The Arrival: Connor McDavid's ascension was guided by the forces of NHL greatness

1:00 | NHL
NHL's Most Iconic Moments, No. 4: 50 in 39
Monday March 6th, 2017

This story appears in the March 6, 2017, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.

Sixteen stories above downtown Los Angeles, Connor McDavid settles into an egg-shaped easy chair in a suite at the JW Marriott. It’s the last Friday in January, and the Oilers’ center is in town for his first NHL All-Star Game. Was this not what the prophets foretold? That he’d be an MVP candidate at 20 years old? The league leader in points and assists? Youngest captain in league history? A human bullet train, chugging toward hockey immortality? 

“This is what I’ve been wanting to do since I was very, very young,” he says. “I expected. . . .” His voice trails off. Fame has made him wary of implying even the slightest shred of arrogance. “No, I can’t say I expected this, but you’re working toward it and hoping for it. It’s definitely something I’ve dreamt of.”

A little understatement from McDavid is fine. More-qualified witnesses can be called to testify on his behalf—real recognize real, as the kids might say. Take Mike Bossy, the leading goal scorer of the Islanders’ dynasty in the 1980s. In town to be honored among the NHL’s 100 greatest players later that night, Bossy found McDavid in the hotel hallway and extended a pink notebook; his granddaughter wanted an autograph. Or take none other than Bobby Orr, who runs the agency that represents McDavid: “He’s one of those that comes along every once in a while.”

NHL
Connor McDavid’s full-speed approach keying sophomore success with Oilers

Tracing the lineage of Canadian junior hockey phenoms in the NHL’s expansion era can seem like a biblical exercise. In the beginning, there was Bobby. Bobby begat Guy Lafleur, who begat Wayne Gretzky, who begat Mario Lemieux, who begat Eric Lindros, who begat Sidney Crosby, who begat . . . well, one website specializing in McDavid gear calls itself the Church of McJesus.

The succession of power players has always been a graceful one. As a teen, Gretzky relished chatting up Gordie Howe. As Lindros bulldozered Canadian juniors in the 1990s, his parents were soliciting advice from Orr’s about rearing a prodigy. After the Penguins drafted Crosby, he lived with Lemieux for eight years. “I’m sure it’s the same thing when you go from Magic and Bird to Jordan,” says Jeff Jackson, McDavid’s primary agent and a former NHLer. “There’s a camaraderie with the players that transcends different eras.”

And whenever that next supernatural talent comes along—in hockey, basketball or any other sport—even the all-time greats cannot help but conduct historical hypotheticals. Take one certain reverie that often enters Gretzky’s mind. “Wow,” he thinks, “I wish I could see Connor and Bobby skate at [age] 20 together, just to see the comparison.”

***

When McDavid was 14, just months before he was granted exceptional status to enter the Ontario Hockey League a year early, he was invited to attend a Toronto-area hockey camp run by the Orr Agency Group. Rumor had it that Orr would make an appearance, but the days passed and he hadn’t shown. Anticipation built up among the attendees, particularly McDavid. “I was so nervous,” he says. That is, until Orr finally arrived and promptly squeezed McDavid into a headlock. “But that’s the kind of guy he is,” McDavid says. “He’s so warm, so loving. He made it so there was no star-struck phase.”

With the barriers between Hall of Famer—the best ever, in many eyes—and bedazzled teenager knocked down, a mentorship developed. The 68-year-old legend and the 20-year-old prodigy talk often now, but rarely about hockey. Orr texts reminders to eat more vegetables or get enough sleep. Other times he calls just to gauge how McDavid is feeling. “He’s Bobby Orr—he’s been through it all,” McDavid says. “Whatever he says, you listen. If you ask a question, you’re dying to hear the answer, trying to figure out any piece of information that made him successful.”

There is really only one subject to which Orr cannot relate. He debuted in the NHL during the 1966–67 season, the last of the Original Six era. “I think I was on the cover of Maclean’s magazine [at McDavid’s age],” Orr says. “But we didn’t have all the networks, all the newspapers. We didn’t have at all what they have to face today.”

McDavid has already spent most of his young life two-stepping with the pressure of celebrity. “Every Hockey Canada event, the first day you just do a thousand interviews,” he says. “You get used to it.” When he played for the Erie Otters of the OHL, the junior team hired private security for road trips because McDavid was selling out every rink. 60 Minutes Sports filmed a segment leading into the 2015 draft, where Edmonton picked him first overall. During All-Star week in Los Angeles, an assistant from Orr Agency Group helped monitor McDavid’s appearance schedule (and posted updates on his Facebook page). 

In his own room at the JW Marriott, Orr beams like a proud grandfather, cheeks creasing into a smile. “Let me tell you,” he says as he, honest to goodness, starts growling like a hungry hyena. “The kid, they’re after him. Grrrrr. But he handles everything so well. He drives himself. He’ll be fine.”

NHL
‘It changed my life:’ Wayne Gretzky on the first time he met Gordie Howe

Why so confident? Orr always struck the right balance between boyish charm and icy competitiveness. It’s easy to spot a similar spirit in McDavid. He can be self-deprecating, joking with friends about his “gummy smile.” He can be delightfully spontaneous, like when he assembled a racing sled at Edmonton’s facility one afternoon earlier this season and asked several Oilers to go tobogganing after practice. Then again, McDavid once lamented to his mother that some teammates weren’t taking the game seriously enough after hearing them chitchatting about cartoons. He was seven years old. “Anytime you see him on the bench, he’s straight-faced,” says Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse. “I’ve never seen him with a different emotion.”

And as with Orr, personal matters are preferably kept private. When asked what their conversations entail, McDavid balks: “I don’t want to go into detail. It doesn’t matter what we talk about.” Pressed, he allows a little. “Just about life, more than anything,” McDavid says. “He knows that I have a pretty good understanding of the hockey world and that kind of thing.”

This is accurate. The main reason Orr feels little need to talk breakouts or backchecks? “What are you going to tell him to do on the ice?” he asks. “What are you going to change?”

***

The timing was impeccable. Orr retired after the 1978–79 season with eight Norris Trophies, three MVPs, two Stanley Cups and two battered knees. The following season the NHL welcomed an eminently marketable 19-year-old from Ontario, who captured imaginations with a style yet unseen. 

By operating below the goal line, using the net to pick—and pick apart—opponents, Gretzky revolutionized hockey. Today, as partner and vice chairman of Oilers Entertainment Group, Gretzky says he hasn’t missed a game this season, whether watching from home or tagging along for the occasional road trip. When number 99 studies number 97—“pretty intently,” he says—he spies similar pioneering elements.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

“What Connor does differently than anybody else,” Gretzky says, “is he pushes the puck. It’s like kicking a soccer ball ahead, you’ll run faster than if you dribble it. I think he’s going to change minor hockey. We’re creatures of habit. We want to be the best. The best right now is a player who very rarely stickhandles in the neutral zone.”

McDavid went pointless through his first two NHL games in October 2015, both Oilers losses. “Don’t get me wrong, he was very good, but he would defer to the veteran players,” Edmonton coach Todd McLellan says. That lasted barely a week. McDavid notched his first goal against Dallas in his third game, and then had four goals and seven assists over the following 10, before a broken collarbone sidelined him for three months. “He gave himself permission to go [after those first two games],” McLellan says. “He took over and became what he is now.’ ”

And what is that? For starters, McDavid is the main reason the Oilers, who were in second in the Pacific Division through Sunday, are poised to make their first postseason appearance since 2005–06. “All of that centers on 97,” says Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson. “He deserves a ton of credit.”

He’s also the NHL’s most captivating, hair-raising playmaker on the rush since . . . heck, maybe Orr. He has drawn 39 penalties, by far the most in the league, many of them stick infractions committed by opponents who helplessly flail at the orange-and-blue blur zipping past. 

NHL
Legend-filled NHL All-Star festivities a thrill for Bobby Orr

Picture a defenseman, skating backwards to mark McDavid as he carries the puck. Now draw an imaginary triangle, connecting the defenseman’s feet with the blade of his outstretched stick. What McDavid does next almost seems like cheating. “He stickhandles the puck in your triangle so you have a hard time seeing it and a hard time getting to it,” says Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, a fellow Orr client and the No. 1 pick in 2014. “It’s close, and yet so far. There’s no match for it.” 

“If you’re putting the puck in an awkward place for someone,” McDavid says, “that’s right away, Advantage: you.”

On Jan. 25, Gretzky ran into McDavid’s maternal grandparents, Peter and Margo McNamara, at a restaurant across the street from the Honda Center in Anaheim, where the Oilers would play the Ducks that evening. Recognizing them, Gretzky invited the couple to join him and his two sons. “I pull for Connor every night to get eight or nine points,” he told them. “I hope he breaks some of my records. I want to see him excel to a point where people go, ‘Oh, my God, this guy’s better than Wayne Gretzky.’”

Of course, this wasn’t the first time the Great One had so assuredly anointed a successor. Fourteen years ago, when asked if he foresaw anyone reaching his 894 goals, or 1,963 assists, or 2,857 points, Gretzky had replied, “Yes. Sidney Crosby.”

****

Crosby was a layup for the oracles too. By the time he was 19, he had won the first of two Hart Trophies. He had the first of two Stanley Cups by 21, and the first of two Olympic gold medals by 22. He, along with Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, lifted the league from the malaise of the 2004–05 lockout, and Crosby remains its biggest attraction today. Even though he missed six games to start the season with a concussion, he trailed McDavid by only five points through Sunday (74 to 69). “Sid still wears the crown,” Orr says. “He’s earned that. That’s a good target for Connor.”

It always has been. As a kid McDavid unwrapped Penguins jerseys at Christmas, tacked Crosby posters onto his bedroom wall, collected number 87 bobbleheads. “One day he asked if we could write a letter to Sidney Crosby to ask him how he deals with all the pressures,” says Kelly McDavid, Connor’s mother. “He felt this weight on him that he wanted to be just like Sidney and wanted to know how he did that.” Crosby was 15 at the time; McDavid was five.

The following year Crosby was sprinkled by Gretzky’s prodigy pixie dust. Since then he has come to understand better than anyone the power of proclamation. Which is why it was with careful consideration that in 2012, upon watching a 15-year-old McDavid in Erie, Crosby declared, “He reminded me of myself.”

NHL
The Seventh Coming: Connor McDavid's hockey throne awaits

After this year’s All-Star Game skills competition, in which McDavid (13.310 seconds) broke Mike Gartner’s 21-year-old record (13.386) for the swiftest lap around the rink from a standstill, Crosby was asked to reflect on his scouting report, now five years old. “It was his style,” Crosby says. “He’s not the biggest guy, likes to distribute the puck. So there are things I saw that were similar. But he’s far and away the fastest guy I’ve seen.”

There are other similarities, too. In 2007, Crosby became the youngest captain ever, a recognition he held until Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog got the 'C' in ’12. Then Oilers brass conducted informal polls at the end of last season. According to McLellan, “easily the majority” of players supported McDavid’s ordination, which was made official in October when he was 19 years, 266 days old. 

And with all due respect to the rest of the rising class of Canadian-based players—Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, Toronto’s Auston -Matthews, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau—McDavid is the natural heir to the national obsession. “He knows he is the face of the Edmonton Oilers,” Gretzky says of McDavid. “He is going to be the face of the National Hockey League.”

For now Crosby and McDavid easily coexist, in opposite conferences, skating on parallel planes of excellence. Crosby may still wear the crown, but McDavid has entered the throne room. This truth seems airtight, as inescapable as a headlock. 

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.