Ken Holland knew about Connor McDavid, the hockey player. He watched the most gifted offensive center on the planet shred through his Detroit Red Wings while he was their general manager. But as he sat down for lunch with McDavid in Toronto, three weeks after taking over the Edmonton Oilers as their general manager, Holland started to understand Connor McDavid, the hockey activist.
“I was very impressed at his understanding. Of the game. Of our team. Of other teams. He asked a lot of questions. He was very interested in the business of running teams,” Holland said. “He’s one of the faces of this league. Historically, lots of those players haven’t been involved in these things. It speaks to his passion for our sport that he wants to be involved.”
McDavid is 22. He has two scoring titles and a Hart Trophy to his credit. As Holland noted, star players like that have traditionally kept their heads down to focus on the ice, rather than seeking involvement in off-ice issues. Like, for example, when Auston Matthews was asked earlier this year about collective bargaining agreement talks and responded, with a laugh, “I’m not the guy you should to talk to about this.”
That’s the expected approach for an NHL star in his early 20s. But not necessarily for McDavid.
“I definitely have an interest in [labor talks]. I think you should,” McDavid told ESPN earlier this summer. “It’s our livelihood. It’s a lot of money on the line for all our players. I want to be involved. I think the players that came before me have been involved and it’s important to keep that going.”
To that end, McDavid has been one of the more engaged voices of his generation of players, which is important: It’s the veteran players who typically have the loudest voices in CBA talks or discussions about rule changes. It’s the younger players who typically have to grin and bear it until it’s their turn.
“I don’t think it’s up to any one player to do it. But it helps when those guys who are in the public eyes show that interest, and show their understanding of what’s going on,” Chicago Blackhawks veteran center Jonathan Toews said.
Holland saw McDavid again at the annual NHL competition committee meetings, where a collection of players, team executives and league officials propose and debate potential rule changes for the league.
“I had never done it before,” said McDavid, who was invited to join the group this year. “I thought it was a great opportunity and personally enjoyed it. All the decision-makers in hockey, all in one room. I thought it was pretty cool.”
Holland was again impressed with McDavid.
“I sat across from him at the competition committee,” he said. “For a young guy to be in there with general managers and Gary Bettman and people that run the league and people that run the NHLPA … he voiced his opinion. He asks questions. He’s a young guy with a great interest in our game.
McDavid said the process was eye-opening.
“They’re just spitballing ideas, and they’re deciding the new rules in hockey, which I thought was really cool. A lot of the coolest stuff doesn’t come out of the room,” he said, declining to elaborate.
Holland has attended many competition committee meetings through the years and has backed his share of game-changing ideas — such as 3-on-3 overtime. He was pleased to see a young star such as McDavid take an active role.
“We’re all in this together,” Holland said. “We all want this to be the greatest league in the world. When you can get the great players on the ice involved in discussions on how to make the game better, that’s a great thing for our game.”
Holland said he and McDavid didn’t discuss anything on the labor side, but McDavid has a keen interest in it, and what it takes for the players to stand their ground in talks. “I think you’ve got to feel that sense of a union. That’s the only way you get stuff done,” he told the Toronto Star last season. “I think the players are united. Both parties have kind of prepared so long for it. I genuinely believe that both sides want to keep playing. We want to play, and the owners want to keep making money.”
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said McDavid “has a large presence both on and off the ice, and his voice has been an important addition to discussions” about the state of the NHL.
“As was clear in his participation on competition committee matters, Connor is passionate and knowledgeable, and an advocate for the interests of players,” Fehr told ESPN via email. “We anticipate that he will become even more involved going forward, and we welcome his involvement with open arms.”
Toews said the trick is to find the time to stay involved when you’re a superstar like McDavid.
“It’s hard because the hockey season is so busy. You get your offseason, but guys like that have a million things going on,” he said. “But it’s one of those things where you have to sacrifice a little bit for the past and the future. Because there are a lot of guys before you who did the exact same thing and helped lay the groundwork for where we’re at now. I think we all have that responsibility a little bit.”
ESPN’s Emily Kaplan contributed to this report.