While it feels like he’s been around forever, Connor McDavid is in only his fourth NHL season and doesn’t turn 22 until January. He’s the most dynamic hockey player in the world and for many, he’s the best in the world, full stop. In the beginning, McDavid guarded his personality as well as he shields the puck when he’s supersonically skating up the ice, and it was very much by design. “He’s been very mature with that since he was young,” said longtime friend and junior teammate Dylan Strome. “He’s unbelievable about keeping his life private and dealing with the media.”
This is true with a lot of hockey players, where the team comes before the individual. But we all want to know McDavid better because he is such a phenom. Now, it’s starting to come out. His Homer Simpson Halloween costume was an instant sensation on Twitter, and he has shown in TV commercials that he has fun with his persona.
Experience helps. McDavid has been dealing with tons of media requests since he was a teen, and his agents (as well as the OHL’s Erie Otters) were always sifting through the asks so he wouldn’t get buried. Fellow 2015 draft star Jack Eichel had a similar relationship with Boston University’s staff, and they even put in a temporary blackout period so Eichel could recover from the world juniors.
At this point, you may ask, “But haven’t all phenoms gone through this?” Absolutely not. This level of saturation is a recent phenomenon. Only now do we have constant bombardment of online media, while 24-hour sports TV and radio still exist. Think about it this way: neither Twitter nor Facebook were household names when Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were drafted. Neither became a cultural force until years later. Go further back and you’ll find Wayne Gretzky’s reign pre-dated the internet age. Heck, TSN didn’t even come into prominence until after he won his last Stanley Cup. So Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr and Original Six superstars only had a few newspapers – and The Hockey News – to deal with. Though, admittedly, I would have loved to see the live Twitter thread of Eddie Shore’s famous limo-in-a-sleet-storm drive from Boston to Montreal.
If you’re a sports fan now, information comes buffet-style. Forget hearing legends of some kid from Parry Sound who can skate like the wind: these days you can watch 13-year-old Connor Bedard on YouTube. And when Shane Wright and/or Adam Fantilli are granted exceptional status to join the OHL a year early, there’s a chance the news will be leaked online before even family members find out. That’s the level of immediacy we’re dealing with. For the sports-craving public, it’s a boon. For the players and those close to them, it’s understandably vexing. And I can’t imagine it’s going to swing towards the needs of the players in the future. I’ve opined in this spot before about the fact elite young players are getting agents/family advisors at an earlier age these days and media saturation is something these professionals help with. It’s a balancing act, where you want to get fans excited about the player, without distracting the player himself to his detriment.
As someone who writes about prospects, I have wondered myself how young I should go with my coverage. In general, I stick to kids already in major junior (or the USHL), but I’ll hit up the OHL Cup in the spring to cover off some top OHL prospects. And when I get a chance to see phenoms such as Bedard, Wright and Fantilli in person during the summer, I’m going to seize that opportunity because I want to know what the fuss is about, and I think readers do, too. But if I ever went to the Quebec International Peewee tournament, it would be for the grand spectacle itself – not for scouting reports.
Media interest in The Next Big Things isn’t going to wane anytime soon, but we must remember that however gifted these kids are, they’re still kids. Some of them might not make it to the NHL, some younger ones might even decide they like skateboarding or baseball more. We’ve got the means for maximum information – let’s just make sure we don’t overeat at the buffet.