SB Nation

Sam Riches | November 19, 2014

Connor McDavid’s Time

Hockey’s next great star readies for the NHL

The puck comes in fast, bouncing high and crooked, twisting up into the air. Near center ice, Connor McDavid bats it down with a quick thwack. It lands softly at the toe of his skates.

Two defensemen rush toward him, like the rink has suddenly tilted on its axis. McDavid takes off too. He's skating full speed, or at least appears to be. It's hard to tell how fast he can actually skate. Even when he looks to be going at half-speed he's the fastest one on the ice.

He pushes the puck through the legs of the first defenseman and then quickly cuts to his right, ice shavings spraying up from under his feet, and zips around the flailing arms of the second. The puck stays on his stick, as if the blade's been dipped into a vat of tar.

The play has broken down into a 2-on-1 rush for McDavid's side and the goalie edges out of his crease. He readies himself, dips his knees, raises his glove and, presumably, holds his breath. There's not much else he can do.

At a recent practice, McDavid blasted a shot off the crossbar that caused the puck to rain to the ice in pieces. Thankfully, for the goalie, this play ends far less violently. McDavid sends a cross-ice pass to his rookie teammate Alex DeBrincat. With the goalie out of position, DeBrincat slides the puck over the goal line and into the empty net.

The 17-year-old is among the best in junior hockey. He is almost cartoonishly great.

It's his first goal of the night, but it won't be his last. He'll add three more and McDavid, a center with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, will assist on every one of them.

This is McDavid's third and final season with the Otters. Next year he will be in the NHL and is expected to enter that league the same way he entered this one; as a much-celebrated No. 1 pick. At this level, the 17-year-old is among the best in junior hockey. He is almost cartoonishly great, with talent so prodigious that it reflects in the strained faces of his competitors, who, next to him, react cautiously, like they're toeing around some unknown beast.

McDavid was 15 years old when he was designated an "exceptional player" by Hockey Canada, the nation's governing body of the sport. The label allowed him to bypass the OHL's minimum age requirement and enter the league a year early. That same year he also signed his first endorsement deal, with Reebok, reported to be in the range of half a million dollars.

When the Otters chose McDavid with the top pick in the 2012 OHL draft he was a slim 5'10 and 150 pounds, his slight stature in disagreement with his outsized talent. But he kept growing and his skills kept deepening and now, on a nightly basis, a play that would be unfathomable for most anyone else is just another McDavid moment. Every night he is expected to be great and every night he mostly is. That first season he collected 66 points in 63 games and was named the league's rookie of the year. The following year he got 99 points. This year, 18 games in, he already has 51 points, averaging nearly three a game.

He now stands 6'1, 190. His frame has begun to catch up to his skill. For the last three offseasons he's lifted weights six days a week with former NHLer Gary Roberts. He no longer looks like another rare and talented kid, who still has the risks of youth and temptation and waning interest to evade. Instead, he looks and plays and speaks like a veteran.

This game, the last of the preseason, is his final exhibition game in junior hockey. There are no less than 10 NHL scouts scattered around the building, a multiplex arena in Oakville, Ontario. They're uniformly dressed in dark suits and recognizable by the large binders they carry under their arms that hold the hockey fate of the teens on the ice. The fans begin showing up in the arena an hour before puck drop and by the time an organ recording of the national anthem clicks on the seats are mostly filled.

At Puckz, the arena restaurant, a server looks out through the glass, into the rink, and complains about being moved inside for the day.

"Usually I work in there," she says, pointing through the window as Sunday football buzzes from the television screens behind her. "We're so busy today I had to be moved inside. I wish I were out there. I wish I could see it."

"It," of course, is the McDavid show, which is currently on full display on the other side of the glass.

Now two defensemen are trying to push McDavid off the puck while a third is taking quick whacks at his stick that echo out in the arena. McDavid maneuvers between them and, for a moment, they stay attached at his sides, like first time skydivers strapped to an instructor. They ride along, wind smacked and weary, until McDavid's speed carries him away. He gets a clean look across the ice and delivers another pass that lands, perfectly timed, on the stick of a teammate.

Goal.

During the game, whenever McDavid gets the puck, a low-hum begins to circle the stands. Heads turn, eyes refocus, conversations come to a stop and then abruptly start again with McDavid as the subject. Something's about to happen.

The end of this play is marked by a moment of silence. What's just unfolded is still hanging in the air, existing in a space that's yet to be fully understood. Then it registers. And then they cheer.

They pump fists and whoop and share high-fives and hugs, while others twist in their seats with their hands on top of their heads looking around to see the disbelief in other faces that are all looking around for the same reason.

On the ice, the Otters celebrate, too. They jump into the air, arms raised overhead, bodies bouncing off each other. They still have a full season together. Sixty-eight games. Plus the playoffs. Measured time that's already fading.

After the game, in the dim light of the arena tunnel, a crowd of children and smattering of adults gather outside the locker room. Most are dressed in oversized McDavid jerseys, or Erie Otters T-shirts, and they clutch pictures of the star close to their chest.

McDavid is one of the last to emerge and he immediately faces the buzzing crowd. His mane of blond hair is still damp from the shower, his teenage skin extra blotchy from the heat, yet he signs every shirt, hat, photo and scrap of paper that gets waived in his direction.

He slaps hands with children, who shout, "I hope you go number one!" He smiles, and nods and once every waiting fan has been satisfied he walks down the hallway to three men wearing the same type of suits as the NHL scouts.

Included are his agent, Jeff Jackson, and Otters general manager and managing partner Sherry Bassin. After a brief conversation, he turns back down the hallway and shouts to the waiting media — "Hey guys, let's do it together." He wiggles his fingers toward his chest as he speaks.

While most 17-year-olds who are put in front of the media spend the time staring at the floor and muttering barely audible sentences, McDavid is calling for a scrum. "There's a few of you," he says. "It's easier this way."

Back upstairs, at the entrance of Puckz, two framed Sidney Crosby Olympic hockey jerseys adorn the hallway. Crosby, currently the greatest player on earth, is also that man that McDavid hopes to emulate, the kind of player everyone expects him to be.

In hockey circles everywhere, the question is already being asked: Is Connor McDavid the Next One?

"I met him once," McDavid says now. "But I honestly can't remember any of it. I was just in awe."

Now others are in awe of McDavid, and it's been that way since his early-teens. In the impromptu press conference he called for, he locks eyes with each reporter and deflects attention to his teammates and coaches at every opportunity. He is soft-spoken, polite and earnestly bland in the way that star athletes are always earnestly bland. It's protective and safe and he's got it down cold.

After watching footage of McDavid's rookie season, Crosby remarked, "He reminded me of myself." That quote didn't help with the pressure.

More recently, after skating with McDavid, New York Islanders star center John Tavares said, "The way he changes gears, I've never seen anyone like that." And in hockey circles everywhere, the question is already being asked: Is Connor McDavid the Next One?

Today, up in the stands, McDavid's parents and grandparents watched him play. He'll be heading back home with them tonight, to Newmarket, Ontario, before moving onto Erie, Pa., to begin his final OHL season.

"It's going to different, being a draft year and all," he says. "I'm ready to get started."

A member of the Otters staff places a hand on McDavid's shoulder and motions to the exit.  "Better get going," he says. "There's a huge crowd waiting for you outside the bus."

As McDavid starts down the tunnel, a separate conversation can be heard. "One of those reporters was from a Spanish newspaper."

"A Spanish newspaper? Since when does Spain care about junior hockey?"

The answer is walking down the hallway, ready to catch a bus to the next town.

***

In the 18-year history of the Otters, Sherry Bassin is the only General Manager they've ever had. At 74 years old, he's been around the game for more than 50 years at every level from the junior ranks to the NHL. He's played, coached, managed and been successful at every stage.

He sits behind his desk in a small office, a space he shares with the team's head coach, Kris Knoblauch and the assistant coaches Vince Laise and former NHL defenseman Jay McKee. Knoblauch usually doesn't let media into the coach's office, he likes to keep the cohesiveness in and the notepads and microphones out — but right now he's on the ice, running the team through morning practice.

The office walls are pale yellow brick. It's clean and bright, with a large whiteboard calendar on the wall and a small television in the top corner, switched off. The only entertainment needed is on the ice on the other side of the wall.

Bassin leans forward, his arms resting atop his desk. He wears a thin blue fleece vest with a yellow collared shirt underneath. His glasses, dark plastic, slide down his nose as he speaks. His hair curls up on the sides in tufts of gray. His voice, low and gravely, sounds exactly how it should for someone who's been around the game for as long as he has.

He's wearing loafers, but no socks. He doesn't like wearing socks. He grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan, where the winters are long and harsh, and even then, in the biting cold, he didn't wear socks.

He only wears them under certain conditions. If the Otters lose badly he'll wear a pair as a punishment. If they lose in a shootout, or by a single goal, he only wears one. So far this season, he's only had to wear one once.

It's early October, and the Otters are 6-0-0-1. The best start in franchise history. Even better than the year they won the J. Ross Robertson Cup, the OHL championship. Bassin has, in some form or another, been around many of the games' greatest talents. He's seen everything you can see but, he'll say, he's never seen a prospect like McDavid.

He'll also tell you if McDavid were thrown into the NHL right now he would collect 60-70 points in a season and assistant coach Vince Laise will tell you he agrees. "Yep, I could see that. He could get 30 and 30 right now."

“He's a franchise player, not in junior, he's going to be a franchise player in the NHL. No question.”

Bassin will tell you, with his hands laid out before him and clasped together, that he doesn't like to compare players, because he has such a deep respect for the history of the game, but then he will, because he thinks McDavid rates with the best of them. Joe Sakic. Mario Lemieux. Mats Sundin. Steve Yzerman. "He's a franchise player, not in junior, he's going to be a franchise player in the NHL. No question."

There's a book that Bassin likes to reference called "The Two-Second Advantage," which argues that great athletes and musicians and businesses anticipate events before they happen, giving them an advantage over their competitors.

"They mention Gretzky in this book," Bassin says. "Well, it's the same with this guy. He's two seconds ahead. They are going to have to republish the book and add another chapter."

But what about the pressure that comes with these accolades? McDavid is 17. There's a lot that can still change.

"There's no pressure," Bassin shrugs. "It's opportunity.

"I've got a cousin who's in Mensa. She's designing clothes that are going to be in Nordstrom stores this fall. She's 13 years old. She doesn't look at it as pressure. These kind of people don't look at it as pressure. It's opportunity. That's all it is."

There is, however, one problem with McDavid, says Bassin.

"He doesn't shoot enough." He leans back in his chair and continues. "But if you're on the ice just get open. He'll find you."

The office door creaks open, and Coach Knoblauch enters the room. He is tall and lean, with a strong jaw, close-cropped hair and a youthful face, young enough that in the early morning, when he runs the arena stairs before practice with the building mostly empty and still hidden behind the dark, he is working as hard as his players are to reach the top.

He is stern, taking his job seriously, which seems a good way to be when coaching the most revered junior hockey prospect in the world. Like Bassin, he's not worried about what's coming next for McDavid.

"For him to take the next step, to be an impact player in the NHL, certainly that's going to happen," the coach says. "I have no doubts about that, whatsoever."

***

It's Friday night and the clouds that have hung low in the sky all day, wet and heavy, are beginning to lift. The air, coming in off Lake Erie, blows cold. The leaves have yellowed, and wind gusts tug them from the branches of bent-over trees. They land in colored patches and swirl down the dark streets.

Inside the arena, there's a reprieve from the weather, and the fans begin to filter in just after six. They shake their coats off and stomp their feet on the entrance mats.

A floor below, in the bowels of the arena, a group of Otters are standing together, wearing team-issued gray T-shirts and red shorts and Erie Otters baseball caps, mostly turned backwards. They're taking turns kicking a raggedy soccer ball, weathered and peeling, around the circle. It's a ritual, a game they call sewer ball and it's part of the team's warm-up. The point is to keep the ball up off the ground. If you let it drop, you're out.

They're fine athletes, but not soccer players. At one point, a bad kick sends the ball sailing up to the ceiling, where it gets wedged between the exposed pipes. A player runs off to fetch a broom to swat it back down.

A few feet away, by the exit, the arena's cooks and wait staff and local reporters and photographers and fans with special passes are also arriving to the building. Bernie, a security guard who monitors the door, greets everyone as they enter. He also keeps an eye on a new set of television screens, which are broadcasting live feeds from various security cameras around the arena.

"The ship's tightened up a bit in the last couple years," he says. He's got a large, round belly and short white hair and he shifts his weight back and forth, from one leg to another, as he stands in place wearing a navy blue vest. He gets paid $7.25 an hour when he wears the vest. On other nights, when big acts come to town, like Elton John, he makes $10 an hour and wears a yellow shirt. McDavid isn't at yellow shirt level yet, but it won't be long.

Back at the circle, one of the players has scaled a few feet up the wall and is flailing a broom wildly with one hand and coming up short with each swing. Bernie watches for a moment.

"Which one do you think I'd rather be wearing?" he says, tugging at his vest and staring patiently down at the doorway. He seems happy to be there. Most of the employees do. Most of Erie does. It's a place that's been waiting for something to happen for a very long time and right now, at this moment and in this building, it is.

***

The Otters are one of the youngest teams in the league, with 11 rookies on the roster. McDavid is their captain, he gets the blame when they lose and passes off the attention when they win.

“He's certainly not wearing our C just because he's the best player.”

Coach Knoblauch said it wasn't an easy decision to make him captain, and he seems serious enough about it.

"He's certainly not wearing our C just because he's the best player," the coach insists. "In the offseason we weren't sure who our captain was going to be."

McDavid was a candidate, he says, but not necessarily the frontrunner. Watching how he interacted with the players as the season approached, how serious he was about training and how encouraging he was to his teammates changed that.

"He's positive. He's pointing out corrections that need to be made. Players look up to him. There really wasn't much choice. He wants the team to be successful. Any time the team doesn't have a good game he takes it personally and he wants to do everything to make sure it doesn't happen again."

At the door, the team photographer walks into the building. He's greeted by Bernie.

"You see Burakovsky the other night?" he says. "He's playing out of his mind." Many of McDavid's friends are already in the league, including a teammate from last year, 19-year-old André Burakovsky, who is off to a good start with the Washington Capitals. For McDavid, the phone calls and advice have been filtering back down this season. Last year, Wayne Gretzky called him out of the blue. This year, he's already fielded calls from Aaron Ekblad, the 2014 No. 1 pick, and a handful of others.

"It's nice to get those calls," McDavid says. "They just tell me about their experiences, what they're going through, give me some advice here and there."

It's the team's first game at home after a slate of away games, and at the door, it's not long before the conversation shifts to McDavid. During the road trip, he got into his first career fight, squaring off with Liam Maaskant, a 6'4, 214-pound iron-fisted defenseman who played with the Otters briefly during McDavid's rookie season before being traded to another team. The scuffle wasn't planned, it came from the intensity of the game. There was no clear winner and it really wasn't much of a fight. Both players toppled over and landed on the ice before any serious punches were thrown and the refs were quick to separate the two, but it was enough to send a message. McDavid won't be pushed around.

"He's gotta start showing that, I guess," says Bernie. The photographer, who's wearing an Erie Otters jersey and matching cap and has a large white handlebar mustache that engulfs the lower half of his face, nods along.

"Oh yeah. They're gonna be coming after him this year."

And they do. Each game, there's an extra grab or push or slash or headlock or lowered shoulder thrown in McDavid's direction because of who he is and because stopping him is damn near impossible already and becoming more difficult every time he touches the puck.

A month later McDavid drops the gloves again, this time at home. He takes a hit from Mississauga Steelhead center Bryson Cianfrone and the two get tangled up behind the net. Maybe it's the heat of this moment or maybe it's the frustration built up from all the other rough play but McDavid, the 17-year-old, suddenly bursts through the veneer of McDavid, the unflappable veteran. And he starts to throw punches.

McDavid fractures his right hand, an injury that will sideline him for up to six weeks.

Most miss, a few connect, and one, the one that matters most, hits the glass. It won't be known until the next day, but in that instant McDavid fractures the fifth metacarpal bone in his right hand, his pinky finger, an injury that will sideline him for up to six weeks. When the fight ends, McDavid skates to the penalty box, cradling his hand like a child rushing home an injured animal.

On this day, however, with both hands still healthy, McDavid isn't overly concerned about fights or the potential for injury. He admits that sometimes he feels like a marked man on the ice, but it doesn't weigh heavily on him. The genuine nonchalance is backed up by the strength he's added to his frame. His training, he says, is very intense and very important. "Hockey," he says, "is a year-round job."

It is also a job that carries the possibility of injury nearly every moment; no matter how prepared he is or how solid the ice feels beneath him, it can always give out. That point is underscored in tonight's game against the Sudbury Wolves, where, for a brief moment, McDavid's fans are forced for the first time to consider life without him. That change is inevitable by season's end, when McDavid graduates to the NHL, but for now, it's still too difficult and too strange to acknowledge.

Late in the second period, while streaking past center ice, a defender wraps his stick around McDavid from behind and hauls him down to the ice. He slides on his back and his speed carries him into the boards, where his legs crunch up underneath him.

This is not a sight the crowd is used to. They are used to passes that slide through impossible openings and plays no one who has ever played or watched hockey can quite recall ever seeing before.

Those plays, the one's that unfold off the blade of McDavid's stick, are reminders of why greatness can be so captivating. There are few people alive who can do what McDavid does, an exclusive club, but on game nights in Erie he makes 3,000 people in the stands feel like they're part of it. Those plays, archival moments one can point to and say this is when they realized Connor McDavid was going to be great, will be referenced in the future by hockey pundits and fans alike, preserved on YouTube and watched five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now.

Each spectator hopes to have their own version of that story, but this isn't one of them. This is frightening.

McDavid lays still, and in those slow seconds some fans are silent. Others scream for revenge, their breath floating up and disappearing into the cold.

Then he rises. The crowd exhales collectively and settles back into their seats as McDavid skates back to the bench, healthy and intact.

The game remains slow and choppy and physical throughout. There are few opportunities for McDavid to show his skill. Still, the Otters grind out the 2-1 win and McDavid assists on both goals, which are scored by Dylan Strome, the Otter's second line center and a projected top-10 draft pick in next year's draft.

Strome comes from a hockey super family. His older brother, Ryan, currently plays for the New York Islanders and his younger brother, Matt, is making a name for himself on the Toronto Marlboros bantam AAA team.

After the game, it's Strome's turn to deflect the attention. "He's the best player I've ever played with, by far," he says of McDavid. "He's so talented all over the ice, you can really tell why he's so highly rated."

But what about his older brother, an up-and-coming player in the NHL, isn't he pretty good, too? "Yeah," he says, "but we both think Connor's an amazing player."

Strome and McDavid, each 17 and going through their final draft year together, are inseparable off the ice. Teammates of the last two years, they drive to school together each day and spend their nights hanging out. "We're really good buddies," says McDavid. "He's been a big part of my life and he's been my best bud for a couple years. We're lucky to have each other and go through this year together."

Their lives are hockey, 24/7, and outside of that, there really isn't much else to talk about. Asked how he relaxes, McDavid says he's not much of a movie guy. "A little Netflix here and there, but not really." He doesn't play video games. "I play a little NHL, but not that much."

What he does, he says, is play hockey.

"That's why we're here. We all love to play hockey, so being at the rink all the time is fun for us. It's more fun to be playing hockey than doing anything else."

Strome agrees. "We joke around a little bit, but when it comes down to it, it's all business. We're here to win hockey games."

The next night, they get back to work.

***

It's been suggested by some that playing in a smaller, American city has been a blessing for McDavid. There are only three American teams in the OHL, and the media attention is slightly diminished in those cities compared to their Canadian counterparts.

Bassin, who's originally from Ontario, says that doesn't matter at all. "The kid is so adaptable he could play anywhere. Put him anywhere, and he'll find a way to excel."

“The kid is so adaptable he could play anywhere. Put him anywhere, and he'll find a way to excel.”

On Saturday night, you'd be hard pressed to argue Erie hasn't become a hockey town. The fans are raucous from the beginning. A quick scan of the crowd reveals Erie Otters jerseys in navy blue, light blue, yellow, white, red, and one fan in a special edition camouflage number.

The Otters take the ice for warm-ups and their early season success is reflected in the looseness of their strides. They're enjoying themselves. There's a degree of cohesiveness, hard to establish but easy to spot, that shows in everything they do.

Overhead, the arena screen flashes "Skate with Connor." The promotion goes on to explain that after an upcoming game, for $397, fans can skate a few laps around the ice with McDavid, get a picture and take home a signed replica jersey.

In the seats, fans point up to the screen and nod their heads in agreement. To anyone that's not a hockey fan that would seem like an absurd price to pay, but here, in McDavid's presence, it feels like a good deal. In another five or 10 years that experience might be a priceless heirloom.

Tonight's visiting team, the London Knights, are perennial contenders but are off to a slow start this season. They're also the only team that's bested the Otters this year, beating them in a shoot-out.

The Knights, like the Wolves the night before, attempt to slow McDavid by playing physical with him. At one point Knights defenseman Dakota Mermis wraps McDavid up in a headlock behind the net and the crowd is brought jeering to their feet. It results in an Otters power play, but no goal.

It's not until the third period, with the Otters leading 5-2, that the crowd finally gets their moment to take home. A step past his own blue line, McDavid looks up and sees his linemate, DeBrincat, streaking down the ice. If he can get him the puck, he's got a breakaway, but there's a 50-foot gulf between the pair and a couple of defenders high tailing it back into position.

There's no way to get a pass through so McDavid doesn't try. He does something even better.

He cannot go through, and he cannot go around, but he can go over. He is two seconds ahead, already beyond this game, and this league. McDavid lifts the puck up and flicks it over the heads of the defense. It floats in the air, flipping end over end, a flight path both precise and profound, before landing flat and feathery on the ice, even and in stride with DeBrincat, who carries it in for the goal.

The crowd, thoroughly satisfied, erupts and roars. They now have their moment, their own Connor McDavid memory etched into their lives.

Later, assistant coach Laise says, "To see something like that, you have to be there live to really appreciate how special it is, to be able to flip the puck over a defender's head, while timing your teammate's offside pattern, you're hoisting pucks from the neutral zone and it lands flat ..." He trails off and shakes his head, frustrated by trying to put the moment to words.

After the game, McDavid tries to explain it himself. He can't. "Honestly, I've never done that before. I saw Brincs stretching there and the D was kinda far over, so I just thought I might try it. It turned out to be a nice play, I guess."

It's shocking modesty, but it's not out of character. McDavid routinely shrugs off these spectacular moments, hoping, perhaps, that humility will help temper the expectations.

In the arena's open hallways, the smell of beer and popcorn is wafting in the air. As he finishes up in the locker room, a growing crowd has taken over the lobby on the first floor. The players begin to come out, one by one, Sharpies in hand. A few hundred feet from them, a group of concession workers are calling it a night. It's just after 10 p.m. As they walk toward the exit, one of them stops, turns and points down the hallway.

"Look at this," she says. "These people are crazy." The crowd has grown further in size and they're all anxiously waiting.

"Well," her friend responds, looking back at the crowd, "you know why they're here."

***

As good as McDavid is, he's not perfect. At least not yet.

Last year, at the World Junior Championships, McDavid became the sixth-youngest player ever to play for Team Canada. In Canada's preliminary round game against the Czech Republic, he took two hooking penalties and was benched. He didn't record a point in Canada's last three games of the tournament, and he spent most of the final game watching from the bench.

He collected a goal and three assists in the tournament, making him the team's seventh-highest point-getter, but Canada finished a disappointing fourth overall. At times, McDavid, who was then 16, looked out of place, undersized and overmatched.

That pain would have been bad enough on its own, a rare personal failure, but in Canada, where watching the world juniors is an annual religious practice, the stage was massive and the disappointment national.

If he is able to suit up, he'll play a slate of games that will be among the most important of his young career.

After the final game, McDavid wasn't made available to the media. Presumably, he didn't want to talk about it. He still doesn't.

"It just didn't go well," he says now when asked, lips pursed, eyes straight ahead. "That's it."

This December, he was supposed to have another chance. Now, with the fracture to his right hand, it's less certain. Doctors are estimating a five-to-six-week recovery, which puts him right on the bubble. If he is able to suit up, he'll play a slate of games that will be among the most watched and most important of his young career. He’ll be rusty, and after more than a month away his timing may be off, and he’ll have missed the entirety of Team Canada’s December training camp but people will be waiting, and those seeing him for the first time will expect a hockey savior — born from headlines and YouTube clips and spurred on by discussion of those headlines and YouTube clips — to suddenly land in front of them, in flesh and blood.

Canada hasn’t won gold at the world juniors in five years. His presence could help change that, as Erie is learning right now. McDavid played 18 games with the Otters before his injury and the team won 16 of them. They’ve now played two games without him and lost both. If McDavid is able to return and help Canada win gold, he’ll likely receive the credit and his name will be cast further out, in every language, attracting the kind of devotion that once given, may never go away.

Even before the injury, McDavid was being measured in his approach to the tournament. He wasn’t comfortable talking about any of the details until the roster was announced.

"Canada is so strong in this age group that nothing is for sure," he said in mid-October. "If I'm able to represent Canada that would be unbelievable, but for now I'm just trying to make the team."

Now, the team is waiting for him. If he is able to play, he'll have a world stage to match up against Jack Eichel, the American forward currently playing at Boston University, and the only other player on the planet who could possibly challenge McDavid for the top pick in next June's draft.

McDavid's agent, Jeff Jackson, was a member Canada's 1985 world junior team, along with Bassin. Together they won gold.

"We've been friends ever since," Jackson says of Bassin. "It's one of those things that keeps you friends."

When asked about his client's modesty in simply making the roster, Jackson was straightforward. "He just wants to be the best player he can be and when he says it's not a done deal, that's what he believes. So every game he's playing he's striving to lead Erie. In his own mind, he wants to impress the Hockey Canada staff. It's important to him and he wants to earn his spot on the team."

That desire to impress might have played a role in his decision to drop the gloves, and if he needed any more motivation, he has it now. The broken finger might temporarily slow McDavid down, but it will not change the picture that's already being painted. Just as Crosby once supplanted Lemieux, McDavid is fighting to take his rightful place as the next one. Coach Laise puts it differently.

"Honestly, I think Connor McDavid just wants to be the best Connor McDavid. Just humbly and honestly. He just wants to do his best."

McDavid's talent is obvious, as clear and easy to spot as the thickly lettered nameplate sewn onto the back of his jersey. One day soon almost everyone expects that name alone, McDavid, to carry the same weight as not only Lemieux and Crosby, but Howe, Hull and Gretzky.

***

On Monday morning the following week, the Otters practice is moved about 10 minutes south, into a small local arena, across the street from a zoo. It's the last workout they have in town before they start on another road trip, which begins with a special Wednesday night game in Buffalo against the Niagara Ice Dogs.

There they will play at the First Niagara Center, the home of the Sabres. For some it'll be the first and the last time that they get to play in an NHL arena.

Nearly 10,000 tickets have been sold in advance, with hockey fans making the trip from Ontario, New York and beyond to see McDavid and the Otters in person.

While that remains two days away, the arena they're at this morning is the type of rink that can be found in most small towns, it's lived-in and musty and the players seem at home. The rubber floor tiles are mismatched and faded and torn. Blue paint is peeling from the walls in large chunks. In the corner, a half-empty trophy case reveals the winners of the local senior men's rec league, year by year.

Here in this dingy building, Buffalo, the juniors, the NHL all seem worlds away. Before practice begins, the players relax at rinkside plastic tables as a Zamboni circles the ice.

Otter defenseman Travis Dermott, who grew up in Newmarket, Ontario, McDavid's hometown, is among them. Dermott and McDavid have been playing hockey together, on and off, since they were 8-years-old.

"I remember when we were like 10 he got interviewed by CBC or TSN, and it was surreal for us. He was so out of everyone's league. He's always been more skilled than everyone. He practiced all the time. Whenever I'd go over to his house he'd be out stickhandling around his driveway. He had this little slope in the driveway and he'd set up sticks and stuff, little obstacles, and he'd jump over them and stick handle around them and his net was just destroyed because he'd shoot so many pucks at it."

“He's the nicest guy to everyone. There's not one bad thing you can say.”

Dermott, along with McDavid and Strome, is the third Otter that could be drafted in the first round of next June's NHL Draft. He's dressed in street clothes, recovering from a hand injury. He wears a silver chain and a fitted T-shirt. His hair is slicked back in wave of blond and he speaks freely and wide-eyed, genuinely enjoying every second of his hockey career so far. When asked about growing up with McDavid, he smiles as though he's recalling a treasured memory.

"He's a great guy, like a stunning person. There's nothing wrong with him, at all. No one hates him. There's nothing to hate about him. He's the nicest guy to everyone. There's not one bad thing you can say."

When asked about the only other prospect who could challenge McDavid for the top pick, Jack Eichel, Dermott says McDavid just ignores the talk.

"I don't think he pays attention to it. I mean, he knows about it obviously, but he's just focused on himself, like he needs to be. He does his thing but also as captain he makes sure the guys are focused. He's always kind of been like that, making sure he's doing the right stuff all the time, eating well, working out. He'll speak up when he needs to, he leads by example more, but he'll get the guys going a bit sometimes."

This being McDavid's final season before he turns pro, the significance of their time together is not lost on anyone. For Coach Knoblauch, he knows the experience of being able to coach a player of McDavid's ability is a rare thing.

"You might go through your entire coaching career and never get a player like Connor. For me to get him for parts of three seasons, it's been very enjoyable."

The team equipment manager, Kevin Putzig, describes McDavid as the most laid-back player on the team. "He's probably the easiest to deal with on my end," he says. "Our owner gives out more signed sticks of his then he breaks in a year.

"He doesn't like change. He doesn't like new stuff. He doesn't want it. I can't give him a new jock, I have to keep sewing his old one."

McDavid also wears a pair of lucky underwear for each game. Just like Bassin with his socks, McDavid is devoted to his routine. Last year he changed to a new pair in the midst of the season but only because he had no choice. In a pre-game wrestling match, with 6'5" forward Nick Betz, the lucky shorts were ripped clean from his body.

"Those things were hanging by two threads," Betz says now. "He was pretty devastated but I think he got over it."

Out on the ice, the players are running through drills at each end of the rink. McDavid works through the movements at full speed, practicing just as hard as he plays.

When Coach Knoblauch blows the whistle for a break, the players are all smiles. It's just them, filling this damp, moldy space themselves — no scouts, no fans, no distractions. For now, it's just hockey, just the way they like it.

***

(Photo by Sam Riches)

When an NHL arena sits open and empty, the sheer size of it can be intimidating.

Down at ice level, looking up into the stands at First Niagara Center, the seats, uniformly blue, blur together, curling around the arena like a wave that's reached its peak and is about to descend.

McDavid and Strome sit alone on one of the empty benches. They're dressed in street clothes. It is three hours before game time. They're not saying much, mostly just looking out onto the ice.

It's a scene that both of them will be seeing every night next season, but right now, it's still rare and the grins on their face show they're savoring it.

A loud shout cuts through the silence. McDavid and Strome both look up, way up, into the suites, where Dermott is shouting and waving back down. He'll miss tonight's game, still recovering from his injury. McDavid and Strome laugh and shake their heads, smiling.

A Zamboni begins slow, winding loops, leaving shining strips of ice, impossibly smooth, behind it.

Up top, Coach Laise bends over the suite railing and snaps a picture of the arena with his phone. "Some view," he says.

Soon after, the visiting media begins to fill the press area and close to 12,000 fans stream in.

Downstairs, at the arena shop, a shipment of Connor McDavid jerseys are hanging among the Sabres gear. Fans work through the small space, bypassing the regular names for a chance to grab a McDavid. One man holds the fabric delicately in his hands and closes his eyes. Another just stares up at the display like it's a holy relic.

The Sabres are one of the worst teams in the NHL and have a real shot at landing McDavid if they can keep on losing. Many are hoping they do. Some are already wearing custom-made Buffalo jerseys with McDavid's name and number on the back. Others wear T-shirts that say "Keep Calm and Pray We Get McDavid." There's a website for them, custom made for any of the eight franchises most likely to get the No. 1 pick.

When the puck finally drops, the Otters get a scoring chance on the first rush of the game, but a shot from DeBrincat soars high, just over the crossbar.

The overhead screen unapologetically stays fixed on McDavid and so do most of the fans, whose heads turn in unison with the action on the ice, tracking his every move. It's not long until he rewards them for their efforts.

After getting a pass from Betz, McDavid pushes the puck up through the neutral zone, one hand on his stick, both legs pumping. He gets a step on the defender who tries to cut off the rush. McDavid doesn't slow down, instead he slips the puck between the defenders legs and catches it on the other side. The defender glides out of frame, twisting his neck to get one last look back at McDavid, who moves in all alone on the goalie.

He gets a shot off, but it's blocked on the doorstep.

A teammate follows up and whacks at the rebound, but the goalie gets a hold of the puck and doesn't let go. The referee blows the whistle. The goalie skates out of the crease and takes a moment to collect himself.

The entire play unfolded in a few seconds and it's enough to keep the arena buzzing the rest of the night.

When the games ends, an 8-4 win for Erie, McDavid does a quick interview on the ice. He thanks the fans for coming out and supporting the team and tells them he loves the city. "It's a dream come true to play here tonight." The arena erupts like 12,000 people have just won the lottery at the same time.

Downstairs, afterwards, the team holds a press conference for the visiting media members. Coach Knoblauch takes the podium first, and the first question is about McDavid. Then Strome speaks and tells the room it was the most people he's ever played in front of. "It was easily the most fun I've had in a hockey game in a long time. It was exciting, you don't see too many 8-4 games."

Then someone asks about the added pressure. He knows who they are talking about.

"I don't think the guys on our team felt a lot of pressure. If there was one guy that would feel pressure, I think everyone knows who that is, and I think he played pretty well tonight."

In the corner of the room, Bassin watches, pride swelled up in his chest. A week earlier, in his office, he said how grateful he was to get a team and a player like McDavid at his age.

"It's a gift," he said. "For a guy like me, in the waning part of my career, to be around this person, it's a gift."

Then McDavid, the person everyone's been waiting to hear from, steps to the podium and the first question isn't a question but a request.

"Can I have a stick?"

"Uh, no. That'd be a $75 fine."

McDavid, forever the diplomat, goes on to please the reporters and entertain questions about the possibility of playing in Buffalo.

"The fans here are great and have been so good to me. If I'm fortunate enough to play here, it'd be a dream.

"Tonight was a little slice of heaven for us. We were in the player's room, getting all this food, as much as you could possibly eat, and we were joking that it's not what we're used to. We're used to 12-hour bus trips and that kind of thing — but that's junior hockey for you, and it's a special thing."

Afterwards, he catches up with his teammates and heads for the bus. Still lingering is the image of McDavid slipping the puck between the defenders legs and collecting it on the other side. McDavid is asked if, in those moments, the game slows down and gives him a chance to think.

"There's not a whole lot of thinking," he says, "if it is thinking often times you're going to get kinda caught. It sort of has to be all instinct and that's something I think I may have."

He catches himself, shrugs and then adds, "I don't know whether I have it or not."

Tomorrow night's game is in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. It's an eight-hour drive away, and fans there are already waiting to see him. There will be more autographs, more questions to answer, and, likely, more plays that he sees a second or two before anyone else.

He walks with his teammates down the dim concrete hallway, a backpack slung over his shoulder. The mood is light and laughter rings out against the walls.

As McDavid now knows, each passing day in junior hockey is more precious, the stakes higher every time he steps on the ice. A year from now, his time here passed into memory, he will play before tens of thousands of fans every night, and like Gretzky and all those who came before him, he will be tested in ways he cannot yet imagine.

That's still in the future.

One by one, the team climbs into the bus, their shouts and laughter fading softly as they board. Tomorrow, they'll all be up early to start making the drive north, but tonight there's time to enjoy the moment. For now, Connor McDavid remains their own. Soon enough, he'll belong to the world.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Photos: Getty Images

About the Author

Sam Riches is a writer in Canada. He's previously been published online at the New Yorker, Wired, the Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere. He's on Twitter: @sam_riches.

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