THERE'S A NEW HEIR IN THE LINE OF TEENAGE HOCKEY ROYALTY THAT RUNS FROM CROSBY THROUGH LEMIEUX AND GRETZKY, AND BACK TO ORR. CONNOR MCDAVID, YOUR THRONE—AND AN OILERS SWEATER—AWAIT
This is an article from the June 29, 2015 issue
IS THIS an interview with a teenage hockey player, or a CIA covert operation? "Sixth floor at 7:15," says the June 7 text from the grim-visaged NHL official whose job at the Stanley Cup finals is to mind and monitor Connor McDavid, the boy with the handsome mug who will soon be the face of the NHL—probably before his mild acne clears up.
Emerging from the elevator on the sixth floor of a downtown Chicago hotel, a reporter takes several wrong turns before locating the Chosen One, who is seated on an out-of-the-way sofa, across from his unsmiling handler. McDavid, draped in a golf shirt, rises and extends a hand. In person he bears more than a passing resemblance to Justin Bieber, although the Biebs, it is only fair to point out, has the more yoked upper body. That McDavid seems somewhat physically ordinary, at first glance, makes his feats on the ice all the more incredible.
The remoteness of the rendezvous, the presence of the league factotum—it seems a bit unnecessary. While his profile is considerably higher in Canada, McDavid could still walk down Michigan Avenue at rush hour and go unrecognized. For now. The NHL draft, starting on June 26 in Sunrise, Fla.—a felicitous locale for teams seeking a fresh start—will mark the beginning of the end of his anonymity in the U.S.
This year's first pick, property of the woebegone Oilers, is the biggest no-brainer since the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes, aka the 2005 NHL draft. Edmonton will take McDavid, a 6'1", 195-pound center with a lefthanded shot honed, since before his third birthday, on the driveway (and in the garage and basement) of his family's Newmarket, Ont., home. Such is McDavid's superabundance of skills, so ridiculous his stats, that even now his plinth is being winched onto a pedestal in the figurative pantheon of the six Canadian junior hockey prodigies to precede him: Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros and Crosby. McDavid, dubbed by Gretzky "the best player to come into the league in the last 30 years," has been referred to in the Canadian press as "the Seventh Son."
MCDAVID IS, in fact, the second son of Brian and Kelly McDavid. Birth order, to hear Brian tell it, played no small role in Connor's development. Brian and Kelly's first son, Cameron, 3½ years older than Connor, was also passionate about hockey, spending many of his waking hours Rollerblading around the garage, stickhandling, practicing his shot. Almost from the time he could walk, "Connor was desperate to join in," Brian says.
Connor joined his brother and, after a few years, surpassed him. Using old paint cans, a spare skateboard and other items from the garage, Connor would set up an obstacle course in the driveway. To the paint cans he would tape cut-down hockey sticks, simulating the gap between the skates and the stick-blade of a defender. He would stickhandle through the course, then take a shot. He would time himself and record those times. In Canada's national mythology McDavid's driveway obstacle course will soon take on a significance similar to the backyard rinks built by Walter Gretzky, who would remind his oldest son, "Go to where the puck is going, not where it has been."
None of which was on Kelly's mind when she would ask her husband, "Would you please get Connor out of the driveway? He's not enjoying his childhood."
"It looks like he's having fun to me," Brian would reply.
"Kids do what they like to do, and that's what I liked to do," says Connor, with a smile. "So that's what I did."
His precocity wasn't limited to the physical realm. Cam played for a house league team. "The local hockey association liked the kids to wear dress shirts and ties to games," Brian recalls. Too young to play, Connor nonetheless insisted on wearing a tie to his brother's games and following him into the dressing room. There, Connor filled water bottles and listened intently to the pregame talks, after which coaches would quiz the players. "Sometimes the older boys didn't know the answer to the question," says Brian, who was an assistant coach, "and Connor would be sitting there with his hand up." He was five.
Even then, McDavid was thinking the game. From his earliest days on the ice he stayed out of the scrum that invariably formed around loose pucks along the boards. "There would be nine kids hacking and whacking at the puck," says Brian, whose son would stand at a slight remove. Go to where the puck is going.... "So it would squirt out, Connor would grab it, race up the ice unimpeded and usually score."
"Some players just play," says Craig Button, the former Flames general manager who is now director of scouting for Canadian sports network TSN. "One of [McDavid's] best qualities is that he's always looking at the game, trying to understand it better, asking, How could I take advantage of that situation? What would I do differently? He's got a brilliant hockey mind."
Button refers to it as "processing speed." (The o in processing, like the wait between generational players, is long, as enunciated by Button.) "In all my years I've never seen his combination of flat-out speed combined with processing speed—the ability to understand what's unfolding around him, where opportunity is, where danger lurks—and then the skills, the ability to execute.
"We talk about Pavel Bure, the Russian Rocket, we talk about Mario Lemieux's fantastic hands and reach, and about Wayne Gretzky's ability to process. I think McDavid combines those three elements in one player."
Yes, but will this Pavio LeGretzky backcheck, once he gets to the NHL? Will he play both ends of the ice? "Watch his games," says Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. "He's one of the first forwards back on the play. He works hard on his play without the puck. He's very responsible. You're never going to label him a two-way forward"—one would just as soon hire Jasper Johns to paint the powder room—"but he can play a two-way game without any issues."
While it may be fun to compare McDavid with stars from bygone eras, it's not useful, says Marr. "When Wayne Gretzky played, the pace of the game was different." Which is his polite way of saying that McDavid, blessed with a jawdropping burst, is faster than the Great One ever was. "The rules have changed, the equipment has changed, the comparisons aren't valid," says Marr. "But for today's game Connor McDavid is the real deal."
That's why they Sabres wanted him so desperately. To improve their chances in the draft lottery, the Buffalo front office methodically stripped the team of assets (trading its starting goaltender, twice, for instance), an exercise dubbed Operation McTank by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Racing the Sabres to the bottom were the Coyotes, who unloaded their two top scorers at the trade deadline, to no avail: Arizona's 56 points, two more than Buffalo's 54, were good for only 29th place. Sabres fans did their part down the stretch, cheering goals by the opposing team, and using the hashtag #TankforMcDavid on social media. Many purchased Buffalo jerseys with McDavid's name on the back. When the Sabres finished last in the standings for the second straight season, everything seemed to be lining up for them. Then, heartbreak: The Oilers, despite holding just an 11.5% chance to get the top pick, as the third-worst team in the league, won the lottery. It was the second year in a row that Buffalo had lost the lottery despite having the best chance at the top pick. As hockey pundit Katie Brown of NHL.com tweeted, "The Buffalo Sabres can't even win at losing."
The second-best player in this year's draft is not exactly a booby prize. As a freshman at Boston University last season, Jack Eichel led the nation in scoring (26 goals, 45 assists) and won the Hobey Baker Award, hockey's Heisman. Like McDavid, the 6'2", 196-pound Eichel is a center, and a "generational" talent. Unlike McDavid, he's a righthanded shot who plays the game with more of a physical edge. Brimming with confidence, Eichel earlier this month shared with several teams at the NHL scouting combine his belief that he will end up being better than McDavid.
As the two brightest young stars in the hockey firmament, McDavid and Eichel have long been linked. The same night in April that Eichel won the Hobey Baker, McDavid scored five goals for the Erie Otters, in a second-round OHL playoff victory over the London Knights. Eichel's quiet boasts at the combine served as a bit of Sriracha on their long-running rivalry, which, as their NHL careers begin, will only get hotter.
"It doesn't bother me," McDavid replied, when asked if Eichel had annoyed him. "He obviously believes in his abilities, and I believe in my abilities. [Reporters] make a bigger deal of it because it's Jack saying that. But it doesn't bother me too much. We'll see what happens."
Translation: It bothers him.
AMONG THE Sabres fans crestfallen by Edmonton's good fortune was one Bob Catalde, a Buffalo transplant now living in Erie, Pa. Catalde, an attorney, is a self-described "hockey person" whose daughter Camryn is named after longtime Bruins power forward Cam Neely. Three years ago Catalde and his wife, Stephanie, opened their home to McDavid, whom the Otters had taken with the first pick in the OHL draft. McDavid had been granted "exceptional player status" from Hockey Canada, allowing him to compete in the league a year early, at the age of 15.
Could this fresh-faced adolescent hack it playing against 17- and 18-year-olds? The suspense didn't last long. Starting with his second game, McDavid had a point in 15 straight matches. He finished the season with 25 goals and 66 points in 63 games, and won the OHL's rookie of the year award. All of which was a kind of orchestral tune-up to the symphony he performed that spring at the 2013 U-18 world championships in Sochi. McDavid scored hat tricks in victories over Sweden and the Czech Republic. With eight goals and six assists, he was the MVP of the tournament while leading Canada to its first gold medal in five years; McDavid and Canada defeated Eichel and Team USA 3--2 in the final. As one NHL scouting director told Sportsnet magazine, "He put the Canadian team on his back and carried it. It was probably the best performance ever by a player at the under-18s."
The success did not seem to go to the prodigy's head. In his spare time, when not in high school or at practice, McDavid could be found in the Catalde family living room, engaged in furious battles of "knee hockey" with Catalde's son, 10-year-old Nico. When his schedule allowed, McDavid would lace up his skates and join Nico at practice with the Erie Lions, the boy's peewee team. "He waits in line and does the drills as if he were one of the players," says Bob, the coach. "Watching him, you'd think there's no place he'd rather be."
"He didn't have to come here," says Otters co-owner Owen McCormick. Erie was beyond awful in 2011--12, going 10-52-3, thus earning the right to select McDavid. "He could've orchestrated a trade. We were the worst team in the league."
Instead, the 15-year-old looked into the TV cameras and described the opportunity to play for the Otters as "an honor." In his second year in the OHL, he led Erie to a 106-point season. In 2014--15 the Otters advanced to the OHL finals, losing in five games to the Oshawa Generals. In spearheading the turnaround, McDavid transformed the Erie Insurance Arena from an oversized mausoleum to a loud, electric destination, full of waving white towels and buzz.
CAN HE do the same for the Oilers? It is a measure of their sustained dreadfulness that they are sitting on their fourth No. 1 pick in the last six years. It's been nine seasons since this once dynastic franchise reached the postseason. But there is hope. Days after the draft lottery, CEO Bob Nicholson axed general manager Craig MacTavish, replacing him with highly regarded ex-Boston GM Peter Chiarelli, whose first big move was to bring in Todd McLellan, a good head coach who'd grown stale after seven mostly successful seasons with the Sharks.
The wages of Edmonton's ineptitude aren't all bad. While its defense is porous—its goaltending is among the worst in the league—the club has stockpiled a handful of gifted young forwards, foremost among them left wing Taylor Hall, the top selection in the 2010 draft, who tweeted his passing preferences to McDavid moments after the lottery: "Hey @cmcdavid97 left shot black tape left side."
Hall, Jordan Eberle (No. 22, 2008), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (No. 1, '11) and Nail Yakupov (No. 1, '12) should be the beneficiaries of McDavid's world-class burst, which Button describes as paradoxical: "He's got the ability to use his speed—this is the paradox—to slow the game down. When he's coming at you, as a defender, you've gotta back off, and when that happens, now he can slow up and canvass the opportunities as other players join the rush." McDavid's knack for toggling between speeds keeps defensemen off-balance. Says Button, "You're never comfortable playing against him."
How comfortable will McDavid be, making his living in the city that Gretzky put on the map? Comparisons with 99 will begin immediately. The savior business could get old, in a hurry.
"My experience in Erie gives me hope that teams aren't always stuck in a rebuilding phase," says McDavid, who seems to welcome the burden he is about to shoulder. As Brian explains, his son's expectations for himself "even exceed" those placed on him by others. "So for Connor, this is not a burden. It's the realization of a dream." It is, as the McDavids like to say, "a great problem to have."