McDavid the main event for sellout OHL crowds

Connor McDavid (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

BARRIE, Ont. – And on the 26th night, he got shutout, more or less.

They packed the Barrie Molson Centre for the opportunity to see the latest Canadian Hockey Jesus. The came to see Connor McDavid’s travelling hockey wonderment revival show.

He didn’t exactly disappoint. Even if he only extended his OHL scoring streak to 26 games on the strength of an empty-net goal with 18 seconds left there wasn’t a shift he played that didn’t produce some version of a “wow” moment, great or small.

An 18-year-old comet blazing across the horizon of major junior hockey, McDavid has become the rarest thing in sports: An athlete who can provide memories on demand.

The Barrie Colts draw well most Saturday nights after Christmas anyway, but this game sold-out three months ago. And how many times in the fiercely provincial barns of the OHL do they raffle off an autographed jersey of the star on the other team?

It’s the same story across the league. A year ago the Otters played in Mississauga on Family Day and the Hershey Centre was perhaps a third full. It was sold out last month. The Kingston Frontenacs set an attendance record this season thanks to McDavid. Bars and restaurants around the Molson Centre had 30 minute waits for tables before the game Saturday.

“It’s a little different,” McDavid said. “You’re not used to playing in front of sold-out crowds, necessarily. It’s always nice when the buildings are getting packed. It’s good for the league. It’s all good, I guess.”

This is Canada, we’re measured even in our hero worship. But as the junior career of the greatest draft eligible player most have seen since Sidney Crosby was struggling with his French in Rimouski makes a turn for home and his eventual coronation at the NHL draft, there is an urgency to see boy who would be King – or more accurately: Sabre, Coyote, Oiler or Leaf.

“For sure there’s a Connor McDavid effect,” said Barrie Colts media relations manager Andrew Cunningham. “Even working with [2014 No.1 overall pick and former Colt] Aaron Ekblad the last few years I haven’t seen any hype like this for a game … he’s selling out rinks across the OHL.”

McDavid’s tipped from a kid who might be great to a sure-fire superstar. The 51 points in 18 games he rang up before breaking his hand on Nov. 11 got the ball rolling. Stepping into the glare of the World Junior tournament at Christmas having not played in seven weeks and tying for the scoring lead was more fuel, and what the Otters centre has done lately, with his game legs under him, is part of a bonfire that keeps growing.

Prior to the Otters' 5-3 win over Barrie, McDavid had racked up 20 points (9 goals, 11 assists) in his previous five games, including hanging five points on the Colts on Wednesday night’s 10-5 win in the opening leg of their home-and-home.

It’s the kind of run that has peeled back any hesitancy about making comparisons that typically bring with them all nature of qualifying statements for fear of some kind of Karmic reckoning. The cautious qualifiers are out the window. It’s on.

“Just watching video, doing pre-scouts, there’s no one else like him,” said Colts coach Dale Hawerchuck, who scored 103 points as an NHL rookie after he was the first pick in the 1981 draft. “Whenever he gets into a certain area, I’m like ‘Ah, shit.’ Guys try to over-cover him, they get consumed with it. Two guys try to do the job and he finds the wide-open guy.

“He’s a generational player,” he said. “For a scorer like this, you’re looking at Crosby, Gretz, Lemieux. He’s following that same road.”

And so you don’t want to miss him.

Otters owner Sherry Bassin is 75 years old and has been in the game long enough to know first-hand about Gretzky and Lemieux and Yzerman and Sakic. He knows he won’t have another player like McDavid.

“I’ll be sitting with NHL general managers and scouts and they’ll say: 'Did you see that?' And I say, 'yeah, about 100 times we’ve seen it,'” says Bassin. “He gets five points and you don’t even think about it. I don’t like to make comparisons, but I’ve been around Lemieux and Yzerman and without question he’s in that company.

“I even choke up about it. I mean, that’s what the cycle is in junior hockey, you prepare them for the next level. You appreciate him for his ability, but I appreciate him as a person too. Emotionally it’s hard for me because I’m going to miss him."

As mentioned, Saturday night wasn’t one for fireworks. That McDavid lit up the Colts just a few nights before inspired some additional attention in what was a fairly taut game between the leaders of their respective divisions.

But as always with the very best it’s what they do in between the highlights that explains the most. Others get their passes picked off or deflected when they try to put them through traffic; McDavid’s seem to find a way – a gentle sauce over out-stretched sticks if needed one moment; a crisp no-look number the next. Faking one pass; shifting the angle of the ice a little bit and finding a lane to get the puck to the far point another time.

Then there are the near highlights – twice in the first period he broke in 1-on-1 on a Colts defenceman and managed to slide the puck through his legs or under his stick, and then sneak by him the instant the panic set in. No goals, but some head-shaking skill.

Even better are the little incremental plays that wow you only if you’re really paying attention; dragging an errant pass from skate-to-stick at full speed, or breaking in alone only to drop a pass weighted as deftly as a curling stone so it reaches his supporting winger just as he arrived at the blue line.

As the temperature of the game got turned up in the third with the teams tied 3-3, McDavid was perfectly ready for the heavier going, creating a golden chance by knocking a defender clean off the puck in the Barrie zone and then a moment later using leverage it wasn’t clear he had to win position in front of the crease before sliding the puck across the net, just missing a teammate waiting for the redirect.

From a distance it’s easy to assume that McDavid is making up for the games he lost after breaking his hand in his ill-advised fight. His recent surge has him with a hairsbreadth of matching Crosby’s point-per-game totals in his draft year. He’s got five games left to make up the 12 points he trails the London Knights' Mitchell Marner for the OHL scoring title.

He’s says that’s not on his radar.

“I don’t pay attention to that. If you do you’re going to get caught up in it and your game will start to slide,” he said. “I just try to worry about myself and make sure I’m doing my thing each and every night that’s all you can really worry about.”

He’s got bigger goals in mind. He knows his days in junior hockey are numbered too. He wants his three years in Erie to stand for something beyond point totals and gaudy pre-draft hype.

“There’s only a couple of things you can really think about and that’s an OHL championship and maybe a Memorial Cup,” he says. “Anything other than that would be a little bit disappointing.”

We can only hope the ride last that long.