Connor McDavid began his NHL career with a three-game swing through steamy American cities where hockey is pretty much an afterthought.
In St. Louis, the fans were deafening but their hearts were with the Cardinals, then still trying to knock the Chicago Cubs off their October run.
In Nashville, the downtown teemed with football fans in town for Sunday's game between the Titans and the Buffalo Bills.
And in Arlington, Tex., on Sunday, with the Cowboys and Rangers playing back-to-back in losing efforts, a hockey game in downtown Dallas a few days on did not feel like a starring attraction.
Now back in Canada a week after his NHL debut, McDavid will achieve another milestone when he plays his first home game Thursday night for the Edmonton Oilers. The 18-year-old will have a flock of family and friends in the audience at Rexall Place to cheer him on as his passage from prodigy to professional continues.
His early efforts have not been flashy, but his progress has been unmistakable. McDavid scored his first goal Tuesday night against the Stars, a nifty deflection that eluded Dallas goalkeeper Kari Lehtonen. Perhaps a deluge will follow.
That is what long-suffering fans in northern Alberta have banked on since the Oilers landed the No. 1 overall draft pick: that he will rise above his teammates and lead them to the playoffs or, until then, respectability. The Oilers postseason drought is going on 10 years.
The Oilers started the season with three losses in six days against tough, playoff-worthy opponents. It was a trip that would have tested anybody, much less an unproven team and introverted teenager shouldering comparisons to Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby.
The good news is that McDavid is growing more comfortable. Along with the goal on Tuesday, he flexed the muscles he developed with Gary Roberts this summer, sending the Stars' Johnny Oduya head-first into the boards. At one point, McDavid even poked his head into a scrum around the net, a show of feistiness that might have given team management the vapours.
One goal in three games does not a Hall of Fame career make, but it was a landmark trip that ended on a high note for McDavid.
After flying on a charter into Springield, Ill., last Wednesday with his teammates, hockey's most talked-about prospect began to get a taste of what will soon become routine. Settling into his hotel across the Missouri state line in St. Louis, he slept well and awoke with the realization that he was about to embark on a lifelong dream, and if that sounds overblown, it is not. He chatted easily with teammates at the morning skate before his NHL debut, and was more animated than usual when comments were solicited by a swarm of newsmen.
"Certainly, I am a little nervous," he said. "This is something you only get to do once." Then he retreated to the hotel for a few hours' rest.
Lining up against the Blues' physical defencemen at the Scottrade Center that night, McDavid took a few shifts to adjust to the speed and flow of the game. Playing in front of his parents and before a prime-time national television audience on Hockey Night in Canada, a rare slot for the Oilers, he showed bursts of speed and had two good scoring chances in the third period as the Oilers tried to tie the game.
His performance earned approval from teammates and head coach Todd McLellan, even if the youngster, who in the past has struggled with losing, was stone-faced as he dressed silently in the aftermath.
"I thought he was fine," McLellan said. "He is 60 minutes into a 15- or-20-year-career and is going to get a lot better. I thought his best period was the third. When young players get down on themselves, usually that's their toughest period. He was completely the opposite."
Moving on to Nashville, the Oilers skated between games, gathering in front of a TV in their dressing room on Friday and cheering wildly while watching the Blue Jays take on the Rangers, a game Toronto would lose in extra innings.
Edmonton would lose later that night as well. McDavid spent much of the game shadowed by the Predators' all-star defencemen Shea Weber and Roman Josi, and was crushed against the boards by Cody Hodgson midway through the second period.
The sellout crowd, many wearing old-style foam rubber hockey helmets passed out before the game, roared.
Opening-night nervousness behind him, McDavid looked slightly more relaxed. During a break in play, he and Benoit Pouliot stood side by side on the Oilers' bench, tapping their sticks in a show of respect for a U.S. Armed Forces member who had served in Afghanistan.
The outcome hinged on a single mistake – a turnover at centre ice by Andrej Sekera that turned into a breakaway goal by Craig Smith. An error by Andrew Ference led to another score, and as the game ended in a 2-0 defeat, McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins stood and stared sullenly onto the ice. The team's only goal in its first two games was put in accidentally by the Blues.
"We need to score goals to win games," McLellan said outside the dressing room at Bridgestone Arena. "We had looks, but we were not really strong around the net. Some of the things we did on the power play were right, but we killed that with our execution."
McDavid had a few strong moments, backhanding a pass to Lauri Korpikoski that ended harmlessly with a shot that was too soft, and then teaming with Nail Yakupov to create several late scoring chances.
"I thought that line [with McDavid] was better than what we had out there," McLellan said. "It triggered some energy in our game."
On a night when the team suffered for lack of offence, McLellan preached patience when asked about McDavid.
"He is going to get better as time goes on," he said. "He just played against two of the top defensive teams in the NHL. He is still 18. It is going to take some time."
After flying to Dallas late Saturday night, the Oilers had a union-mandated day off on Sunday. McDavid used the free time to join a handful of teammates at the Cowboys' afternoon game against the Patriots, and then went to watch the Jays beat the Rangers that night. After the game, the group posed in Toronto's clubhouse with Josh Donaldson.
Players were refreshed at their Monday morning skate at American Airlines Center, but perhaps distracted, and McLellan was somewhat impatient with their effort. At one point, he stopped a drill to chew out Taylor Hall for not heading up ice fast enough. In another moment, he chided a defenceman for a shot from the point that had little steam.
"For a goalie, that's as easy as picking apples off a tree," the coach said.
With no game Monday night, some of the Oilers went to watch the Jays again; others spent a few hours exploring Dallas.
Ference, Matt Hendricks and Yakupov visited Dealey Plaza, the site where John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. There is a museum now, and an "X" is painted on the street where the president was shot while riding in the back of a limousine.
"Andrew brought it to my attention a couple of days ago, and I decided I wanted to see it," Hendricks said. "I am a history guy, and I try to put myself in other people's situations. It was an eerie feeling."
Standing in front of his dressing stall, McDavid said he was enjoying his first trip through America's heartland. "They are all beautiful cities," he said. "It is a little different from Sault Ste. Marie, that's for sure."
The Oilers were rested on Tuesday night, but as a team it was their worst game of the three. They were outshot 52-28 by the Stars, and were fortunate to head back to Edmonton with a 4-2 defeat.
But McDavid stood apart. Playing with his jersey tucked into the back of his hockey pants, like Gretzky used to, he had his best game yet. He back-checked hard, sent Oduya flying, set up his teammates and ultimately tipped in a slapshot by Sekera with 7:41 left in the second period for his first NHL goal.
Raising his arms, McDavid celebrated briefly and was then congratulated by the Oilers' bench. Equipment manager Jeff Lang wrapped the puck in white tape and used a black Sharpie to mark down the details. "1st NHL goal vs. Stars" is what it said.
As with Gretzky and Crosby, the goal came in McDavid's third NHL game.
"It's pretty special, something I will remember for the rest of my life," McDavid said. "I was excited, but a lot of it was relief. I have been feeling a lot of pressure out there."
The day before, McLellan had pulled McDavid aside and told him not to feel that he was shouldering the responsibility for the team.
"Connor getting his goal was a nice reward," McLellan said. "I know he has been squeezing the stick and feeling the pressure to score."
On Thursday night, he will play the fourth game of his career before a raucous home crowd, where fans are obsessed with the game and there is history to fuel the fire. A week after his NHL career began, McDavid has a little spring in his step.
At home in the Toronto suburbs, his mother, Kelly, was watching. "I am so happy for him," she said.