Better than Crosby.

KC Armstrong/Sportsnet magazine
October 17, 2013, 10:56 AM

Crosby. Tavares. MacKinnon. They’re all great. But McDavid is doing things never seen before.

On a Friday night before the leaves have turned, you know two things: Somewhere there will be a major-junior hockey game, and it’s going to be messy. On this Friday it’s a particularly messy contest between the Erie Otters, who finished last in the Western Conference last spring, and the host Sarnia Sting, who will empty their stalls early this coming March. You lower expectations when two ordinary teams are not yet in ordinary form. Passes will go awry by 10 feet, scoring chances will be fanned on and fumbled away, two-on-ones will be blown offside. So when the Sting cough the puck up at Sarnia’s blueline early in the second period, it’s business as usual. But when the puck lands on the stick of Connor McDavid a step out from the crease, this becomes, for a few precious moments, a beautiful game.

Pity poor Jeff King, a Sarnia defenceman in the most awful position, that being between McDavid and the goal. That he drapes himself over the baby-faced 16-year-old’s back helps him not a bit. King tries to keep his head up but can’t resist looking down at the ice for the puck. He sees nothing. He tries to lean on McDavid and hold him up. Nothing there, McDavid’s gone. Exactly what McDavid does, he won’t quite be able to put into words. “I honestly don’t know what it was or what you’d call it,” McDavid says after the game. It was a manoeuvre akin to an escape artist disrobing himself from a straightjacket and then helping his assistant on with it. On fast-forward.

McDavid goes around one side of King and the other of Sarnia goaltender Brodie Barrick. He’s skating back to centre before Barrick fishes the puck out of the net, before King looks skyward and before the arena refills with oxygen.

The only ones who don’t register shock are the Otters, because they see it every day in games and practices. They’d offer King consolation if he’d solicit it. “Let’s face it,” said Dylan Strome, a highly touted prospect selected second overall in the OHL draft. “Connor’s the best player in the world for his age. Stuff like that is going to happen.”

Sometimes, maybe not quite half the time, the identity of the top prospect in an NHL draft class is a matter of conjecture or argument. So it was last June with a healthy debate about the relative merits of Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones. An explosive skating forward versus a quarterback on the blueline—room for argument. But every once in a while, the identity of the No. 1 is clear-cut, not just in the kid’s draft year, not even in his underage year, but at age 15, maybe even 14. So it was for Sidney Crosby: Before his first junior game, based on a body of adolescent work, any scout in the business could have told you that he’d go first overall in 2005.

And this is the case of Connor McDavid, son of Brian and Kelly, soon to do for Newmarket, Ont., and the York-Simcoe Express what Crosby did for Cole Harbour, N.S., and the Dartmouth Subways. Soon to be asked about the obstacle course in his driveway he stickhandled through, just as Crosby fielded questions about a puck-dented dryer in his basement. Been a few years since we have seen Crosby’s likes. Will be a few more before we see another McDavid. And it just might be we’ll be talking about how dominant No. 87 was until No. 97 came along.

Back in the spring of 2012, the OHL granted McDavid “exceptional player status,” which allowed him to enter the league’s ’96-birthday junior-entry draft, even though he was born in January of 1997. He put together a compelling case, racking up 79 goals and 209 points in 88 games for the minor-midget Toronto Marlboros. McDavid became the third player granted EPS by Hockey Canada, John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad preceding him. Before hockey authorities got so sticky about underagers playing a young man’s game, others skated in the major-junior ranks before they could apply for a driver’s licence, including Jason Spezza, Denis Potvin and Bobby Orr, who just happens to be McDavid’s agent.

Playing in major junior at 15 isn’t a requisite for stardom—Crosby and Steven Stamkos waited their turn and have done pretty well. It doesn’t guarantee stardom either; witness the experience of Keith Gretzky, who played for the OHL’s Brantford Alexanders at 15 but scored 31 goals in his best junior season and plateaued in the American Hockey League.

On the spectrum of talents, McDavid is the high end, a hue closer to Orr and Potvin. You could start to mount a case around his numbers from his rookie season in Erie (25 goals and 66 points in 63 games) and back it up with a 15-game point streak that started in just his second major-junior game. Throw in the OHL Rookie of the Year award if you want. What cemented the case, though, was the world under-18 tournament in Sochi, Russia, last spring.

Connor McDavid might be the only person in the hockey universe unimpressed by that performance. When asked about the experience, the first thing he goes with is the rote platitude, sincerely expressed. “It was an honour to play for Canada,” McDavid says.

Morgan Klimchuk turned that notion on its head. A first-round pick of the Calgary Flames in June, Klimchuk described the experience of playing on McDavid’s wing in Sochi the way a wide-eyed kid would meeting his hockey hero. “It was an honour to play beside Connor,” he says.

Centring the first line between Klimchuk and Sam Bennett, his former teammate from the Marlboros, McDavid scored hat tricks against Sweden and the Czech Republic and his eight goals and six assists led the tournament in scoring. It seemed like he created offensive chances at every turn. Says Klimchuk: “The one play that sticks out for me was against Sweden. He turned this defenceman [Robert Hagg, a Philadelphia second-rounder] inside-out behind the net. He went to lean on Connor and just hit air. All tournament, I’m thinking, ‘Keep your stick on the ice and he’ll find you.’ So I was in front of the net, moving back to get some room. He didn’t look and I didn’t know for sure that he knew I was there until he just threaded a pass through skates and sticks. He has amazing skills.”

After Canada’s victory over the U.S. in the gold-medal game, McDavid was named the tournament’s MVP. NHL scouts who went to Sochi knew that he had talent but his play with Erie only scratched the surface. “He put the Canadian team on his back and carried it,” one NHL scouting director says. “It was probably the best performance ever by a player at the under-18s. It was unbelievable that it was by a double-underage player. Tavares went as a double underager and played pretty well, but there’s no comparison. Crosby went as an underager [before he played in the QMJHL] and was great, but it was nothing like [McDavid’s performance]. Not even close.”

At the end of a long, arduous rookie campaign, McDavid raised his game to unprecedented heights. “Connor was frustrated by the season he had [in Erie],” his father, Brian, says. “It was the first time his team didn’t make the playoffs. He felt personally responsible for that. The under-18s were his chance to finish the year in a positive way.”

When told of his father’s read on his mindset, McDavid nodded in agreement. “Sometimes I think he knows me better than I know myself,” he says.

When he raised his game last spring, McDavid was also raising expectations that will be vertiginous, maybe unreasonable, even unfair. Every night this season, everyone—teammates, fans, scouts—will be waiting to see that player from Sochi, the “exceptional” kid, the one who eclipsed anything Crosby ever did for a national team as a teenager.

McDavid worked harder this summer than he ever has before, training with hockey-fitness guru Gary Roberts, putting in serious gym work for the first time and watching his diet. “I’m a couple of inches taller, maybe—maybe—15 pounds heavier and stronger this year,” he says.“I can already feel the difference on the ice.”

McDavid admits he struggled finding the energy to be at his best playing what can be a gruelling OHL schedule. “The worst one was going into Ottawa for an afternoon game after we had played the two nights before,” he says. “Just getting off the bus, I felt dead. I thought, ‘This is going to be a long day.’ And it was, 8–1. I’ll be ready for back-to-backs or three-in-threes this year.”

Other than avoiding that sort of softening up for an ambush, McDavid’s goals for this season are team-oriented, not statistical. “I don’t have any numbers set in my mind for what would be a good season,” he says. “I just want to get the Otters into the playoffs and I want to make the world junior team this winter.”

Making the under-20 roster might turn out to be the more easily attainable of McDavid’s goals. Just moving up a couple of slots will get the Otters into the post-season, but McDavid is not surrounded by a lot of talent. On the other hand, a handful of players from the team in Sochi should move into the mix for this winter’s under-20 team and it only stands to reason that McDavid, top scorer, MVP, will lead the way.

All of this is to say that a 16-year-old is shouldering a burden of pressure that is, in part, of his own making. He has an almost impossible act to follow: his performance at the under-18s. Against the best level of competition he had ever faced, surrounded by more talent than ever before, with a world championship at stake, he transcended all. That, it goes without saying, is a hard thing to sustain when coming back to Earth or, in this case, Erie. Even harder to do 68 times during a regular season.

McDavid’s management team is mindful that talent like his needs reinforcement off the ice, so Bobby Orr brought in ex-NHLer Dave Gagner to work with the young phenom. Gagner previously worked in player development with the Vancouver Canucks and was an assistant coach in London when his son Sam and Patrick Kane played for the Knights. “Working with Connor is like working with Pat in that you don’t really teach them anything, not with their skill sets,” Gagner says. “What we can do is help eliminate distractions and let him focus on what he has to do on the ice. That’s what being a professional athlete is about: focus. Connor understands he has special abilities, but he’s still learning about being professional. We can help him put a lot of things aside and let him enjoy the game.”

Early in the OHL season, McDavid’s enjoyment level probably hasn’t been what he had hoped for. The Otters opened with five games on the road, winning two, losing a couple of close ones before winding up their September odyssey with an 8–4 beatdown by the Windsor Spitfires. The Otters then won their next two. With two goals and six assists, McDavid’s numbers were lagging behind those from last year, never mind the stats that John Tavares put up in his second season (72 goals, 134 points).

Still, McDavid’s performances through that stretch were good by a lot of measures. “Terrific, showed all his skills,” a scout said after the Otters’ season-opening loss in Guelph. “Could have had five primary assists if his teammates finished chances.”

Those who know him best dissented. “He had a terrible game, unfortunately,” his dad says after Connor went pointless and minus-3 in Windsor.

As it turns out, from the start of the regular season, Brian had been telling Connor that he was off his game and on the limp. “A strange injury, a fluke, he strained something when he stepped on a broken stick in a pre-season game against Barrie,” Brian says, who declined to go into any detail about the “something” strained. After the game in Windsor, Brian finally convinced his son to see a physiotherapist for treatment, another case of the father knowing the son better than he knows himself.

This time, Connor McDavid tried but couldn’t quite play through a strained “something” in an anatomical sense. That strain will eventually heal, of course. The strain of expectations, his and those of others, might prove tougher to skate through. Still, at the under-18s he went where no one had before, so you’d have to like his chances of doing it again.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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