For most Ontario Hockey League players, 16 is the age at when you may first enter the league. The majority of 16-year-olds are bit players on a much larger stage than what they’ve been accustomed to. They are growing into the league by paying their dues in practice, and learning from those older than them.
But most 16-year-olds aren’t Connor McDavid.
McDavid entered the OHL last season as a 15-year-old, having been granted exceptional player status. And he and the league seemed to fit hand in glove. Last year, McDavid was named the OHL’s Rookie of the Year after a campaign that saw him perform at just over a point-per-game pace, with 66 points in 63 games, including 25 goals.
So having acclimatized quickly to the OHL last year, is Year Two coming any easier?
“It’s really hard to say. I don’t think it’s changed all that much in my second year,” he said. “I’m just another year older and a lot of great players have left this league, but there are a lot of great players here still. Just a year older helps.
“The level of hockey here is unbelievable, it’s the best junior league in the world and I just think another year of experience really has made a difference.”
Despite performing at a better-than-point-per-game rate, McDavid said last year took a toll on him.
“For sure. It’s something that I’ve had no regrets about. It was my decision to apply for exceptional player status and I thought I had a pretty good year last year,” he said. “It was a little bit hard on me at times. The OHL season’s a grind. Being a year younger than you should be, it was certainly hard on me and hard on my body and I thought it showed as the year went on.
“So I spent a lot of time this summer doing good workouts and taking care of my body. Making a point of taking care of the little things and it will show all year.”
It’s paid off, both for McDavid and the resurgent Erie Otters. After 15 games, McDavid is tied for third in OHL scoring with five goals and 23 assists for the Otters. The Otters, long amongst the league’s doormats, are finding themselves near the top of the OHL, standing second in the league with a 12-2-1-0 record. As is the norm for McDavid, he’s quick to deflect credit to his coaches and teammates.
“The coaches have done a really good job of coming back this year with a new mindset — keeping everybody really, really honest,” he said. “And if you’re working hard night in and night out, they’ve done a really good job of establishing that and it’s contributed to our great start.”
Team owner and general manager Sherwood “Sherry” Bassin added that this type of talk is something that you come to expect from McDavid. But while for some it’s coached behavior, Bassin explained that it’s just the way the 16-year-old forward is.
“You want an example? It’s recorded — when he was at the World Under-18, he was the MVP of the tournament and he gets that hat trick and they were talking to him about his game. About him. And he says to them, ‘This is not about personal accomplishment; this is about winning the gold medal,’” Bassin said. “And that’s not a put-on. That’s him.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen players who are better. I can’t remember and I don’t want to say that I haven’t and then demean someone. But I know this: there isn’t a game that goes by where he doesn’t do something where you’re just overwhelmed.”
Bassin has been around the league for a number of years, and while he’s hesitant to burden his young player with unrealistic expectations, he’s constantly amazed at what McDavid is able to do on the ice.
“I don’t know that I have [seen a player like him]. I mean, without the comparisons — how do you talk about Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr, or those guys,” Bassin said. “What I do know is that there isn’t a game that goes by where he doesn’t bring you out of your seat.
“One of the top scouts that I know — and he is regarded as a very, very top young scout — said that he does things you don’t think are possible. He literally does things you don’t think are possible.”
And as amazing as he is on the ice, he’s just as incredible off of it, Bassin said.
“He’s such a special person. I’m lucky because I know him as a person. It’s never about him; it’s about the team,” Bassin said. “He’s what we always say — you have people that will say, I have a lot of skilled players but I wish they had more character; you have others that say, I have players with a lot of character, I wish they had more ability.
“You put them both together, like you do with him, and you’ve got a superstar.”
Not surprisingly, McDavid is quick to deflect credit to those around him.
“I’ve surrounded myself with really good people: my parents are really awesome people and they do a good job of keeping my head on my shoulders,” he said .”And all of my teammates do a really good job and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
“Here” is leading the Erie Otters to heights that they haven’t seen in nearly a decade. “Here” is drawing fans to the newly refurbished rink in Erie. “Here” is to a point where McDavid is a name that’s transcending the sport.
“They know him all over the world before they know the Erie Otters. We come from a big football, basketball, baseball area — I mean, high school football will draw 10,000 fans. Everywhere we go, even exhibition games, people want to see him,” Bassin said. “Here’s a good story for you, we were playing some exhibitions games in a lot of these small towns. And we didn’t want to play him in a lot of exhibition games — we only wanted to play him in about half of them. We ended up playing him in more. We were going to these smaller communities for exhibition games and they didn’t care if the Erie Otters came — they wanted to make sure that Connor McDavid would be there.
“I told this one community that had sold the rink out that I wasn’t sure that we were going to dress him. Their basic position was, “don’t bring the team then.” They didn’t say that, but it’s certainly the feeling I got.”
Recently, Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star wrote a column, in part, about McDavid. In it he questioned whether McDavid had already grown out of the OHL. Bassin, who expressed his like and admiration for the columnist, was quick to discount that — although he doesn’t expect McDavid to spend an overage year, or even a 19-year-old campaign, in the league.
“I think he can learn a lot in the OHL. There’s a big factor when you go to the NHL that you can literally put a team on his back — because that’s what’s going to be expected of him in time and that’s what he’s going to learn right now,” he said. “You often hear people say, ‘Oh let’s let him play here or play there.’ I don’t know of a player who played out his career in the OHL — and for him, his career will be when he’s 18 — that it hurt them. Never seen it happen in my 400-year history.”
For his part, McDavid admits he’s still learning the game. After suffering through a 19-win season that saw the Otters finish second-last in the OHL, he said he’s trying to keep everything in perspective.
“I try and take the good from last year and learn from the bad. I wouldn’t say I try to forget about last year, but I try to learn from the things that happened,” he said, adding that he’s also taken the time to speak with his friend — and fellow exceptional designee — Aaron Ekblad.
“I know Ekblad and he helped me through the whole process last year,” McDavid said. “He’s been really great — if I ever had any questions, he would always be there for me. But other than that we don’t talk about it too much — we may joke around about it here and there with each other.”
McDavid has a chance to join an elite group of players who have played for Team Canada at the U20 World Junior Championship at 16. He participated in the summer camp and has a good chance of joining players like Jay Bouwmeester, Sidney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, and Jason Spezza as 16-year-old Canucks playing on the world stage. In terms of goals, McDavid said donning the red-and-white Team Canada sweater is amongst his biggest.
“It’s almost right up there with playing in the National Hockey League. It’s really important to me, growing up as a young Canadian kid, where hockey is everything, to represent your country,” McDavid said. “I got a little taste of it this summer. If I keep working hard and keep things going here, I may have a shot at the World Juniors and that would be unbelievable.
“It’s something that’s a little bit on my mind. At the same time it’s not something I can focus on. My mindset’s on Erie and, moving forward, if I don’t get the opportunity there will be other chances in the future.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard