McDavid is hockey’s superstar. Will a Stanley Cup finally elevate his status in America?

The 2024 Stanley Cup Final has the potential to be magical, and it’s largely because of Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid.

McDavid is the greatest player of his era. He’s at or near the zenith of his powers, and in his ninth season, he’s finally competing for his first NHL championship.

The Florida Panthers are the only thing left between him and the Stanley Cup.

“This year you’ve got the best player in the game, a player that can do things that other people can’t, and you have a series that I don’t think anybody thinks is a short series,” ESPN analyst and former NHLer Ray Ferraro said. “It’s really important and really cool that Connor gets to play in his first final.”

McDavid going for his first title should have the same intrigue as LeBron James’ first appearance in the NBA Finals. McDavid is hockey’s LeBron in terms of making good on his phenom potential.

Yet for all of McDavid’s impressive resume and impeccable skills, it doesn’t seem to stack up. In fact, McDavid’s first trip to the final might not even compare in the United States to Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby reaching that stage.

“With Gretzky, you had a smaller league and the aftermath of the World Hockey Association — and then the merger. With Sidney Crosby, he played for a franchise that was either No. 1 or No. 2 in terms of regional television audiences in the United States on an annual basis,” said Tom Mayenknecht, a sports business commentator and host of the Sports Market. “Then there was the almost Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa-type bouncing back from the lost season. Crosby was part of that context (with Alex Ovechkin). He was a big hope to get people past that.

“And LeBron James was basketball. He had high-school hype.”

Mayenknecht said McDavid is still the most recognizable player across the NHL.

Hardcore hockey fans will be watching him in the Stanley Cup Final, and the McDavid narrative should be enough to interest casual fans.

Will it, though?

As McDavid prepares to play for the championship, viewers who rarely watch hockey need to understand what makes him so special.

“For the casual hockey fan clicking around on this Saturday night or during the series, we have to do a good job of making sure we introduce Connor McDavid … and not just assume that everybody knows everything there is to know about Connor McDavid,” ESPN senior vice president of production and remote events Mark Gross said.

Aside from perhaps Crosby, McDavid was the most-hyped prospect in the sport since Eric Lindros. Though Lindros’ brute strength made him a man playing amongst boys, McDavid’s sublime talent put him several cuts above his junior hockey peers.

McDavid was touted as one of the most graceful and fastest skaters ever before he even entered the NHL.


Five NHL skating greats agree: McDavid is best they’ve ever seen

There was never a question he’d be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft. Teams tanked, and tanked hard, to secure the best odds to land him.

When the Oilers won the draft lottery, moving up two spots to leapfrog Buffalo and Arizona, then-Sabres GM Tim Murray couldn’t hide his disappointment that he missed out on the chance to select McDavid.

Murray’s emotions have turned out to be justified. McDavid won the scoring title and league MVP in his second season. He’s won five Art Ross and three Hart trophies in his nine seasons. He’s already one of the greatest players ever — and he’s backed it up in the postseason.

His 1.58 playoff points per game over his career is the best production rate of anyone not named Gretzky or Mario Lemieux — whose best years were in hockey’s most offensive era. The goal he scored in the clinching game of the Western Conference final, where he made one of the NHL’s best defensemen, Miro Heiskanen, look foolish, was a thing of beauty.

“That should be on everywhere there’s an NHL highlight,” Ferraro said. “In the NHL, there is one player that can score that goal. There’s one player. That’s it. It’s special.”

McDavid is like a god in Edmonton — one of his nicknames is McJesus — and he’s one of the most well-known people in Canada.

That applies in the United States, too, to some extent.

“Any hockey fan in the U.S. who follows hockey closely knows who Connor McDavid is already,” Oilers CEO of hockey operations Jeff Jackson said. “I’ve had the chance to sit at MSG or in Tampa or other places, and you watch the crowd. They all get on the edge of their seat when he touches the puck just like they do in Edmonton.”

But those attending games are mostly hockey fans and usually hardcore ones at that. McDavid’s appeal in the United States beyond those invested in the sport isn’t remotely the same.

That McDavid plays in Edmonton, one of the smallest markets and the most-northern-based team in North American pro sports, doesn’t help.

“There’s no question that if he was playing in an American market that he’d be an even bigger name among American hockey fans and American sports fans,” Mayenknecht said.

The NFL and NBA can overcome the small-market issue. Some of football’s biggest stars over the years, such as Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Patrick Mahomes, spent their primes in small markets but were the most marketable and recognizable players among casual fans. LeBron got his start and eventually won an NBA championship in Cleveland, and that didn’t hurt his status one bit.

“The National Hockey League still has a lot of work to do, in partnership with the PA (players’ association) and with its broadcast rightsholders,” Mayenknecht said. “There’s a lot more that can be done in terms of individual player marketing. But the league is better now than it was 30 years ago … but it’s still fourth among the big four (leagues).”

McDavid is from Newmarket, Ontario, which is just north of Toronto, Canada’s biggest city and the country’s financial hub. Turn on a Canadian sports channel and you’re likely to see him during a commercial block promoting all sorts of products and services.

Jackson was McDavid’s agent from the time the hockey phenom was 15 until he took his job with the Oilers last August. The one cross-border endorsement deal he secured for his client was with BetMGM, ads that also feature Gretzky.

McDavid’s deal with sports apparel giant Adidas meant he was considered for a massive marketing campaign with the biggest stars from across the globe. Adidas went in a different direction.

“They were great to work with. They were a great partner for Connor,” Jackson said. “We just didn’t get the wider use out of it.”

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Like baseball, hockey fandom is more regional, Mayenknecht said. He points to McDavid being outside the top five in terms of athlete recognition index among NHLers this season, according to Fanatics.

No. 1 is rookie Connor Bedard, who plays in big-market Chicago.

“Because of residency, Connor Bedard has an opportunity to rise above McDavid’s status — especially if he becomes part of a competitive team, a contender,” Mayenknecht said.

Television ratings are up this postseason, and McDavid’s exploits undoubtedly play into that. The Oilers captain has 31 points in 18 games to lead all scorers. However, two-thirds of the viewers in Games 1 through 3 of the Oilers’ last series against Dallas were in Canada.

Canadian audiences will be tuned in to the final as McDavid and the Oilers try to break a 31-year Stanley Cup drought by a Canadian-based team.

But that might not be enough to entice Americans, and the Panthers don’t have the same reach or broad appeal as the New York Rangers, the team they eliminated in the last round.

ESPN, the carrier of this year’s final, broadcast 11 Oilers games this season — including two on the main network and one on ABC. The league has also made a concerted effort to get McDavid in the spotlight.

An all-access, six-part Amazon series was announced Thursday, which features McDavid as one of the key players. It’ll be released in the fall.



NHL puts its stars front and center in Amazon docu-series set to debut in October

McDavid is also scheduled to appear on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday.

“We’re not looking to do something and force something on somebody that they’re not comfortable doing,” Gross said.

“It seems like there’s a willingness (from McDavid) that there hasn’t been before,” NHL senior executive vice president and chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “He gets it. This is his moment.”

McDavid, who entered the league as a shy and introverted teenager, has tried to open up a bit.

“I feel like I’m more comfortable in these environments and speaking my mind on a couple things,” McDavid said. “That being said, I’m still not the most outspoken guy. When I feel my voice can contribute, I’m not afraid to share it.”

McDavid has been on rules committees and helped revise the skills competition at the All-Star Game. The way he was continuously outspoken about the need for a best-on-best international hockey tournament helped move the needle toward getting the 4 Nations Face-Off planned for February 2025 and players back in the next Winter Olympics.

He’s also been willing to joke around in a media setting, which was most notably on display earlier this season when he cracked that he didn’t want to score anymore after he went 10 games without a goal. (That the Oilers had turned their season around after being tied for last place in the standings in early November, and he had 23 assists during that span, probably put him in a more jovial mood.)

“If you think about the pressure that’s on a young man coming in with the spotlight he had as a teenager and adapting into the league, it’s just like anything in life — you need to grow into it and be comfortable with it,” Jackson said. “I don’t think Connor liked being labeled as a superstar. He has a high degree of respect for the game. He wanted to earn it.

“What I’ve seen over the last two or three years is he’s comfortable being the face of the league. He’s grown into the role, and he’s handled it extremely well, especially considering the pressure that’s on him.”

McDavid is still only willing to pull back the curtain so much, though. Don’t expect him to be like LeBron holding court to talk about gun policies and the like.

“The political side of things I leave to the experts,” McDavid said. “I have nothing really to add on that stuff. I know hockey, and I know hockey well. I try to stick with it.”

That’s not unique to McDavid. Plenty of athletes aren’t comfortable going on the record about controversial topics.

“He lives in a fishbowl,” Ferraro said. “Everything he does is going to be scrutinized 100 different ways from Tuesday.”

Mayenknecht has offered media training to a few hundred high-level athletes, including Olympians and NHLers. He said there’s nothing worse than someone trying to feign interest in an issue or put on a facade.

“You can’t force someone to be anything other than themselves,” Mayenknecht said. “One of the worst things that can be done is to take a mild-mannered personality and try to make them a standup comedian. That won’t work.

“Connor McDavid is not an activist athlete in the way LeBron James is, but I’d argue there’s stuff that can be done to make up for that and connect him to fans.”

For his part, McDavid isn’t preoccupied with how playing in the Stanley Cup Final can grow his brand or increase his stardom in the United States.

“I couldn’t care less about that,” he said with a laugh. “I want to be part of a group that wins. That’s all I want to do.”

Nothing drives McDavid more than wanting to win, according to those who know him best.

Now, he has a chance to win something he’s dreamed about for years. People should be tuning in, even if their fan allegiances aren’t with the Oilers.

“If you have no skin in the game, why are you going to watch?” Ferraro said. “McDavid is the hook because he’s the best player in the game.”

McDavid has always preferred to let his play on the ice speak for him. He’ll likely have something special in store in this series.

“For those fans who only see him in Instagram highlights or on ‘SportsCenter’ in the U.S., they’re going to appreciate the completeness of his game,” Jackson said. “He scores goals you shake your head at. But when you watch him live, you’ll see a player who competes extremely hard on every shift, plays good defense and wins puck battles that help you win.”

If he’s at his best, there’s a strong chance that’ll put the Oilers over the top. And if that happens, there’s no doubt he’ll become a bigger star in the United States.

“Casual sports fans are the ones who drive this train,” Mayenknecht said. “It’s not the hardcore. It’s when you get into converting and having awareness among casual fans, like Gretzky created in Los Angeles, that things turn around.

“Connor McDavid winning a Stanley Cup in 2024 will certainly make him that much more recognizable, that much more appreciated, in 2025 and beyond.”

The Athletic’s Michael Russo contributed to this report.

(Top illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; photo: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

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