- The McDavid Effect: Connor McDavid and the New Hope for Hockey
- Marty Klinkenberg
- Simon & Schuster Canada
Earlier this month, Connor McDavid was officially named captain of the Edmonton Oilers, and – at just 19 years, 266 days old – the youngest in National Hockey League history. He's a generational talent, the kind of player whose name has been known in hockey circles since before he hit puberty. And despite playing just half a season in an Oilers sweater to date, McDavid is already unquestionably the face of the franchise. But not the voice of it. "I'm definitely not the most vocal guy in the room," he admitted after the announcement. "I try to lead by example."
Few would dispute that. Which is why trying to capture someone like McDavid in book form is a tall order. He's the most electrifying player to have entered the sport in at least a decade, with the ability to make even crowds in enemy arenas gasp with awe – and he's deadly boring to hear speak. McDavid has mastered the non-quote as easily as his forehand deke. A journalist assigned to follow his every move, then, has two options: Go a little mystical, à la David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer, and give us the art, the poetry, of what McDavid can do out there. Or else pull back, and try to situate the kid as the centrepiece of a larger story, thereby taking some of the weight off his still-teenaged shoulders.
Marty Klinkenberg has chosen the latter approach. In 2015, the three-time National Newspaper Award winner was hired to shadow McDavid's rookie campaign for The Globe and Mail; those year-long dispatches form the backbone of his new book. If that assignment sounds familiar, you may recall that Shawna Richer (now The Globe's sports editor) did the same thing in 2005-06, tailing the ascendant Sidney Crosby – a man equally sublime on the ice, and equally plain off of it. Richer, too, decided to position Crosby as the keystone of something bigger, in her case the Penguins' franchise with its storied past, punishing present and uncertain future. The Oilers, as it happens, share all of those conditions. But Klinkenberg instead looks somewhat beyond the rink, framing his book around Edmonton itself.
The McDavid Effect opens a full quarter-century before professional hockey ever came to the 53rd parallel. In February, 1947, Leduc No. 1 produced the first of its more than 300,000 barrels of oil. More important, the well "held the geological key to Alberta's petroleum reserves and changed its economy forever." Without oil, Klinkenberg argues, no Oilers. His sketch in the prologue of Vern Hunter, the foreman credited with Leduc No. 1, matches the book's general approach: Each subsequent chapter on McDavid's childhood in Newmarket, Ont., or the Oilers' decade-long stay in the basement of the NHL standings, is framed by stories of the unsung Edmontonians orbiting their beloved hockey team, from adjacent restaurant owners to the local home-building company that specializes in custom Oilers "fan caves."
The beats of McDavid's rookie season, meanwhile, are already well known even to casual NHL fans. So I don't need to say "spoiler alert" before revealing that after all the hype – and a dozen games of living up to said hype – McDavid broke his collarbone, and had to miss an agonizing three months of action. Or that he came back from the injury with a vengeance, averaging a point per game from February onward. Or that it still, somehow, wasn't enough to net him the Calder Trophy for the league's best rookie. Or that the Oilers as a team were still very bad.
A certain type of hockey fan is destined to pick up The McDavid Effect, then, and cry, "I already knew all that!" Klinkenberg's cast of peripheral characters does help round out the book, painting an endearing picture of the extended Oilerverse. But what's disappointing is that despite Klinkenberg's supposed proximity to his subject, the book still comes across very much at arm's length from McDavid himself. Much of the first-hand material comes from pre- and post-game scrums, when McDavid's guard is at its highest. We spend very little time with him beyond the confines of a hockey rink. What was McDavid's home life like, rooming with teammates Taylor Hall and Luke Gazdic? Does he have any other interests at all? (To be fair, the answer to that one may well be: No.)
These gaps can be partly chalked up to the way the Oilers have carefully, and understandably, managed their future superstar's schedule. But the lack of access nonetheless works against a book-length work of journalism.
Sports journalism in 2016 is a fire hose with 10 different nozzles. Key information now trickles out not just through stories in the daily paper, but also reporters tweeting from practice, individual players' Instagram comments, and the increasingly valuable number-crunching being done by a host of websites and blogs. As a fan, this can be exhausting. That's why books will always have value, for assembling and distilling large amounts of this information deluge. But while The McDavid Effect may be a worthy piece of hockey history, there's no escaping that it's still a first draft.