Oilers hope McDavid can restore franchise's glory days
EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) Minutes before Connor McDavid hit the ice for practice, members of the newly formed Edmonton Oilers' brain trust were already in their seats some 20 rows up in Section 116 at Rexall Place.
It was early July and just the second day of the Oilers' rookie orientation camp. McDavid - as he had done throughout his junior career in Erie, Pennsylvania - was once again drawing a crowd that included new general manager Peter Chiarelli, new coach Todd McLellan and new team President Bob Nicholson.
There might have been 30 other prospects on hand, but most eyes were on the 18-year-old forward wearing an orange jersey with the No. 97 stitched on the back.
''The focus isn't solely on him,'' McLellan said. ''But it's hard not to have your eyes find 97 to see what he's up to.''
McDavid's hard to miss, and a reason why the Oilers seem suddenly poised for a revival after missing the playoffs for nine consecutive seasons - the NHL's longest active drought. It's a stretch in which they're now on their sixth coach, fourth GM, and seven times finished no better than 12th in the Western Conference.
Alberta's capital has been buzzing since April when the Oilers bucked the odds by winning the NHL draft lottery, jumping two spots for the right to pick first for the fourth time in six years. The prize this time was McDavid, hailed by many as a once-in-a-generation talent.
Here, finally, was an opportunity to revive a once-proud team that had lost its way since Wayne Gretzky and then Mark Messier were essentially sold off because the small-market franchise could no longer afford them in the NHL's pre-salary-cap era.
''I'm very McHappy now,'' one Oilers fan said during a television interview the night McDavid was drafted.
Someone changed the name on the sign of Edmonton's Connors Road to ''Connor McDavid.'' And everyone seems to have a ''where were you?'' moment in recalling the night the Oilers won the lottery.
''I was in Calgary, staying at a hotel with a buddy of mine watching,'' said 40-year-old Shawn Borbandy, who wore a McDavid jersey while shopping for a second one for his dad inside the West Edmonton Mall.
''I'm up off my stool. I'm swearing and jumping around. I had to apologize to the bar manager. And then you stop and you pinch yourself,'' Borbandy said. ''You go from a franchise that's been a laughing stock of the NHL for nine years - nine years. And he's going to turn everything around.''
The expectations are sky high in an oil and cattle town that once proclaimed itself as ''The City of Champions.'' It was an apt label during a heady run from 1978 to 1993, when the Oilers and Canadian Football League Eskimos - who once featured Warren Moon at quarterback - combined to win 12 championships.
Hardly a whisper has been heard from either since, and especially the Oilers. Hanging in the arena rafters are 22 banners spanning the 1982-83 to 1991-92 seasons commemorating five Stanley Cup championships and various Presidents, conference and division titles.
And then there's a 23rd and final banner from the 2005-06 season, when the Oilers won the West title before losing the Cup final in Game 7 to Carolina.
McDavid wasn't born when the Oilers last won the Cup in 1990, and yet the Oilers' rich history isn't lost on the suburban Toronto native. Each time he enters or exits the locker room, he must pass the glass-enclosed display case housing five shining silver Stanley Cup replicas.
''Pressure is something I've been dealing with for a long time,'' McDavid said. ''It's something I'm comfortable with. Obviously, this is a whole different monster to deal with.''
''Yeah, I don't know. I was trying to think of the first word that popped into my head,'' McDavid said, smiling. ''Obviously, it's a bigger step. This isn't junior hockey anymore. This isn't even the World Juniors. This is the NHL. So there's a lot more going on.''
McDavid joins a young, talented group that already features former first-round picks such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall. Though goaltending remains a question mark, the Oilers added veteran depth by signing defenseman Andrej Sekera and forward Mark Letestu in free agency.
The centerpiece of hope is McDavid, the ultra-talented, smooth-skating playmaker who scored 44 goals and 120 points in just 47 regular-season games last year.
''It's an exciting time. Obviously the last couple of years haven't gone the way that they necessarily would want to be,'' McDavid said. ''But there's such a bright future for them. I'm just trying to do everything I can to make the team.''
Humility aside, there's no question that McDavid is expected to make an immediate impact this season.
''Do I expect Connor McDavid to play here in Edmonton? I do,'' McLellan said, looking ahead to October. ''Based on his skillset, his past, the high expectations that have been put on him at other levels, he's been able to attain that. We expect him to push for a job here and play on our hockey club.''
The key is maintaining a realistic sense of perspective, given the McDavid-mania taking place around town.
''We can't go from A to M and skip all the letters in the alphabet. That would be dangerous,'' McLellan said. ''We have to keep it real. I hope the people in Edmonton and the hockey world keep that excitement level up, because it forces us to execute and keeps us on our toes.''
Though the Oilers are building a new arena and office/entertainment complex downtown that's set to open for the 2016-17 season, there are reminders of their glory days. There's a bronze Gretzky statue outside their current arena, which is located off Wayne Gretzky Drive. There's also a Mark Messier Trail.
One of the lone holdovers from the 1980s heyday is Tony's Pizza Palace, a family-style restaurant and lounge where Oilers greats hung out.
''I was the luckiest kid in the world, my dad knowing these guys,'' said Sal Mazzotta, who took over the family business after his father, Tony, retired 15 years ago. ''There was a buzz here like you don't know.''
The trouble is, that buzz long ago faded even though the next generations of Oilers players, including Nugent-Hopkins, have made their way through his door. Much of the Oilers' signed memorabilia that once hung on the restaurant's walls was stolen after being placed in storage during a renovation - and the losing seasons have added to the misery.
''I'm telling you right now, I kind of lost my love for hockey the last four, five years,'' Mazzotta said, noting some Oilers fans have switched allegiances. ''It's because people have either forgotten what it was like to win, or they just tired of losing. Or a combination.''
That mood changed in April thanks to McDavid.
''We need this. It's like an injection,'' said Mazzotta, who has envisioned the moment McDavid might come in for a bite. He's wondered if he might start a McDavid-era collection of Oilers memorabilia worth putting on his walls.
There's only so much of the past the Oilers can lean on, said McLellan, who takes over after seven seasons in San Jose.
''Our group, the now group, the today group is about creating its own history,'' McLellan said. ''We can be very proud, and we should be proud of everything that's happened in the past. But the past does not drive the future. We've got to drive our own future.''