LAS VEGAS – The doors of a luxury suite at the Encore hotel swing open, and it’s like walking through a portal to childhood. Flickering on a massive TV are the familiar sights of EA Sports’ NHL video game series. A young man in a ball cap sits in front of the screen, his back turned, engrossed in the action.
His handlers ask him to turn around and greet his company, just like parents might get their kid to put down the controller. “Stand up straight,” they might say. "There’s someone we want you to meet.”
It’s moments like these that remind me just how young Connor McDavid still is. At 20, he’s old enough to have a Hart Trophy, an Art Ross and a Ted Lindsay Award shipped to his home in Newmarket, Ont., after securing all three at Wednesday’s NHL Awards. But he’s not legal drinking or gambling age in the U.S. He’s six months removed from his teenage years. So he should be button mashing on an Xbox controller with his friends all day. It’s what most people his age do.
McDavid, of course, isn’t most people his age. He’s one of the two best hockey players on Earth – and arguably No. 1 now that the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association and the NHL Players’ Association anointed him as such. His early career trajectory mirrors that of generational superstars such as Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. There’s no such thing as a completely normal life. Not that it stops McDavid from trying to have one.
“I don’t want to be a guy who is on house arrest and doesn’t go out anymore or anywhere,” he said. “You can’t be that guy. You also don’t want to be bothered and hassled all the time. You’ve got to find that happy medium, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it.”
He does so by seeking advice from a few people who have experienced what he has. Most commonly, that means talking to Wayne Gretzky and especially Bobby Orr, McDavid’s agent. They help him find his normal, as do McDavid’s friends. He loves playing the NHL video game series with them, actually. He’s played it since he was a kid and would receive the newest version every Christmas. His friends love when they randomize their team selections with a “death pick” and he gets saddled with the Oilers. But why wouldn’t McDavid want to play as himself, undoubtedly one of the most skilled characters in the game?
“I like it, but I hear it too much from my buddies, and they just try to run me in the game, so it’s not fun to do that,” he said with a laugh.
So he does get some escape in those situations. The truth, though, is McDavid fits the bill of most true sports icons: he lives and breathes and dreams the sport. It’s not a coincidence that the likes of Gretzky or Tiger Woods are famous for their obsession. McDavid possesses that same trait and doesn’t view it as a burden.
“It’s my life,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a job, but it’s my job. It’s literally what I have to do, and I love doing it. So I do take the game home. I am thinking about it all the time. The only way you can really get away from it is when you’re with other people and talking about random things with your buddies. Because when I’m alone, my mind just goes to thinking about hockey. It’s hard to get away from it, but I’m not looking to get away from it.”
And that mindset, naturally, invites comparisons to Sidney Crosby. He, too is a generational talent, blessed with tremendous speed and skill. They’re both lottery picks and share a level of superstardom no one else does in hockey today. Of course everyone will measure them against each other. And McDavid is more than fine with that.
“I don’t think you’re ever sick of being compared to the best player in the league,” he said. “That part is a dream come true. It’s a guy I grew up idolizing and aspiring to be. When people mention me in the same breath as him, it’s something I never get tired of hearing. Maybe how we’re different is that he’s a bigger body, not as tall, but he’s wider. He plays that hard-nosed game, which I try to do but maybe I don’t do as well as Sid. That’s something I can get better at.”
McDavid is still growing into his personality. And what 20-year-old isn’t? He’s a bit guarded and shy, even in his posture. He speaks softly. He’s slightly measured in his responses. But he also doesn’t say nothing. He invites pressure and comparisons to other greats. He’s a proud person. Even though 100 points wasn’t a must-achieve goal for him in 2016-17, he felt nervous at the end of the season once he realized the milestone was in reach. It was a pride thing, he said. He may not project swagger on the outside yet, but the self-belief and big career aspirations live within him.
He wants to win…badly. His Edmonton Oilers made a tremendous standings leap this past season, reaching the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons and making it to Round 2 before falling to the Anaheim Ducks. And every team he can think of has to lose before it can win, he said. But I mention the idea of the Oilers as a Cup contender in 2017-18, it’s like lighting a match.
“Can I say we’re at the front of the pack? No, because we didn’t win,” McDavid said, with extra emphasis on the word win, like he was still frustrated and feeling the sting of Edmonton’s playoff exit. Even sitting in front of a TV playing video games, he can’t hide his desire to succeed. That bodes extremely well for the Oilers going forward.
It also helps his odds of beating any kind of video game cover curse. Hey, Madden cover boy Tom Brady just spat on the gods with a video in which he walked under ladders and broke mirrors. McDavid won’t go that far but isn’t too worried.
“I don’t think I would do Brady stuff and try to spur the curse on,” he said. “I’m not sure if there’s a huge one for the NHL, but the NFL one seems to be pretty real. “
McDavid is just honored to grace the cover of his favorite childhood toy. It befits a young man who may still be shy in his body language, but who refuses to shy away from greatness. No, he craves it.
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