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Connor McDavid was drafted No. 1 overall by the Erie Otters in the 2012 OHL draft and is a designated ‘exceptional player’ by the NHL. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Connor McDavid was drafted No. 1 overall by the Erie Otters in the 2012 OHL draft and is a designated ‘exceptional player’ by the NHL. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Hockey Camp

Phenom McDavid gets a chance to measure up against the very best Add to ...

It is hard to imagine a better hockey role model than Steven Stamkos, on or off the ice.

Especially for a rising junior phenom like Connor McDavid, who has had an up-close-and-personal look at the Tampa Bay Lightning star’s legendary off-season training regimen this week, under the watchful eye of former NHL star turned fitness trainer Gary Roberts.

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McDavid, 16, is coming off a rookie season with the Erie Otters in the OHL, where he scored 66 points (25 goals) in 63 games, turning heads again and again for his ability to compete with players four or five years older.

This week, because of a last-minute cancellation, the Newmarket, Ont., native has the chance to skate with a group of nearly 50 pros – including several NHL stars such as Stamkos – as part of the BioSteel Pro Hockey Camp, measuring his game against some of the best players in the world for the first time.

It has been a humbling experience so far.

“Just how big and fast they are,” McDavid said when asked what he has learned about NHL-level competition thus far. “The pace just keeps stepping up, and it was tough to keep up a little bit.”

Not that that’s unexpected at this point. Just 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, McDavid isn’t even eligible for the NHL draft for almost another two years, when he’ll headline a 2015 class that has been focused on his name for a while.

McDavid hasn’t given scouts many reasons to doubt his abilities, however, as he was the most valuable player at the world under-18 tournament in April, setting a Canadian scoring record with 14 points in seven games to lead his team to a gold medal.

That performance helped get him an invite to the world junior camp this summer, and indications are he could become just the sixth 16-year-old to suit up for Canada this winter.

Only the third player in OHL history to be granted “exceptional player status” last year, to allow him to play major junior at 15, McDavid appears to be the latest young player to set to make good on the “Next One” designation.

“There weren’t really many too many expectations on me,” McDavid said of his rookie season with a rebuilding Otters team. “Now, it seems like there’s a lot of pressure. I’ve got to be better than last year.”

One thing in his favour is just how closely his off-season preparation is beginning to mirror that of Stamkos, who similarly teamed up with Roberts as a teenager and saw immediate results on the ice.

Only 23, Stamkos has nonetheless led the NHL in both goals and points over the past four years, with his 185 goals putting him 33 ahead of Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin over that span.

This is only McDavid’s second summer with Roberts, who earned the nickname “Scary Gary” during his playing career, but has kept it up in his second career as a no-nonsense trainer for the stars.

“I’m getting to know him pretty well,” McDavid said, noting it’s been a tough adjustment to Roberts’s notoriously strict all-organic diet. “Hopefully, he can turn me into one of these guys.”

As for keeping up with the man who was the NHL’s first-overall pick in 2008, seven years before he’ll hear his name called, there’s a long way to go there still, too.

“Stamkos worked out in the group just before me and every day it was pretty interesting coming in,” McDavid said. “If it was a trap bar, or dead lift, you look down at the bar after and it was record-setting [weight] every time. It was pretty cool experiencing that this summer.”

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