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Connor McDavid: An oral history of the Oilers' phenom

His sublime talent was evident when he was four years old. Here, in his own words and from the people who know him best, is the story of Connor McDavid from minor hockey to the NHL.
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Connor McDavid is just 21, but he has already ascended to the top of the NHL’s pyramid. A phenom since he first played the game just north of Toronto, he has been breathlessly followed by the hockey world since before he even got to the OHL – where he arrived a year early thanks to his incredible skill set and maturity. He is the biggest hockey star in the world today and the captain of the Edmonton Oilers. McDavid has already won two scoring titles and a Hart Trophy as league MVP. Had the Oilers not missed the playoffs last season, he would’ve won his second Hart in just three NHL seasons. This is the story of Connor McDavid’s rise.

McDavid was ahead of his peers from the moment he touched a hockey stick. Playing in his actual age group wouldn’t do.

CONNOR MCDAVID: I was four when my parents signed me up for house league in Newmarket. They lied about my age so I could play a year early. It’s kinda funny how that started. I was impatient to play.

KELLY MCDAVID, CONNOR’S MOTHER: He was quite insistent, and it was a bit frustrating, because he missed the cutoff by 13 days. We told him, “If they ask for your birth certificate, we’ll have to tell them,” but they never did. Two years later, he went to tryouts for the select team. He was probably the best player out there, so we had to call the Newmarket minor hockey association and tell them, “Look, he’s not seven, he’s six. But they skip kids in school if they’re smart. Can’t we do the same thing here?” They were adamant: no. But what could we do? He was skating circles around the other kids. So we called up the Aurora hockey association and asked if he could play up and they said, “Sure.”

He played with nine-year-olds when he was six. That was kinda rough, if they were losing a game, they’d look down the bench like, “C’mon, Connor, go out and score for us.” It was a lot of pressure, so finally I sat him down and said, “What do you want from this?” He said, “I want to play rep hockey.” Now, AAA accepted younger players, and there were 10 weeks until the deadline, so I made a staircase out of paper, there were 10 games left in his season, each stair represented a game. It gave him a goal to look forward to. He was an old soul, so even back then I could always reason with him.

 EYES ON THE PRIZE A young McDavid takes flight on the attack with the York Simcoe Express.Courtesy of Kelly McDavid

EYES ON THE PRIZE A young McDavid takes flight on the attack with the York Simcoe Express.Courtesy of Kelly McDavid

TRAVIS DERMOTT, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: I remember playing against him in Timbits, because we were both from Newmarket. It would always end up being his team against my team near the end, and we had some pretty good battles, but he was special from Day 1. I think I was eight when we first played together, the novice York-Simcoe Express team. He was on that team until minor bantam. Our peewee year was pretty special, we won (the Ontario Minor Hockey Association), the (Ontario Hockey Federation) and then went to the final of the Quebec International. It was Al MacInnis’ St. Louis Jr. Blues, his son was on that team. That was Connor’s last year with us before he went to the Marlies.

CONNOR MCDAVID: We were the small-town team. There was a lot of hype around that tournament, as there still is today. We beat a Quebec team in front of a sold-out crowd at the Coliseum, which was pretty cool. The thing about that tournament is that if you win, you keep going, so you don’t know how long you’ll be there. We were playing mini-sticks at the hotel every moment we could. Those are some of my best memories.

KELLY MCDAVID: I didn’t go to that tournament, because I stayed with our older son Cameron. But I remember tucking Connor into bed the first night he came back and saying, “Oh, you must be so happy to be back in your own bed,” and he said, “Nope, nope. I could live in a hotel.”

McDavid left the Express to play for the powerhouse Toronto Marlboros organization, whose alumni include John Tavares and Rick Nash. Still playing a year up in 2011-12, the 14-year-old played on a Marlies team that also had Sam Bennett and Josh Ho-Sang. McDavid also found representation from the Orr Group, led by former teen phenom and Hall of Famer Bobby Orr.

CONNOR MCDAVID: We were dominant all year and it was everyone, we had so many good players. We ended up having the first two players in the OHL draft (McDavid and Carolina prospect Roland McKeown), three of the first five picks and five of the first 12, which is pretty remarkable. Then we had call-ups like Dylan Strome and Mitchell Stephens, guys who will either be in the NHL soon or are already there.

JEFF JACKSON, PLAYER AGENT, THE ORR GROUP: The first time I saw him was when he was a bantam-aged player with the minor midget Marlboros, so he was 14. I still remember the place – Canlan Arena in Scarborough, rink No. 4. Sam Gagner was a client, and he had been working out by himself at a rink in Oakville. Connor saw him and asked if he could come out onto the ice with him. They messed around for about 20 minutes and afterwards, Sam called me and said, “You gotta find this kid. His name is David O’Connor or something, and he plays for the Marlboros. He’s doing things I can’t do out there.” And Sam had been in the NHL for four or five years at the time. So I called up the Marlboros and they laughed and said, “Yeah, his name is Connor McDavid.” I go out to see him and two shifts in, it was like, “Oh my god.”

ROBBY FABBRI, ST. LOUIS BLUES: It got to the point where we didn’t think he could get any better, and he just kept doing it. And he’s still doing it now.

Despite their dominance, the Marlboros ended up losing the OHL Cup final 2-1 to the rival Mississauga Rebels, who were led by Fabbri and a stunning performance by goaltender Liam Herbst.

CONNOR MCDAVID: We played the Rebels 12 times that year, maybe more. So you get to know a team in and out. I think we beat them 10 times, including in the GTHL final, so we thought we had their number.

FABBRI: All year long we had a bunch of guys that just worked and played into the system. We went in feeling confident and got the outcome we wanted. In games like that, every battle is so important that both teams played great defensively.

McDavid’s next step was the OHL. Because of his incredible gifts, McDavid had applied to Hockey Canada for “exceptional status,” which would allow him to play in the OHL a year earlier than normal. The permission, also known as the “John Tavares rule,” had been granted to future Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad the year prior. In order to gain the status, McDavid was interviewed by a psychologist to ensure he had the mental maturity needed, while a committee set up by the Ontario Hockey Federation interviewed a host of his teachers and hockey coaches.

CONNOR MCDAVID: It was a decision in the works from the year before, when Aaron Ekblad went through it. I thought, I could do that. I’m friends with Aaron, and my parents are friendly with his parents, so they walked us through the process. There’s a psychologist you have to meet with. It’s kind of ridiculous, looking back on it.

KELLY MCDAVID: It was definitely stressful. It’s supposed to be confidential, but it’s not. Because Ekblad got it, I said to Connor, “Maybe they wouldn’t do it two years in a row, and it would be better if you got drafted the year you’re supposed to.” He looked me right in the eyes and said, “Mom, I’d hate if I didn’t try. I’d rather try and not succeed than look back and regret not trying.” He’s always been so mature.

McDavid was granted exceptional status, and when the OHL draft came around that April, he was happily taken first overall by the Erie Otters, the Pennsylvania-based franchise that was enduring a rough stretch in its history. Not only was McDavid leaving home a year early, but he was leaving his native country to do it.

KELLY MCDAVID: I was an absolute mess. He was the one who said not to worry. But that was a really difficult year. The team was terrible, and there was a coaching change at Christmas that was a bit devastating for him. And the NHL lockout was on, so there was a lot of attention being paid to Connor. He was doing several interviews every day.

JACKSON: The team was not good. (Owner-GM) Sherry Bassin was still putting a plan into place, and they were in transition. Connor despised losing, and he had never played on a losing team before. It was frustrating for him, as it is for a lot of kids like that who haven’t gone through losing before. I told him, “Don’t panic, it will change, there’s a plan.” He was driven by success, and it was driving him crazy. But he handled it well. He takes the hard stuff and makes it look like kids’ stuff.

CONNOR MCDAVID: It was tough for me. You’re moving away from home as a 15-year-old, and I was going into a situation where I didn’t know anyone, I hadn’t played with any of those guys before. And you’re changing high schools, which is hard to do when you’re 15.

McDavid also began training with retired NHL star turned fitness guru Gary Roberts, who had an all-star cast of clients working out in the summer in Newmarket.

GARY ROBERTS: He was shy. He was quiet. I would say he was uncomfortable, which is normal for a 15-year-old kid in that kind of environment. He was watching Steven Stamkos and a bunch of other NHLers work out. I would be uncomfortable, too. Truthfully, I don’t think he loved the gym initially, but to be successful, he knew what he had to do. He was always respectful. We used to sit there and correct him, but we didn’t talk to him a lot, and now, he cuts us up for doing that. But we were making sure we didn’t hurt him. When Bobby Orr calls you up and says, “I’ve got an amazing player and I want you to take care of him,” well, we were very cautious.

As a 15-year-old, McDavid was a point-per-game player in the OHL, but the Otters finished last in their conference again. But help was on the way. Future Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Connor Brown was already on the team, and through the OHL draft and the CHL import draft, Erie added Dylan Strome, Andre Burakovsky and Oscar Dansk. McDavid’s old friend Dermott also joined the team after flirting with NCAA Michigan.

DERMOTT: I loved Erie. I know the route that visiting teams take into Erie is kind of through the rougher part of the city, so everyone thinks it’s a bad place to play, but being there for three years…where everyone lives is a great part of town. I loved my time there. That whole experience for me was pretty much perfect.

DYLAN STROME, ARIZONA COYOTES: Connor was great. He takes a while to open up with you, but once he does, he’s awesome. His second year in Erie, his two best friends, Stephen Harper and Hayden Hodgson, got traded. I lived down the street, and we started hanging out more and golfing together. We became really close and had a lot of fun.

The revitalized Otters would go on to win their first playoff series in years, 4-1 over Saginaw, before getting swept by Sault Ste. Marie in the second round. The next season was McDavid’s NHL draft year, and all eyes were on the kid in Erie. In his first 18 games of the 2014-15 campaign, McDavid piled up 51 points and the Otters won 16 times. The next game was a Nov. 11 home date against the Mississauga Steelheads and a former schoolmate of McDavid’s named Bryson Cianfrone. After a couple slashes each in an otherwise unremarkable contest, the two players dropped the gloves.

CONNOR MCDAVID: It’s funny, I remember the fight happened in the second period. During the first intermission, I was talking to the guys in the dressing room about how it was an emotionless game. I don’t know if anyone had even thrown a hit in the first period. There were maybe 1,000 people there on a Tuesday in Erie. We were good, Mississauga was bad at the time, and I think we were up 4-0 when it happened. The need for that fight was none at all. But the next thing you know…

McDavid broke a bone in his right hand during the fight, putting him on the shelf for an estimated 5-6 weeks.

DERMOTT: It was kind of a fluke. He was obviously really frustrated how random it was, where he leaned back and fell back on it weird. We got by it. Looking back, it was kinda funny because it’s over with and everything was fine, but in the moment it was stressful. He was obviously eager to be back.

The recovery timeline ran right up to the start of the 2015 World Junior Championship, where McDavid was expected to star for a Canadian team trying to win its first gold medal since 2009 – and in McDavid’s backyard of Toronto, no less. He healed up just in time, posting 11 points in seven games to help Canada claim gold.

DARNELL NURSE, EDMONTON OILERS: There was a lot of talent on that team. Connor and Max Domi, Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair had a big tournament, all guys who could score, but they also played defense. It was an extremely well-oiled machine. It was fun to be in Canada for it. That was really special. Being at the (Air Canada Centre) for the gold-medal game, you couldn’t even hear yourself think.

CONNOR MCDAVID: That was like that Marlies minor midget team, it could’ve been anyone on any night. Whenever we got rolling, we were pretty dominant. Against the Russians in the gold-medal game, we went up 5-1, and then they came back. The highs and lows of the world juniors, I guess. Luckily, we were able to fight them off in the end.

With WJC gold in hand, McDavid went back to Erie, where the Otters ended up first in their division and second in the conference entering the playoffs. Erie lost just three games en route to the OHL final before getting eliminated by the eventual Memorial Cup-champion Oshawa Generals.

STROME: What people don’t know is that we weren’t supposed to get past the Soo in the third round that year. They had brought in Anthony DeAngelo and Nick Ritchie, plus they already had a bunch of good players like Darnell Nurse. We were a good team, but we had a great series against them.

NURSE: They lit us up pretty good. Connor’s always been so fast and able to create that separation that if he gets a step on you, he’s gone.

McDavid tallied 49 points in 20 games during that post-season, but in the final against Oshawa, the Generals held him to seven points in five games, keeping him off the scoreboard entirely in two of those contests. At the forefront was the defense pairing of Josh Brown and Dakota Mermis, plus shutdown center Cole Cassels.

DAKOTA MERMIS, TUCSON ROADRUNNERS: A lot of credit goes to D.J. Smith and our coaching staff. They watched so much film on Erie and Connor, and they showed us tons of clips. Everything Erie did went through No. 97, and so far no one had been able to stop him. We studied so much, we knew exactly what he was going to do, we knew his tendencies. He was so good back then, that one step and he was at top speed out of his zone, so we found ways to stop that. He could stickhandle through everyone, but he didn’t like to shoot outside of the house, so we just pushed him to the outside. We had our plan. The commitment was second to none. Everyone was on the same page.

STROME: With Oshawa, they shut us down in every way possible. They were a team, and they went on to win the Memorial Cup, so that just tells you how good they were.

McDavid had confirmed just how phenomenal he was even in defeat, and with the Edmonton Oilers winning the draft lottery, it was a foregone conclusion they would select him first overall when the NHL draft was held in Florida. On the night of June 26, 2015, it became a reality.

KELLY MCDAVID: It was one of the best nights we’ve ever had, one of those nights you wish would never end. We were all so happy. This was what he had always worked toward.

JACKSON: We had a dinner party after with the family and (Erie coach) Kris Knoblauch and Sherry Bassin. Connor was happy and relieved, like, “Now it’s time to prepare.” And that’s how he thinks. He doesn’t rest on his laurels. Dave Gagner and I left around 2:30 a.m., because we had other clients who were going to be drafted in Round 2, which started at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. So we’re saying goodbye to Connor, telling him that we’ll see him back home, and he says, “No, no, I’m coming with you in the morning, I want to see Travis Dermott get drafted.” That’s Connor.

Though the Oilers had amassed several high draft picks already, success had not come back to Edmonton. But with McDavid in the lineup and a new coach in Todd McLellan, spirits were high in town.

TODD MCLELLAN, EDMONTON OILERS COACH: My initial impression of Connor? “Wow.” There’s no other way to put it. The hype was well known, but when you’re an NHL coach, you don’t see junior players, even the superstars. I truly realized the impact he would have on the ice and on the fans when we had a scrimmage at development camp and it was sold out. I’ve coached a lot of great players, but none had sold out an NHL arena for a rookie intrasquad game.

NURSE: My rookie year was his rookie year, and right off the bat, you could see that with the way he thought the game and with the speed he had, he was special. He had that injury, but he was so resilient coming back from it that he came back even stronger.

While McDavid lived up to expectations as a rookie, his campaign got cut short when Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning tripped him into the boards in early November. McDavid fractured his clavicle on the play and did not return until February, dashing his chances for the Calder Trophy.

In Year 2, McDavid played all 82 games and registered his first 100-point season in the NHL, earning the Hart Trophy and guiding the Oilers to their first playoff appearance – and series victory – in 11 years. Just as noteworthy, he also became the youngest captain in NHL history when he was given the ‘C’ on Oct. 5, 2016, at 19 years and 266 days – 20 days younger than Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog.

MCLELLAN: Andrew Ference was retiring, so from mid-to-late Year 1 we were thinking about it. Connor had come back from his injury, and he was commanding the respect of the room. I felt he really fit the room. We went to the World Cup of Hockey together that summer, and he played really well. To us, it was a no-brainer. He’s an outstanding young man. His ethics and his morals are elite. He takes in all the information and has bright and smart answers.

NURSE: He’s been that leader since almost his first year. He’s the guy that makes the big plays on the ice, but he’s also good in the room. From a captaincy standpoint, he was an unbelievable candidate. Now he’s becoming more vocal, and he has always had that attention to detail. We lived together for two years, and he’s such a good guy. You talk about having good habits, he’s always been mature. At the same time, he enjoys his time with his teammates and friends and family. He became one of my closest friends, and he’s one of a kind.

JACKSON: He respects the hierarchy in hockey, so it takes a while for him to take over a team. His maturity is such that he was ready for it.

ROBERTS: The way he treats my staff, the respect he shows them and the respect he shows his peers, certain players come along and they’re ambassadors for the game, like Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby. Those really great players are also great people, and Connor falls into that category. He’s a treat to be around and to work with. His respect for the game is at the highest level.

The only question now is how good McDavid can get and how far he can take the Oilers, a franchise with five Cups but little in the way of playoff success since 1990.

MCLELLAN: I don’t know what his ceiling is. I just know it’s not now. We’ll probably go back years from now and say that a certain segment of games was the pinnacle, just like people did with Gretzky or (Mario) Lemieux. The thing about superstars is that they stay good for a long time.

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