see someone wearing the jersey of a player that is 15 or more years younger than them. The game is becoming faster, lending itself to quick, explosive players, which is something that you really can’t teach.
At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, the Edmonton Oilers named 19-year-old center Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history. The Oilers trusted a teenager to represent them and it’s working, as McDavid leads by example. He’s fast and scores many goals; it’s that simple. Some analysts have even tapped McDavid as their pick for MVP of the league at 19 years old. That would have been unheard of 20 years ago.
The NHL also had the opportunity to put their young players on display at the World Cup of Hockey. Team North America was comprised of all the best players from the United States and Canada—with each player aged 23 years old or younger. Team North America made a real splash, too, as they progressed further than Team USA, which is a spectacular accomplishment given that they had to play teams that, in any other scenario, would be considered all-star teams.
These younger players are taking no time to prove themselves. It seems that the type of talent that lower levels of hockey are developing translates to the NHL better than ever before.
This year’s first pick, Toronto Maple Leafs’ center Auston Matthews scored four goals in his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators, and the goals weren’t flukes. There are times when these young players look like they’re playing a different game, and sometimes they are. They’re playing a game that is streamlined. It takes a different, younger type of player to keep up.
The interesting part to come of this new wave of young players is seeing how they develop as they grow older. It looks like as long as the players can keep up the pace, they will be able to change the game and make the league their own.
It’s a revolutionary time in hockey. The game is getting younger and faster, and everyone will need to try to keep up and not get left in the dust.