ERIE, Pa. – Erie Insurance Arena shares locker-rooms with a minor-league baseball stadium and makes up the ballpark’s left-field facade. Across the street, adjacent to a tire warehouse, is a tiny tan building with red, white and blue trim that houses the Erie Otters offices.
Here, in this working-class town of 100,000 in northwestern Pennsylvania, a star is being born.
One day, Connor McDavid will take the ice at the Bell Centre and Madison Square Garden. But for now, he’s happy to call Erie home.
"I love it here," said McDavid. "It’s great. I’m sure you’ve only seen the downtown part of Erie and it’s not particularly nice, but where we all live, it’s beautiful. It’s a great area."
At least a two-hour drive from anywhere in Ontario and far from the centre of the hockey universe or even OHL hot beds like Kitchener or London, McDavid is just far enough away to keep the spotlight from being blinding.
"There’s obviously the media in Toronto and hockey in general is huge in Canada and specifically Toronto," Otters assistant coach and former NHL defenceman Jay McKee said. "There’s less media, there’s less outside attention, and as a player who’s focused on the team and developing himself, I think that’s a huge benefit for him to be here."
No matter where he plays, the 17-year-old McDavid attracts attention. He’s being touted as "The Next One" and is the front-runner to go first overall in the 2015 NHL draft as a once-in-a-generation talent.
Experiencing a lifetime of hockey hype before turning 18 has prepared McDavid for every bit of what he’s facing in his draft year. He’s conditioned to deflect the attention rather than absorb it.
"It’s all right," McDavid said during a recent pre-practice interview. "It’s not too crazy. It’s something that I’ve been getting more and more used to over the past couple years. It never really gets old. It’s still a lot of fun, I’m still a young guy, so the attention is something that is fun to have."
Dominating hockey is still fun for McDavid. But being unquestionably the best player in junior hockey and the presumptive No. 1 pick sometimes comes at the cost of what he called "crazy and unreachable" expectations.
"You can have a good game and that’s just the expectation," McDavid said. "It’s not like you did something good, it’s just what they expect out of you. Sometimes that can be a little bit stressful and annoying, but I guess it sometimes comes with the territory."
McDavid, who was born in Richmond Hill, Ont., and grew up in nearby Newmarket, put up seven goals and 13 assists in his first seven games this season, leading the Otters to a 6-0-1 start. At that three-point-a-game pace, he’d enter or surpass the territory of what Sidney Crosby did with Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at the same age.
"Usually one or two times a game you see something that you just didn’t expect," Otters coach Kris Knoblauch said. "Certainly when he has the puck it’s exciting and you’re expecting something to happen offensively with it, whether he’s setting up a teammate or creating a scoring chance by himself."
Those abilities have him atop arguably the strongest draft class in a decade and are so tantalizing that struggling NHL teams are hoping to win the McDavid derby and punch their ticket back to prominence.
McDavid "already has NHL abilities," according to McKee. But with several months to sharpen his game before the top league in the world comes calling, he’s just getting started.
‘BETTER THAN CROSBY’
McDavid doesn’t remember the first time someone compared him to Crosby. Eleven months after Sportsnet Magazine’s cover showed him with the headline, "Better than Crosby," the 17-year-old still thinks it was "pretty insane."
"It’s obviously a tremendous honour to be named in the same breath with someone like that," McDavid said. "But by no means do I think I’m deserving."
Scouts disagree. In revealing the International Scouting Service pre-season rankings, director Dennis MacInnins said: "Having the chance to scout Sidney Crosby at the same age, McDavid is even more impressive, true superstar potential."
McKee sees the same things. He played with Crosby on the 2009-10 Pittsburgh Penguins and that was when the pride of Cole Harbour, N.S., was already grown up at 22 and in the middle of a run that included a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold medal.
"The comparables between him and Sid, it’s everything," McKee said. "It’s the way he works off the ice, the way he communicates in the dressing room, the work ethic he puts out on the ice in practice. …
"Sid’s a hard-working guy that leads by example on and off the ice and he’s very humble, very quiet, not real flashy. Connor’s the kind of guy when he scores goals he’s not out there riding his stick or celebrating in fancy fashion, he just wants to get the job done."
More often than not, McDavid does get the job done. He was a point-a-game player as an OHL rookie at the ages of 15 and 16 and had 99 points last season.
"He’s the type of guy that every time he steps on the ice, he seems to be better than the time before," said Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Connor Brown, who led the OHL in scoring in 2013-14 thanks in part to Otters teammate McDavid. "I saw him play this summer and he was 10 steps beyond anything he was last year."
That’s a scary improvement curve.
Fellow 2015 draft prospect Dylan Strome, who’s on the same power-play unit as McDavid in Erie, said he and his teammates always have to be prepared for McDavid to dish them the puck.
"You can just learn so many little things from him on the ice that’s so special," said Strome, whose older brother Ryan plays for the New York Islanders "He’s such a world-class player that every time he does something on the ice, you can learn from it."
Lauded for his vision, McDavid isn’t quite sure where it came from or how it developed. Shrugging but smiling, he said: "I guess I’m an OK passer."
That’s kind of like LeBron James saying he’s an OK basketball player. Take it from Brown, who enjoyed a 45-goal, 128-point season alongside McDavid: along with speed and creativity, passing is what makes him great.
"If he sees a guy’s open, it’s going to get there no matter how many sticks are in the way or who’s in between it," said Brown
A 200-FOOT PLAYER
Even after big centre Jack Eichel drew comparisons to Mario Lemieux from ex-Penguins coach Ed Olczyk last month, McDavid is considered a strong favourite to be the top pick in June.
But his game is by his own admission still a work in progress.
"To play in the NHL, you have to be a full 200-foot player, you have to be able to score from the outside and do all that stuff," McDavid said. "Those are two areas that I’m not particularly good at. I think I need to be better in my own zone and I need to be able to score more from the outside."
McDavid’s progression is already evident early in his third season with the Otters. Listed in the 2012-13 OHL media guide at five-foot-10 and 155 pounds, he’s now six-foot-one and 187 pounds.
Growth — literally — was the first thing Brown noticed when seeing him over the summer.
"He worked really hard on putting on weight this summer, and his speed it’s even faster than it was before," Brown said. "His puck protection, just because he’s stronger and stuff like that. He’s not going to be easy to knock off the puck."
McDavid said he’s "bigger and stronger" and feeling pretty good about that. He has developed the kind of professional size and strength to go along with his already-advanced skills.
With all that coming along nicely, McDavid could coast through his final junior season. But he still feels like he has something to prove.
"You’re never done as an athlete, you can never be satisfied and you’ve always got to be working hard to be at the top of your game," McDavid said. "You’ve got to prove to scouts and all that that I am everything that some people say about me, and to others I’ve got to prove that they’re wrong about me and that they should believe everything that some people say."
HANDLING THE HYPE
Seth Jones tried as hard as he could to avoid reading stories about himself leading up to the 2013 draft, and the defenceman only found out when his mother told him. Nathan MacKinnon let the pressure get to him and was "rattled" when he got off to a slow start.
"It’s pretty annoying," Jones said of the draft-year hype. "It’s tough to just focus on playing hockey. That’s what you want to do. You got people always writing articles, good or bad, the rankings come out RIGHT before the playoffs and it seems like they try to get in your head."
MacKinnon said looking back it was stupid to get bothered by the intense scrutiny. After going first overall to the Colorado Avalanche and then winning the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year, his advice to McDavid and Eichel was to not read about themselves.
Jones, who was picked fourth by the Nashville Predators, got more attention during his final season with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks than he does now.
"Everyone wants you to do something wrong," Jones said. "Everyone wants to see your every move, what you’re doing, and they’re always comparing stats and stuff like that."
When MacKinnon’s Halifax Mooseheads met Jones’s Winterhawks in the 2013 Memorial Cup it was a chance for everyone to compare the two biggest-named prospects against each other.
"It was Nathan vs. Seth, it wasn’t Halifax vs. Portland, so that kind of got a little bit annoying," MacKinnon said. "It was pretty hectic."
With McDavid in the OHL and Eichel in college at Boston University, the top 2015 prospects will likely face that situation leading up to the New Year’s Eve showdown between Canada and the United States at the world junior championship. Eichel said "there’s no real in-game battles" and he was just looking forward to facing McDavid in Montreal.
But meeting only once or twice won’t do anything to quell the year-long competition between McDavid and Eichel. Each player is naturally working to be No. 1.
"You think about it a little bit," McDavid said. "Obviously it’s hard not to. You want to be that first overall pick."
But that’s not any extra pressure for McDavid, who without the aid of media training has grown accustomed to being the centre of attention. In the process he learned to filter what he keeps track of.
"Everyone’s got a list and at the end of the day, the draft will eventually come and whoever’s on the stand, whoever they want to take, they’ll take," McDavid said. "There’s nothing I can say, I can’t persuade someone to pick me. All I can do is just go out there and play my game and do my thing."