PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- A picture was taken a couple of years ago in the Pittsburgh Penguins' dressing room.
One of the owners of the Penguins, Mario Lemieux, is in it. So, too, is the Penguins captain, Sidney Crosby. In the middle, flanked by one Hall of Fame center and one sure-fire Hall of Fame center, is a highly touted and broadly smiling prospect named Connor McDavid.
A moment in time, to be sure.
Three No. 1 overall draft picks.
And maybe more than that. Maybe the kind of intersection of greatness that transcends time.
Mario Lemieux, Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby met on Feb. 10, 2013, after a Penguins-Devils game in Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh Penguins/Gregory Shamus)
When McDavid steps into the PPG Paints Arena here Tuesday night, it will not be to pose for more pictures -- it will be in search of two points for his Edmonton Oilers (9-3-1) against the Penguins (8-2-2). The Oilers captain will no longer be an awestruck teenager imagining what it might be like to live the life, as was the case two seasons ago when that picture was taken.
McDavid is still a teenager, at least for a few more months. But early in his second NHL season, he is the catalyst to a buzz that hasn't come out of Edmonton for a decade or more, as well as being the standard bearer of an unprecedented influx of world-class young talent populating the league.
No doubt there will be butterflies as McDavid prepares for the first time to face Crosby, who has shaken off a concussion sustained before the season to explode for eight goals and two assists in just six games. Just as there will be more than a passing interest from Crosby, who is almost 10 years McDavid's senior.
"Once you get out there, I think that's the best part," Crosby said Monday. "The competitive side kind of takes over."
Bob Nicholson has seen hundreds of the game's best players, including McDavid and Crosby, come and go, playing on hockey's greatest stages at various points in their careers. The former longtime head of Hockey Canada understands the bond that exists between the best of the best, a kind of organic link that exists in spite of geography and age, and even experience.
He recalled, for instance, Lemieux talking about the lessons he learned from having played with Wayne Gretzky during the 1987 Canada Cup. Nicholson knows that Crosby reached out to McDavid after McDavid was selected first overall in 2015 amid a tumult that hadn't been seen since Crosby himself was the first-overall pick after the 2004-05 lockout.
"Those guys, they're there for each other," Nicholson said. "They don't know each other real well, but they respect each other."
Nicholson's words of advice for Tuesday night?
"Take a deep breath and enjoy it," said Nicholson, who now presides over the Edmonton Oilers' renaissance, having two years ago taken over as vice chair of the Oilers Entertainment Group.
"They're generational players," he said of Crosby and McDavid. "They're different players. Not too often do players like this come along."
As time passes, Crosby and McDavid -- who broke his collarbone and missed more than half his rookie season, including a game against Crosby -- might well play alongside each other soon, whether it's at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea or the 2020 World Cup of Hockey. But until that time comes, this stands as a chance to savor something unique, two iconic stars playing against each other, one well-established as the greatest player in the world, the other just starting to fulfill those kinds of lofty expectations.
Maybe there'll be a moment like the night Gretzky first played against his idol Gordie Howe, when Gretzky thought Howe was winking at him in warmups (it was more likely Howe's constant blinking) or how Howe at one point gave Gretzky a sharp rap on his wrist after Gretzky stole the puck from him, the legendary Howe admonishing Gretzky not to do it again.
"Coming into the league and you're thinking, 'Geez, I've got to show everybody I belong,'" Gretzky said. "So each and every night it was, 'Wayne Gretzky and, well, can he play against Dionne?' And then it was, 'Gretzky and can he go against Lafleur?' 'Gretzky and Trottier?' And you know those things kind of get you excited when you're a kid: You're 18, 19 years old, you've got nothing to lose. You're just going out there to play."
Crosby always dreamed about playing against childhood hero Steve Yzerman, although Yzerman was injured during Crosby's rookie season, 2005-06, and the two never did play against each other.
"Peter Forsberg was another guy that growing up I really liked to watch," Crosby added. "I got a pretty hard lesson, I think: One of the first couple times I played him, I was minus-5. So I think I was watching him a little too much that night.
"I saw him a lot and learned pretty quick that now I've got to compete against him, not necessarily watch him."
He recalled playing with his boyhood idol Mark Messier in the 1991 Canada Cup, even before Lindros had played a single NHL game. But in his subsequent rookie season with the Flyers, the path to acceptance, to understanding he belonged, went through Pittsburgh and Lemieux.
"You've also got a job to do," Lindros said. "You get over the situation and you try and just get yourself focused and win two points."
"But when you win a faceoff against Mark Messier and he crosschecks you, you know it's on," Lindros said with a laugh.
When Crosby and McDavid step onto the same ice for the first time Tuesday, it's a chance to observe -- heck, celebrate -- those kinds of intersections.
"Why not care?" Lindros asked. "Why not celebrate it?"
And here's the thing. Mark the moment, savor it, because these moments pass quickly.
"It probably seems like yesterday that Sid was going through the same thing, being compared to guys when he first came in," Gretzky said. "And before you know it, you're the guy that's on the other side of that.
"I remember all of a sudden thinking, 'Wasn't it just yesterday I was being compared to Lafleur?'" the game's all-time leading scorer added with a laugh. "And before Auston Matthews and Connor know it, they're going to be in the same situation that Sid is in, that he's the old guy."
But it's more than that, according to Gretzky, who proved in a heartbeat that he not just belonged but that he belonged at the top of the hill.
"I always tell people, you're the king of the castle until someone knocks you off, and right now these kids are all pretty good," Gretzky said, "but Sidney's still the best player in the game."