Fifteen-year-old phenom Connor McDavid will almost certainly be playing in the Ontario League next season. The big question now is whether he’ll be plying his trade in Erie or Hamilton.
Multiple sources have confirmed to THN.com that McDavid has applied to Hockey Canada for its “exceptional player” status, which would allow him to play major junior hockey one year early if he’s accepted. He has also retained the Bobby Orr Agency to represent him.
Hockey Canada is expected to announce its decision on McDavid’s application in the coming days and while there’s little doubt among observers McDavid is both talented and mature enough to handle the rigors of the OHL as a 15-year-old, one league executive said Hockey Canada is worried about the optics, particularly since it granted exceptional status to Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad last year.
“They don’t want it to look like this is going to happen every year,” he said.
But let’s assume Hockey Canada judges McDavid simply on his merits as a player and a person. If that’s the case, the young man should start preparing now for his OHL career. He’s that good. Some think Sidney Crosby-type good.
“I can’t think of a player other than Sidney who was better at that age,” the executive said. “He played in the all-Ontario peewee finals a few years ago and he was playing up (a year) and he had triple the number of points of anyone else.”
McDavid will almost certainly be chosen first overall if he’s deemed eligible, but he won’t be able to start looking for a billet family until he finds out where he’s playing next season. The Erie Otters, who had the No. 1 pick in the OHL wrapped up months ago, are currently negotiating a lease extension with the Tullio Arena in Erie amid speculation they will move to Hamilton next season if an agreement can’t be reached.
It would be a risky move for the Otters if it happened. Although there is speculation that Hamilton Bulldogs owner Michael Andlauer could be involved, particularly if the American League’s Bulldogs move to Laval in the next couple of years, the city of Hamilton has never demonstrated a willingness to support major junior hockey on a consistent basis. In fact, Hamilton has been home to four failed major junior teams – the Red Wings, Fincups, Steelhawks and Dukes.
It might all be moot, though, since the Erie Times-News reported Thursday Otters owner Sherry Bassin feels he’s very close to signing a two-year deal for the arena with the Erie County Convention Center Authority. But there is still work to do and Bassin has the Hamilton possibility, even if the team plays in the antiquated Dave Andreychuk Hamilton Mountain Arena, which seats only 2,500 fans, roughly 1,000 below the OHL’s standards. (If the Bulldogs leave, the Otters could then move into Copps Coliseum.)
“Nothing has come up at the board level,” the OHL executive said. “But would I be totally surprised if they moved to Hamilton? No.”
McDavid, meanwhile, will have one last opportunity to cement his status during the OHL Cup minor midget tournament next week. Despite being eligible to play at the minor bantam level, McDavid is playing for the Toronto Marlboros minor midget team, the top-ranked squad in North America and an odds-on favorite to retain the title it won last year with first round OHL picks Nicholas Ritchie, Jordan Subban and David Perklin. The Marlies are expected to have an even more impressive bounty of OHL picks this year.
In fact, there’s an excellent chance McDavid and teammate Josh Ho-Sang will go 1-2 in the draft. Ho-Sang is a dynamic player who has the ability to lift fans out of their seats and, if not for the presence of McDavid, would be a heavy favorite to go No. 1. McDavid has the edge as a prospect for a couple of reasons. First, he’s a more complete player. Second, if he’s granted exceptional player status for next season, the team drafting him would have him for three years until his NHL draft year and Ho-Sang only two.
Teammate Roland McKeown, who is the Marlboros team captain and top defenseman, will follow close behind in the OHL draft. Among the others eligible are Jared McCann of the London Jr. Knights and Robert Fabbri of the Mississauga Rebels. There are also a number of American players who are top prospects, including Ryan MacInnis. The son of Hall of Famer Al MacInnis plays for the St. Louis Blues under-16 team and whether or not he confirms he will report to the OHL team that chooses him will determine how high he goes in the draft.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.