They call them “bird dogs.”
They are the part-time and often unpaid scouts who scour the small rinks of this hockey mad country in search of tomorrow’s stars.
In the case of Connor McDavid, though, he was discovered by a real dog: a little corgi by the name of Newman.
Newman’s owner is Sherry Bassin, who also happens to own the Erie Otters of the OHL – and Bassin has a habit of taking Newman everywhere he goes, even into hockey rinks to check out prospective players for his major junior team.
Two years ago, in October, man and dog went to Toronto to see a 14-year-old playing for the Toronto Marlboros.
“Two shifts,” says Bassin, who also growls, “and my dog turns to me and gives me this look – ‘Let’s get outta here!’”
It was obvious then; it is still obvious today: McDavid is a superstar.
Just 16 (he’ll turn 17 on Jan. 13), and the slick centre is the main reason, Bassin says, the Otters are the No. 1-ranked junior team in North America.
Just how good the native of Newmarket, Ont., is will be put to the test in Toronto on Friday, when Hockey Canada opens its camp to determine which players will form the team that will head for Malmo, Sweden, and the 2014 world junior championship.
The WJC is traditionally called “a 19-year-olds’ tournament,” but rare exceptions have been made. Should McDavid make the team, he would join his idol Sidney Crosby, plus Eric Lindros, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester and, way back in 1978, Wayne Gretzky as 16-year-olds who have worn the Canadian jersey at the world juniors.
“It’s a dream to play for Team Canada,” the youngster said last week, as the Otters came to Ottawa and easily won 2-0 over the 67’s. “It’s been wearing on my mind – and I’ve got to do a better job of pushing it back there.”
Why that dream refuses to be pushed back, however, is because he feels challenged, dismissed even before he even skates out onto the ice at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence in suburban Etobicoke.
“Someone at TSN said I don’t have a shot,” McDavid says. “I was watching. It didn’t feel good. But at the end of the day, they don’t really know. They just have their opinions; obviously, they’re experts. They’re good at what they do, but I’m going to try to prove them wrong.”
McDavid doesn’t take denial well. A year ago, he became just the third player given “exceptional player” status so he could be drafted into the OHL as a 15-year-old. (New York Islanders captain John Tavares was first, in 2005.)
“He excels at challenges,” Bassin says.
The 74-year-old Bassin – “I’ve been around since ice was in a glass!” – has spent his life in hockey. He’s managed at the NHL and AHL levels. He’s won a Memorial Cup and two gold medals at previous WJCs (1982 and 1985). The native of Semans, Sask., says he has never seen anything quite like Connor McDavid.
“This kid is what you would call a ‘generational player’ – one who comes along once in a generation,” Bassin says.
Bassin says he was around the likes of Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman when they were playing in the world juniors, and was with the Quebec Nordiques when they had such young stars as Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin. In his opinion, McDavid “is in their company.”
“People can say he’s only 16 for the world juniors, but he’s not 16. You have to think of him the way you think of those famous pianists who are able to play Carnegie Hall at 13.”
Bassin says the proof was on open display a year ago, when McDavid was part of the squad Hockey Canada sent to Sochi, Russia, for the under-18 world championship tournament.
“Think about it,” Bassin says. “He was up against the best [NHL] draft-age kids in the world. The best Swedes, Russians, Finns, Czech, Americans and Canadians, the kids you saw drafted in the first round last June – and he was chosen MVP.
“Not just MVP of his own team – but of the whole tournament. So, he’s playing against last year’s draft picks. He’s 16 years old. And he’s best in the world.”
“That was a real special chance for me,” McDavid says of the Sochi event. “I thought I played pretty well. I love the big ice surface. I think I’m a pretty good skater and there’s lots of room out there.
“If I get another opportunity to represent my country, it will be a big honour.”
He may well get that opportunity, as certain small factors are playing in his favour. One, Hockey Canada several restricted the number of players invited to the 2014 world junior camp: Only 25 players, instead of the usual number of more than 30, will battle for the 22 spots.
Also, the old thinking that it’s a “19-year-olds’ tournament” is fading fast. Last year, Team Canada included Nathan MacKinnon, then 17, who was buried and misused on a fourth line – only to return and lead his Halifax Mooseheads to the Memorial Cup (where he was MVP), and was then chosen first overall in the June entry draft by the Colorado Avalanche.
“It’s a great accomplishment to be taken to camp as a 16-year-old,” McDavid says, “and I’m very grateful for them to choose me. I’m going to try and make the most of my opportunity.
“I’m going in as an underdog and I don’t think a lot of people think I’m going to make the team. If I’m going to have a good camp, who knows?”
Bassin says he does – and so, too, for that matter, does Newman.
“My point is simple,” the owner of the Erie Otters growls. “If they’ve got 19 players better than him to take to the world juniors – then they’ve got a gold medal.”
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