TORONTO — Connor McDavid is a boy skating among men, a body begging to get bullied off the puck. Here is a kid accustomed to cutting circles around his opponents — averaging a goal and an assist per game just a season ago — needing to bust his legs just to stay with the play. A guy who only eight months ago became old enough to apply for a driver’s licence snapping shots against a William Jennings-winning NHL goaltender.
In his first Team Roberts scrimmage at BioSteel Camp, McDavid looks gassed in quick-shift, four-on-four play with the talented pros here to get ripped and ready before NHL training camps open in a couple weeks.
The centre leads a rush alongside the Buffalo Sabres’ Cody Hodgson, 23, and Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele, 20, setting up a scoring chance. Later, McDavid hustles on the back-check and strips another NHLer of the puck. He scores on a deke. On other shifts, however, he’s invisible. The puck never gets to his stick.
Though far from dominant, the 5-foot-11, 175-pound McDavid can hang.
“It was kinda hard to keep up,” he admits afterward. “Guys aren’t going too hard on me — it’s not a game — but just battling for the puck with them, you can tell how strong they are on their skates. It’s something for sure I have to work on.”
McDavid is here at the exclusive BioSteel Camp at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College — mixing it up with the likes of Brian Elliott, James Neal, David Clarkson, Stephen Weiss and Wayne Simmonds — because, once again, he has been granted exceptional status. Not by the Ontario Hockey League, which last year allowed him rare entrée to Junior A at age 15, but by his training guru, Gary Roberts.
“Some (NHL) guys couldn’t make it, so Gary asked me to come in, and obviously I jumped at the opportunity,” McDavid said Wednesday. “Before you’d go to training camp to get in shape. Now all summer you’re training to stay in shape. You can tell these guys are at their peak this summer. They’ve never been bigger, never been faster.”
This is McDavid’s second summer as a protege of Roberts, the Deepak Chopra of attaining a holistic hockey body. Roberts believes young players fall into the trap of devoting too much of their summer to on-ice practice instead of building their strength and speed through gym and outdoor workouts.
“He’s looking like a deer in the headlights right now,” Roberts told Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “You put him alongside guys like Steve Stamkos or James Neal to see the way they work and see the kind of pros they are — it’s an unbelievable experience for Connor at his age to be around those guys, and I truly believe it’s going to wear off.”
This summer, Stamkos hit the gym in the Roberts-led group just before McDavid’s. Young Connor would arrive and sneak a peak at what the 60-goal scorer had accomplished.
“Every morning I’d come in and if it’s a trap bar or a dead-lift day, I’ll check the bar to see what he’s lifted. It seemed like it was record-setting every time, so it was a cool experience to have this summer,” McDavid said. “Working with guys like James Neal and Steven Stamkos — those guys are unbelievable physical specimens. If I can do what they do…”
It’s a sentence the projected No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft will have to finish later.
For the immediate future, McDavid must get back to the business of winning. As an OHL rookie, the Newmarket, Ont., native bumped Tim Connolly from the Erie Otters’ record book, his 66 points in 63 games setting a franchise record for rookie scoring and earning him the league’s Rookie of the Year honours. But the 19-40-4 Otters failed to make the playoffs — a concept foreign to a kid used to championship games his whole hockey life.
“I’ve never been on a losing team,” McDavid said. “Growing up I played on York Simcoe (Express, a AAA club), the (GTHL’s Toronto) Marlies — teams that won championships or are at least in the final game. Being in the bottom of the standings isn’t something I’m used to.”
Though you wouldn’t know it by his effort — McDavid scored four points against the Guelph Storm in the Otters’ final, meaningless game — the frustration ate at him.
“It sucks going into games and losing by a couple goals, but at the same time it was good for me,” McDavid said, spinning the situation like a pro. “Every athlete needs to learn to lose. They say in golf you’re not going to win a major until you’ve lost a lot of tournaments. So I hope that’s what happens to me.”
Because his OHL opponents held a significant age and size advantage, McDavid believes expectations were low heading into 2012-13. Now that he’s played at better than a point-per-game pace and captured a hunk of hardware, however, the pressure is on.
“I gotta be better than last year. I’m a little nervous, to be honest, about the expectations, but at the same time I’m looking forward to it,” McDavid said. “Playing against guys five years older than you takes its toll on your body. This summer it’s really important to get bigger and get faster, and I think I’ve done that.”
That’s not just good news for the Otters but for Canada. Earlier this month, before getting his wisdom teeth yanked, McDavid participated in his country’s junior team development camp — a first step towards becoming just the sixth Canadian 16-year-old to suit up as a world junior. The other five? Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, Jason Spezza and Jay Bouwmeester.
“World juniors is something you dream of,” McDavid said of the under-20 championship in Malmo, Sweden. “I think I have a shot, but whoever gets chosen to represent Team Canada I’m sure will do a great job.”
The risk here is to look at a high school kid and get ahead of ourselves, but, man, is it tempting. Gretzky and Crosby have already voiced their support of McDavid, and when he walks away from the microphones Wednesday, a man turns to a friend and whispers, “That’s the next one.” Surely that phrase has been uttered more than once after McDavid leaves a room.
“It’s special for me to have an opportunity to work with players like him,” Roberts said in his radio interview. “He’s a good kid, he comes from a great family, and I truly believe his head’s on the right place and he’s going to be a star to watch for in the future.”
In the meantime, the future needs time to bulk up, to prepare. Diet, notoriously, is crucial to Roberts — a 47-year-old rock of man who presumably subsists on kale, lean protein, and the blood of Hercules. McDavid admits it’s difficult to stick to a Gary-approved menu.
“Fast food. I love it. All my friends eat it back home, so it’s pretty hard when you get that text: ‘Let’s go grab some food,’” McDavid says, “but all my friends understand I got another agenda.”