It has taken an incredibly short amount of time – 45 games and a World Cup stint to be exact – for the hockey world to determine what kind of NHL player Connor McDavid will be. It’s clear already that McDavid is a truly special talent, a future superstar and, quite probably, the next face of the best league in the world.
Now we’re going to find out what kind of captain he will be. When the Edmonton Oilers surprised absolutely no one by making McDavid the youngest and least NHL-experienced captain in the history of the game, they did so knowing it was a crucial move. In terms of leadership, the Oilers have been rudderless for years and throwing an unprepared 19-year-old into that kind of responsibility could have the potential to ruin a young man. But McDavid is not just any young man. We tend to throw the term “special” around rather haphazardly in this game, but with McDavid, it might not even be strong enough to describe him. There is nothing in his makeup or his game to suggest that he’s not fully prepared to take this on. It will help that he’ll have some great veteran leadership helping him with alternate captains Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle.
But this is McDavid’s team now. And that’s as it should be. But what kind of captain will he be? Well, Sherry Bassin has a pretty good handle on that. The former owner-GM of the Erie Otters has been around the junior game for decades and has seen all kinds of captains in his time. McDavid was the Otters' captain for his final year of junior hockey, but was part of the team's leadership group from the time he came to the team as a 15-year-old rookie. To illustrate McDavid's leadership qualities, Bassin has a story.
McDavid was 17 and playing in his second season in the league. The Otters were visiting the Guelph Storm on a bitterly cold winter night. After the game, Bassin looked out and there were hundreds of people waiting for autographs from McDavid. With the team bus waiting to take the team to a road game the next day, Bassin approached his prodigy. “I said to him, ‘Dave-O’, there are a lot of people out there waiting, but if you want we can get you out this side door and get you on the bus,’ ” Bassin recalled. “And he said, ‘No, Bass. I was a little boy once, too.’ And guess what? He signed for 45 minutes. I had to go find him and say, ‘Hey, we have a game tomorrow.’ ”
The Oilers have had some pretty significant captains over the years. Wayne Gretzky was a natural by his play and comportment. Mark Messier has been lauded as one of the greatest leaders in the history of the game. Craig MacTavish, Kevin Lowe and Kelly Buchberger were all parts of the dynasty years and learned their leadership lessons well. Doug Weight and Jason Smith ushered the Oilers through some trying times and were as salt-of-the-earth as they come.
McDavid will be his own man in this respect. He’s certainly not about to pin a teammate against the wall of the dressing room or call someone out for a lack of effort. But Bassin maintains he will make his feelings clear. There are not many words when it comes to McDavid, but the ones he does say have an enormous weight to them. “Some people mistake rah-rahness for leadership,” Bassin said. “That’s not him. Everything he does is done respectfully. I think the guys will love him so much and respect him so much that they won’t want to let him down.”
Bassin said McDavid would be much more apt to quietly take a teammate out for a sandwich than single him out in front of his teammates. He also said he often sought out McDavid’s opinions on the pulse of the team and his thoughts on players on the team. The respect factor for McDavid will undoubtedly be high. His moral compass and his value system are, to this point, beyond reproach. Had McDavid had major character flaws, all the scrutiny he has been under since he was 15 would have likely exposed them by now. There are few players in the game who prepare themselves better than McDavid does and if his teammates watch and learn, that could be all the leadership McDavid needs to provide.
“There’s a difference between earning respect and demanding respect,” Bassin said. “When you demand respect, as soon as you turn your back, it’s not there. When you earn respect, it’s always there. And he earns it.”
The Oilers are at an absolutely pivotal point. They’re a team on the rise with some bright young stars and a management group that has provided stability and a steady hand. Choosing the wrong on-ice leader could set them back for years. But this is one the Oilers got right.