McDavid eager to get draft-eligible season underway
BROSSARD, QC -- Connor McDavid sat and watched in June as many of his friends, the players he grew up playing with and against, saw their lifelong dreams realized.
The 2014 NHL Draft was a highlight moment for one of McDavid's closest friends, defenceman Aaron Ekblad, who was the first pick by the Florida Panthers. Sam Bennett, McDavid's teammate and linemate for seven years in minor hockey, was selected fourth by the Calgary Flames.
As the draft continued with names being called at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, McDavid saw more and more of the people he grew up with, people who ultimately helped him become the most highly-anticipated hockey prospect since Sidney Crosby.
He was happy for them. But he also started to get antsy.
He should get his moment soon enough, as the center for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League is a strong favorite to be called first at the 2015 draft at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida.
The first event in the final stretch toward the draft takes place this week just outside Montreal, where McDavid is the only draft-eligible player taking part in the Canadian national junior team's summer development camp.
Now that his draft year is finally here, McDavid can’t wait to get it started.
"I'm excited," McDavid told NHL.com. "It's been a long summer, and watching these guys go through the process of getting drafted and the excitement and all that stuff, it makes you feel a little bit left out, a little bit jealous. I'm the only undrafted guy here.
"Jealous isn't the right word, because they're all my friends and I'm very happy for them, but at the same time you want to be there and you want to go through it with them. But my time will come soon."
It will indeed, as McDavid embarks on a season of scrutiny unlike anything he's ever seen. That is saying something for a player who has been on the NHL radar since he was 14. Everything McDavid does and says between now and the draft will likely be analyzed to death. And he knows it.
"I think the main thing, and it's something that's going to be very important this year, is don't read too much about yourself," McDavid said. "It's important. The good stuff is great, but there's going to be bad stuff that's said this year and other people's opinions and all that stuff. That's great, they can have their opinions, but I can't worry too much about what someone's thinking. It's important to distance yourself from all that and just keep to yourself."
That advice came from McDavid's agent, Bobby Orr, who knows a thing or two about the fishbowl existence of someone labeled a hockey prodigy.
"When he tells you something, you follow it to a tee," McDavid said. "That's good advice."
Orr isn't the only person McDavid will lean on in the coming months as he navigates through a season he has prepared for his entire hockey-playing life.
This is the third summer in which McDavid is training with former NHL star Gary Roberts, whose disciples include Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos. Stamkos was also a highly touted prospect from the Toronto area drafted No. 1, and McDavid has taken advantage of the opportunity to gain some insight from the Tampa Bay captain.
But the best source of guidance might be Ekblad, who like McDavid was granted exceptional player status by the Ontario Hockey League, allowing him to start his junior career at age 15. Ekblad was also seen by many, though not all, as the top prospect in his draft.
"He's a great guy," McDavid said. "In certain situations, when you look for some guidance and sometimes you can't go to your agent or your dad, maybe you'll need to go to a buddy like that who's been through that. He's a great friend, and I plan on using him a lot for help through this next year."
McDavid and Ekblad have been facing each other off and on since the 2009 Ontario Hockey Federation Peewee AAA provincial championships, when McDavid's York-Simcoe Express played Ekblad's Sun County Panthers in the preliminary round.
Ekblad remembers his introduction to McDavid very well.
"We ended up losing, I think, 3-2 or 4-2," Ekblad said. "The game after that, we played them in the medal round, in the semifinal, and we lost, like, 13-1. So obviously I thought Connor was a pretty special player when he can do that to the team that we had.
"We had a pretty good team, we thought."
The two played spring hockey together and have faced each other on numerous occasions. So it was only a matter of time before Ontario's top minor hockey defenceman and top offensive star developed a friendship.
Ekblad's memory of being a top draft prospect remains fresh in his mind, and he has little doubt McDavid has the proper mental makeup to handle it.
"He handles pressure well," Ekblad said. "He wouldn't have been allowed to get exceptional status if he wasn't mentally strong like that. He handles himself well and does things the right way. I would never worry about a guy like him in terms of media or pressure."
At Canada's development camp, McDavid is one of 10 returning players from a team that finished fourth at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. Considering Canada's disappointing performance in Malmo, coach Benoit Groulx said no one's job is safe. But McDavid shouldn't need to worry about what he'll be doing this Christmas.
"I think he's bigger and taller, and if you watched the practice closely [Monday] morning, he's still flying," Groulx said. "The skill is there. I think for him it's a matter of not putting too much pressure on himself. We all know what he can bring to this team. We all believe in him, and I think he's going to be an important piece of our club at Christmas time. When you look at Connor, the way he prepares himself off the ice, the way he prepares himself to play, he's a future pro, a future outstanding player."
McDavid's experience in Sweden last year did not receive universal praise. It is highly unusual for a 16-year-old to even make the Canadian team, let alone excel. Still, McDavid was subject to some criticism after scoring one goal and four points in seven tournament games.
"There's always bad press out there, especially with the World Juniors I had last year not a lot of good stuff was being said," McDavid said. "It's tough, but that was kind of my first experience with bad press. But it's good, I guess. You survive it, and what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
"That's how I feel going into this World Junior tournament and this week. I'm still here, even though it went so poorly. We're still here, the guys are back, the coaches are back and we have another great opportunity here."
It will be another opportunity for McDavid. In the middle of his draft year, he'll be playing against the world's best under-20 players in a tournament staged in Toronto and Montreal, arguably the two biggest hockey markets on the planet.
McDavid's time, as he said himself, is coming soon.
He can hardly wait.
Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor LNH.com