TORONTO — We will look back on this as the moment where Connor McDavid crossed the point of no return.
A broken bone in his right hand may have temporarily brought a record-breaking Ontario Hockey League season to a screeching halt this week, but it also launched him into the national consciousness a little earlier than expected.
Consider the level of analysis and debate that erupted out of McDavid’s decision to fight Mississauga’s Bryson Cianfrone on Tuesday night. We saw NHL players asked to comment on what happened. Entire TV segments were devoted to examining the incident from every angle.
McDavid has certainly received more than his share of attention to date — Sportsnet Magazine put him on the cover a year ago with the headline “Better Than Crosby” — but he had never before been the central subject of such a wide-reaching discussion.
It was bound to happen eventually.
This is a year where he’ll represent Canada at a World Junior Championship in his hometown and likely play in the Memorial Cup. Then McDavid will instantly be labelled as the saviour of whatever NHL team is lucky enough to draft him in June.
We are talking about the most highly touted prospect since Sidney Crosby, who is arguably the only one truly qualified to contextualize what the 17-year-old is currently going through.
For what it’s worth, the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar understands why McDavid dropped the gloves — “I’m sure he’s got a target on his back and it’s not easy sometimes,” Crosby said Thursday — and recalled that his draft year is when the attention truly “went to another level.”
As much as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros all had to deal with tremendous hype, the level of scrutiny on top talents has only increased over time. For Crosby, it was around the stage where McDavid is now that everything basically maxed out.
“How much more can it get? At what point can you say can it really get that much more?” said Crosby. “I’m pretty sure that he’s probably pretty close to that point. He plays close to Toronto, he’s not going to be able to hide that’s for sure.
“That’s just something that I’m sure he’s going to accept, but I think the biggest thing is that he enjoys being a junior hockey player because that’s a fun time in your life.”
McDavid now finds himself with some time to take a step back while recovering from a fracture to the fifth metacarpal bone in his right hand. The Erie Otters expect the injury to heal within six weeks — a timetable that should have him back in action just before the world junior tournament in Montreal and Toronto gets underway.
He had been on a torrid scoring pace before accidentally punching the boards during his fight with Cianfrone.
In fact, it looked as if McDavid was going to challenge the OHL record of 192 points after putting up 51 (!) over his first 18 games. That body of work already included eight four-point nights.
Crosby had a chance to meet the young prospect after a Penguins game last season and has casually followed his progress from afar.
“I haven’t seen many highlights and stuff, but I know he’s having a great year,” he said. “That’s good. You want to hear that because it’s not easy handling all of (the expectations). So I’m glad that he’s doing well.”
Even though McDavid’s season is now on hold, there should still be plenty of opportunity to make it a memorable one. The Canadian world junior team is seeking its first gold since 2009 and the Otters are sporting a league-best 16-1-0-1 record.
A championship or two would certainly be a nice way to top off his junior career.
As for Crosby, he feels both excitement for the career McDavid can look ahead to and empathy for the scrutiny he’ll be under. The months leading up to the NHL draft are awfully “hectic” when you’re a generational talent.
“It’s hard not to think ahead because everyone’s asking you about it,” said Crosby. “(Then there’s) the comparisons and the expectations and you have world juniors, which is awesome. It’s a pretty big balancing act, so I think the more you can just kind of stay in that bubble in junior I think you’re better off. …
“Some of my best friends in my life I played junior hockey with, it’s a fun time. So I think just enjoy that because it goes by real quick.”
Especially when the spotlight is on.