The Next Next Next One

Every generation produces a prodigy tapped to be the new face of hockey. So here comes Connor McDavid, who at 16 looks like the heir to Orr, Gretzky and Crosby
May 20, 2013

BIG BOARD

A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING DRAFT PROSPECTS

Tucked in the crevice against a side wall of a garage in the Toronto suburb of Newmarket are the baubles of genius, a deep vein of tennis balls and plastic pucks. The nook was born of necessity, after brothers Connor and Cameron McDavid had pummeled the wall into submission by using it as the backstop for their shooting practices. A few years ago their father, Brian, built a thick reinforced-plywood barrier in front of the battered drywall, and the three-inch gap between the two now holds a rich deposit of the errant shots that have ricocheted and settled there ever since. "Imagine what's behind that wall," says Connor. Adds Cameron, who at 20 is older by four years, "Someday we'll look back there and find a treasure trove".

In 2015, when Connor, a 5'11", 175-pound center, is eligible for the NHL draft, some lucky general manager is liable to feel the same way. In the 47 years since an 18-year-old Bobby Orr joined the Bruins, hockey's teenage game changers have come out of Canada at fairly regular intervals of once every decade or so: Wayne Gretzky (1978), Mario Lemieux ('84), Eric Lindros ('92) and Sidney Crosby (2005), iconic prodigies who not only lifted their teams but also the game itself. "Connor is a cut above superstar," says TSN analyst Craig Button, a former NHL G.M. and an esteemed draft guru. "He's a franchise-defining player, the first one since Crosby. If I could pick him right now in this year's draft, I'd choose him Number 1."

Back in March 2012, for only the third time in history, the Ontario Hockey League granted McDavid, then 15, exceptional player status, waving the league's minimum age requirement and allowing the moribund Erie Otters (who had won just 10 of their 68 games in 2011--12) to select him first overall. In Sochi, Russia, at the recent U18 world championship, McDavid was chosen as the tournament MVP after he led Canada to the gold medal. "I haven't seen someone like Connor in a long, long time," raves Orr. "The way he sees the ice, lays passes, does so many things well."

Orr, it needs to be said, owns the agency that represents McDavid. His praise should be taken as the opinion of one with a vested interest in building the boy up. But what he's saying isn't all that far from what everybody else is saying. Including Crosby. "He reminded me of myself," the Penguins star said last October of seeing McDavid play.

When it comes to praise for McDavid, you have to consider the source.

WHEN BRIAN MCDAVID took his son for his first glide on the ice, three-year-old Connor waved off his dad's hand and began skating with big strides, just as he had when he was first put on roller skates in the house. I've got this, thanks. A year later Brian and his wife, Kelly, fudged Connor's age by a year to allow him to play hockey with a group of five-year-olds. At Cameron's games a few years later, Connor would listen to the coach's pregame speech, and then, instead of going off into the corner to play with other kids, he would sit in the stands with Kelly, dissecting the game's details for her whenever she missed a play.

Brian, who coached several of Connor's teams from 2001 to '09, recalls watching his younger son wait for pucks to squirt free from scrums so he could dash off on breakaways. "Kids that age have a pack mentality, always surrounding the puck," says Brian. "[But] even then, he was going to where he knew the puck would be instead of where it was."

In the boy's bedroom, where a plastic Maple Leafs scoreboard is affixed to an overhead light fixture and Crosby is represented by posters and bobbleheads, Connor would align action figures on the floor in a makeshift oval, creating plays and moving men around. In his driveway he made obstacle courses out of old paint cans and broken sticks and would slalom through them before darting into the garage to fling shots at a net, sprinting over to a stopwatch he'd left by the goal to check his efficiency.

The artifacts from McDavid's endless practice sessions are everywhere around the family home. The swatch of plywood left unprotected by the barrier looks as if it had been set upon by a family of woodpeckers. Two goals in the backyard are now just dented iron and punctured mesh—one net lost its middle support bar after being struck with a blistering shot. The cans used for the obstacle course still sit near the garage wall.

McDavid's devotion to practice paid off. Orr noticed the boy's hands during a camp sponsored by his agency, The Orr Hockey Group, in Aurora, Ont., three years ago. McDavid was the youngest of 35 invitees, and Orr quickly zeroed in on the boy who was flipping pucks over sticks, making them land flat so he could recover them, then pivoting and repeating the drill in the other direction. "I couldn't believe those hand drills" Orr recalls. "I couldn't have done them. Really little guy, but pop-pop-pop, he just had a feel for it." When McDavid spotted a sign on the sideboards, he wristed pucks at the letters, one-by-one, then did the same with his backhand.

McDavid is a superstitious creature of excessive regimentation. On game days he wakes at the same time; eats scrambled eggs and a banana for breakfast; packs his equipment bags in the same order, pads and jock on the outside first, warmups in the middle last; goes through the same stickhandling drill; and tapes exactly one stick, always while staring at the ice. "Don't try to make him go out of order," warns Cameron. "It's not fun." On a drive a few years ago to a game in Burlington, Ont., Brian played a burned CD of songs that included Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" and "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden. After Connor scored four goals in the game, Brian had to play the same CD on each subsequent trip. "When I scratched the CD from all the play, I had to make a new one," says Brian. "Same songs. Same order."

Before a regional tournament game in Quebec in 2009, Connor at first declined to have his picture taken with Lemieux because it would disrupt his pregame routine. "I had to carry him out of the locker room to get the photo," Brian recalls. Before Canada's first game at the U18 worlds last month, Connor took a sip of coffee from teammate Morgan Klimchuk's cup. McDavid had a goal and two assists in a 4--1 victory over Slovakia, so he returned before the next game, against Germany, for another sip. "But you hated it!" said an incredulous Klimchuk, an 18-year-old forward. For the remaining five games of the tournament, Klimchuk saved his first sip for McDavid.

McDavid considered waiting to play U.S. collegiate hockey rather than foregoing his NCAA eligibility by joining the OHL, but the two intervening years would be a waste. "Who would he play against before he turned 18?" asks Sherwood Bassin, the Erie G.M. who drafted him in April 2012. "[For him] it would be like playing checkers against a two-year-old." So McDavid moved in with a host family in Pennsylvania and took online courses until he could resume regular 10th-grade classes back home. He scored 66 points in 63 games for the Otters, was the OHL's rookie of the year and surely led the league in interviews and autographs. "Even with all the attention, he still unloads the bus with the other first-year players," says Kris Knoblauch, Erie's coach. "He never asks for star treatment."

Still, the perks and pitfalls of stardom have already come. McDavid has an endorsement deal with Reebok, which began courting him at age 12, when he gave his first newspaper interview. His parents have had to get Facebook and Twitter to take down fake accounts. When Cameron was sitting in an economics class this year at Western University in London, Ont., where he is a sophomore, he saw two students in front of him watching YouTube. "The kid's amazing," one said as he gazed at highlights of Connor.

Nearly every video compilation of McDavid's on-ice exploits includes his favorite goal from last season, which came in a 5--2 loss to the Sarnia Sting on Oct. 27. On the play he intercepted a pass in the high slot, deked on the backhand to his right, around Sarnia defenseman Connor Murphy (the Coyotes' first-round pick in 2011), then swooped back to his forehand, leaving both Murphy and goalie J.P. Anderson sprawled on the ice in opposite directions. "You kind of make one move as you're thinking about the next one," he explains, watching the goal on his laptop. "You see things you can try." McDavid has a solid if unimposing frame, but his stickhandling skills in traffic are dazzling. And he has become adept at swiping pucks off foes' sticks.

Even with McDavid, the Otters again finished last in the OHL's Western Conference. As the season trudged on, the kid got encouragement from some esteemed sources, all doing their part to look out for hockey's future. In February, Lemieux, the Penguins' owner, invited McDavid to watch a game in his private suite in Pittsburgh. Islanders center John Tavares and Oilers center Sam Gagner called to remind him how badly they had struggled as NHL rookies. And this winter, as McDavid was getting into a car with friends—his license allows him to drive only with another driver in the car—his cellphone rang with an area code he didn't recognize. "Connor, it's Wayne Gretzky," the voice said. McDavid was unsure if a friend was punking him.

"Let Connor be a 16-year-old," pleads Orr. "Time will tell if he puts a stamp on the game."

Perhaps that stamp will be McDavid's magic hands, matching Orr's majestic rushes, Gretzky's eagle-eye passes, Lemieux's power, Lindros's physicality and Crosby's balance. The game is eager for the day it gets to look behind the wall.

Wait 'til Next Year

Pierre McGuire looks at 2014's top prospects

Sam ReinhartCenter

The smooth-skating 6-foot, 182-pound 17-year-old captained last month's gold-medal-winning Canadian U18 world championship team. With excellent vision, Reinhart led the Western Hockey League's Kootenay Ice in both goals (35) and assists (50).

Aaron EkbladDefenseman

He's one of four prospects—Islanders center John Tavares (2005), Connor McDavid ('12) and Sean Day ('13) were the others—to be granted exceptional player status by the OHL (in '11). At 6'4", 213 pounds, Ekblad, 17, is an excellent two-way blueliner, scoring seven goals and 34 points for the OHL's Barrie Colts last season.

Jake VirtanenLeft wing

At 6'1" and 190 pounds, he has an enviable mix of strength and speed—the 16-year-old scored 16 goals for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen last season—and, thus, tremendous upside.

SI.COM

For full coverage of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs from Brian Cazeneuve, Sarah Kwak and Allan Muir, visit the Home Ice blog daily at SI.com/NHL

PHOTOCLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGESOTTERMATIC McDavid, who tied for the team lead with 41 assists last season, won't be eligible for the draft until 2015—but many in the NHL say he's good enough to be the No. 1 right now. PHOTOBRENDAN BANNON/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX (MCDAVID)PUSH OF A PRODIGY McDavid honed his considerable talent with hours of improvised drills at his home north of Toronto. PHOTOCLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES (MCDAVID)IN THE SPOTLIGHT With so many eyes on McDavid, Orr pleads that the hockey world should "let Connor be a 16-year-old." PHOTODEREK LEUNG/GETTY IMAGES (REINHART)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)