In the world of teenage fiction, J.K. Rowling created the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and installed Harry Potter as The Chosen One. In the world of teenage on-ice wizardry, Neil Doctorow created the Hogwarts of Hockey and installed Connor McDavid as The Chosen One.
If you marvel at McDavid’s skill level and wonder where it was nurtured, a good part of it can be traced to an airport hangar on an abandoned Canadian Air Force base in Toronto. That’s where the PEAC School for Elite Athletes is located and where McDavid spent three years honing his skills. For upwards of $30,000 a year, parents can send their aspiring hockey stars to an institution such as PEAC, one of a growing number of private sports schools in Canada, and place them in a high-end cocoon with like-minded kids.
It was there McDavid spent Grade 7, 8 and 9, combining a rigorous youth hockey schedule with the Toronto Marlies AAA team with life at PEAC, which included 90 minutes a day on the ice, plus dryland training with a full school day jammed in between. PEAC produced two first-overall picks in the OHL draft in McDavid (2012) and Travis Konecny (2013) and will have three NHL first-rounders in 2015 with McDavid, Konecny and Lawson Crouse. McDavid was special, however.
Doctorow, who founded the institution and was its director until he recently sold it, remembers McDavid showing up as a 12-year-old phenom who had the skills to play on the under-16 team. “In his first game, he got knocked down in the crease and, on his knees, he stickhandled the puck and roofed it into the net,” Doctorow said. “There were 100 people in the stands and nobody could believe what they saw.”
Ryan Stickle was a social studies and history teacher at PEAC who drove McDavid to school every morning. He remembers a young man who was as dedicated and driven in the classroom as he was on the ice. “He had a thirst for knowledge, whether it was in the classroom or becoming a better player,” Stickle said. “Connor was somebody who demanded more, whether it was from a coach or a teacher, he wanted to be better. He wanted to do more work in class, and he was always the last guy off the ice.”
It was at PEAC where McDavid began to embrace an off-ice regimen. Combined with his skills, it made for a rare breed of player. McDavid would even spend the few days he had off from his AAA club hockey commitments in the gym building strength. “In September, you’re in with your (club) team, so you’re going five days a week after school,” Stickle said. “But any night he had free time, I recall him on the treadmill with a 50-pound flak jacket on doing side shuffles.”
But it was also at PEAC that people began to see McDavid’s maturity and integrity. Despite an almost iconic status among even elite athletes, McDavid wasn’t impressed with himself and fretted about how good other private-school players, such as Michael Dal Colle and Nick Ritchie, were. McDavid was popular because he treated everyone the same.
It was during McDavid’s first year Doctorow saw what kind of principles the kid possessed. Even as a seventh grader, McDavid usually practised and played with the under-16 team, but in the games with his own age group he’d score a couple goals, then hang back and set up teammates.
It was in a practice with the 12-year-olds, however, that Doctorow learned the lengths McDavid would go for his fellow students. One day, one of the instructors pulled McDavid aside and asked him what “that retard was doing in the corner.” McDavid reported the incident to another instructor, who alerted Doctorow. The instructor was fired the next day. “He was always standing up for the underdog,” Doctorow said. “He was the kind of kid who would prop up the other kids so they would feel good.”