The hockey gods have bestowed upon Newmarket’s Connor McDavid the sport’s daunting “Next Big Thing” label, whether the 16-year-old desires such heavenly recognition or not.
While the sensational Ontario Hockey League 10th grader is not eligible for the NHL Entry Draft until 2015, the kid with the dimples and mop of light-brown hair has the cognoscenti drooling over an on-ice portfolio that includes skating wizardry, deft passing and a keen eye for the game’s finer offensive points.
McDavid’s slick skills include what scouts call good old-fashioned “hockey sense” — or when “Wayne Gretzky said the game would slow down for him so he could (anticipate) and see a couple steps ahead,” says the teen phenom. “It comes naturally to some people.”
And, of course, there are the inevitable comparisons. In this instance, “The Kid” met “El Sid.”
“He reminds me of me,” the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby tells USA Today.
“When you have the best player in the world saying that,” McDavid says, “that’s just unbelievable.”
McDavid has been dubbed the “LeBron James of hockey” for his precocious play. Bobby Orr knows a little something about prodigies. He used to be one. At 14, he became property of the Boston Bruins in 1962. Orr’s agency represents McDavid.
“I can remember the first time I saw him,” the Hall of Fame defenceman tells USA Today. “I walked into a practice at one of our camps, and I’m watching this fella with unbelievable skills. I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap — who is that?’ He was 13.”
McDavid wears No. 97 for the Erie Otters — the year he was born. Sound familiar? Crosby wears No. 87 to represent his birth year. His bedroom back home in Newmarket is plastered with Crosby posters. But it is a room the teen rarely has seen since relocating last fall to this blue-collar city where he lives with his billet family near the icy shores of Lake Erie and collects a weekly $50 OHL stipend.
Typically, the 5-11, 175-pound McDavid works out for six hours daily beginning at 9:30 a.m. at Erie Insurance Arena. When not at the rink, or travelling, the teenager takes online high school courses so he can graduate on time in Canada.
Naturally, parents Brian and Kelly McDavid fret about their son and remain in constant contact as he makes an already-difficult transition through adolescence. The OHL’s month regular season ends in mid-March. Teammates, who call him “Dav-o,” describe him as determined but polite, quiet and humble — an “incredible guy,” says Otters winger Hayden Hodgson.
One who, thus far, eschews the klieg lights. During one drive home back to Newmarket, Connor looked at his father and exclaimed, “Dad, do you know what it’s like to have four microphones stuck in your face all the time?”
“It’s pretty special what he has done so far,” says teammate and roommate Stephen Harper. “He’s going to be a helluva player in two years.”
Connor admits, “It was pretty hard in the beginning.
“Hard living away from your family and meeting new people,” he says. “But it’s been a lot of fun at the same time. I wouldn’t say I’m alone. (As family), we talk every day. There’s texting and Skype. And I have some great friends and teammates.”
To their utter surprise and delight last Sunday, McDavid and two fellow Otters enjoyed a main-course NHL game, sitting alongside Penguins owner Mario Lemieux. Then it was downstairs for hockey dessert.
“There was Crosby sitting in his stall,” McDavid dreamily recalls. “It was a little awkward, but we both have a passion that brings us together so we found things to talk about.”
Afterward, Lemieux, Crosby and McDavid were photographed together.
“They called it the past, the present and the future,” says Otters managing partner/general manager Sherwood Bassin.
McDavid has big skates to fill in that regard, but already he has made quick strides on a single blade. As a 15 year old, McDavid was granted exceptional-player status by Hockey Canada last year, enabling the Otters to draft him No. 1 overall in April. Only two other players ever have received such permission, John Tavares of the New York Islanders and Aaron Ekblad, who is currently with the Barrie Colts.