EDMONTON — They all skated beneath the Stanley Cup banners and retired jerseys inside Rexall Place on Thursday, 31 Edmonton Oilers prospects of varying pedigree, only a handful of whom will ever play in the National Hockey League.
The gathered media wasn’t asking all 31 of those kids about knocking some dust off the Oilers’ legacy, however. They were asking Connor McDavid, because the last time a player like him showed up in Edmonton, well, that’s just when the banner business started to get good.
“It’s very cool,” said McDavid, his eyes glancing skyward as a homage to the Oilers rich, yet distant history of winning. “The history that comes with this organization, the great games that have been played here… It’s such a storied franchise, to walk into the locker room and see all that stuff. It’s very special.”
That’s how easy it is to get so far ahead on this Edmonton Oilers team. In Ottawa they talk about making the playoffs, and maybe getting to a Cup again. In Toronto, these days, it’s, “Let’s hope William Nylander can keep his confidence while the rebuild goes down.”
Here in Edmonton, McDavid’s presence — plus the front office rebuild that has added GM Peter Chiarelli and head coach Todd McLellan — has this city talking Glory Years 2.0. For his part, McDavid maintains an entry level position in all of this, speaking as a newcomer who can only hope to make the Opening Night roster come October.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “The last couple of years have not gone the way they wanted them to, they’ve brought in some great hockey minds, and they still have such a great young core. I’m just trying to do everything I can to make the team and be a part of that. It’s an exciting time to be a part of this organization.”
They’ve moved the 2015 Orientation Camp inside Rexall, and with open practices starting Friday morning and culminating in a game on Monday night, they’re expecting some actual crowds. Stud defenceman Darnell Nurse is also here, along with Memorial Cup MVP Leon Draisaitl.
It’s McDavid, however, whose jersey is selling off the racks in Edmonton, and who was scrummed by the media on Days 1 and 2 of this camp, an exercise that won’t be ending any time soon.
“Pressure is something I’ve been dealing with for a long time,” he said. “It’s something I’m comfortable with, but obviously this is a whole different monster to deal with. It’s a whole other level. This isn’t junior hockey anymore — this isn’t even World Juniors. It’s the NHL, so there’s a whole lot more going on.”
Chiarelli has made it a point to lower expectations on McDavid, though thus far his efforts have been futile. McLellan, also new to the organization, is trying to learn who all the kids at this camp are, though he admits, “It’s hard not to put your eyes on Connor.”
Would Chiarelli be here without the knowledge that the McDavid draft pick had been secured? Would McLellan? Would Andrej Sekera, or Mark Letestu, two free agent signings from Wednesday?
Would the Globe and Mail have hired a reporter away from the Edmonton Journal to cover this player/team all season long? Would I have spent a warm July day inside a frosty hockey rink on Thursday, if McDavid wasn’t installed as an Edmonton Oiler?
Good questions, all. We’ve all come to get to know the new prodigy, and thus far the reviews are good.
“A very focused, respectful young man who does things right,” is how McLellan describes McDavid. “He carries himself properly, which is a tough thing for an 18-year-old. And his skill set is remarkable. I find he is inquisitive — he wants to know. His eyes are wide open, his ears are open. He wants to learn more.”
Within a two-minute span Thursday, McDavid must have prefaced a statement with “if I can make the team,” or “I’m hoping to make the club,” four times. We can put that to rest right now, it seems.
“Do I expect Connor McDavid to play here in Edmonton (in October)? I do. Let’s make that clear,” McLellan said. “It’s a reflection of his character. He’s not putting himself in front of the other prospects that are here. He’s not being given anything he’s going to earn it like everyone else. And he wants it that way.”
If he won’t hand himself a spot on the 2015-16 roster, then good luck trying to get McDavid to talk about starting that second row of banners for the new Edmonton arena, set to open for the 2016-17 season.
He seems like an under-promise, over-deliver kind of kid. That will go over well in these parts, considering recent history.