OSHAWA – Shortly after receiving the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as the most valuable player in the OHL playoffs, Connor McDavid walked off the ice, placed the trophy on two stacked milk crates, and trudged off to the Erie Otters dressing room. And so ended one of the greatest careers in the history of the OHL, if not junior hockey. With a whimper, not a bang.
From the time McDavid gained entry into the OHL as an exceptional player, he has been a rock star, super star and scoring star. He carried the Otters on his back throughout the playoffs, but in the end, could not will his team to victory over the blanket coverage foisted upon him by the Oshawa Generals during the league final. As special a talent as McDavid has been and will be, he simply could not negotiate his way through the red sea of Generals sweaters on his own.
The Generals were able to shut McDavid down for two of the five games in the series, including Game 5 Friday night when the Generals dismantled Erie 6-2 to take the championship. Cole Cassels, a 20-year-old prospect for the Vancouver Canucks, managed to keep McDavid at bay, while a tandem of 21-year-old defensemen – Josh Brown and Dakota Mermis – didn’t allow him near the net. Generally speaking, the Generals made life miserable for McDavid.
“They kind of follow you around a bit,” McDavid understated. “I didn’t take too many strides without someone right behind me or in front of me and they didn’t really let me touch the puck. It’s a credit to them. They did a good job.”
Even though McDavid said he was not fatigued, it’s clear the Generals wore him down throughout the series. By Game 5, McDavid looked gassed for long periods. There were times when he didn’t seem to have the jump he displayed earlier in the series, which was a combination of the Generals not giving him any space and McDavid probably growing weary from having to fight for every inch of the ice.
But McDavid battled to the end. The OHL does not keep track of ice time, but your correspondent tracked his ice time in the third period and McDavid played 13:50 of the 20 minutes. He was out for the final 2:37 of the game when it was out of reach and sat for just nine seconds of the final 3:39. All told, McDavid played 12 shifts in the third period as the Otters desperately tried to get back into the game.
Even though McDavid will leave the bus rides behind and has a world filled with many millions of dollars ahead of him, he was genuinely distraught at the thought of his junior career ending. After the game, he went to each of his teammates and gave every one, to a man (boy), a heartfelt, two-armed hug. When he emerged from the Otters dressing room to address the media after the game, his eyes were glazed and red.
“This team is like my second family,” McDavid said. “I’m so proud of the guys in (the dressing room) and I’m so proud to say that I’m going to be an Erie Otter for the rest of my life.”
McDavid doesn’t have much time to rest, not that the Type-A personality he is would do that anyway. He said he’s intent now on concentrating on finishing his high school year and concentrate on the NHL combine. High school? Sure, sounds great. The NHL combine? Well, suffice to say he could show up there, not do a single pull-up, not bench press his pet cat’s weight and throw up during the CO2 portion of the testing and still be chosen first overall. (And given how Sam Bennett performed in this year’s playoffs, should anyone ever take seriously these combine fitness tests ever again? For a guy who couldn’t do a single pull-up, he turned out to be one heck of a player.)
McDavid caused some raised eyebrows when he said, “it’s up to me,” whether he plays in the NHL next season or not, but later clarified that by saying he means whether he makes the grade next season will depend upon how hard he works this summer. Don’t say pffft. The kid really means it.
Otters coach Kris Knoblauch praised his team for making it to the final, despite not being a popular pick in pre-season prognostications and starting the season with 11 rookies in the lineup. And whether Knoblauch was prepared to admit it or not, much of the reason his team accomplished what it did was because of No. 97.
“For almost 200 games I had the best seat in the house, getting to watch Connor from behind the bench,” Knoblauch said. “I got to see him practice too, and it was a real treat for me.”