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the prospect
Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

It was here, in a then-unfinished basement in suburban Toronto, that the grooming of hockey’s greatest prospect began.

At three years old, Connor McDavid would don rollerblades and slap pucks at nets placed at either end, often guarded by his mother or grandmother.

“He would be down here for hours,” Kelly McDavid says, seated on a couch in the room, long since redecorated and now a testament to hockey brilliance. All around her are photos and mementoes of her sons, Cameron and Connor, the former a recent graduate of the Ivey Business School, the latter an 18-year-old whiz kid about to embark on his NHL career. “Connor always had a great imagination. He would get his stuffed animals and set them up all around. When I asked what he was doing, he would tell me, ‘Those are the fans.’”

After growing tired of goalkeeping, his mother would resume household chores.

“I would be in the kitchen and he would yell up to me, ‘Mom, I just scored the winning goal in the Stanley Cup finals!’” she says. “I would yell back, ‘That’s very nice, honey.’”

From the time Connor was young, Brian McDavid, doting dad and youth hockey coach, told his wife their youngest son was a whirlwind well beyond his years. Kelly would nod – and then suggest to her husband that he was a tad touched.

“He kept saying, ‘He’s special,’” she says, smiling at the memory. “I would say, ‘Oh, for goodness sakes. Every kid thinks they are going to play in the NHL. Get that thought out of your head.’”

On a steamy June Friday in Fort Lauderdale, with his parents and Cameron watching, the hockey world celebrated Connor’s induction into the professional ranks. The most heralded rookie since Sidney Crosby 10 years ago, he was chosen by Edmonton with the first pick in the draft.

It has been a quarter of a century since an Alberta team hoisted the Stanley Cup, and the Oilers are staking their future on the freshly scrubbed teenager who only graduated high school and obtained his driver’s licence this summer.

“I think Connor was about 12 years old, playing minor hockey, when I started to notice things about him,” says Kelly McDavid, as outgoing and chatty as her prodigy son is introspective and quiet. “But I was still realistic.”

Two years later, in Connor’s second season with the Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, she suddenly began to believe.

“I remember sitting in a rink and saying, ‘Wow, that was really good,’ and ‘Geez, that was impressive’ – and then it started to hit me,” says Canada’s newly minted hockey mom No. 1. “He was able to do things other people couldn’t do. Finally, I started thinking, ‘Maybe Brian’s on to something.”

“I think boys sometimes are afraid to talk about certain things with their father. They don’t ever want to disappoint their dad”
– Kelly McDavid

A chance to talk

It is hard to imagine this rare outcome when a child straps on skates on a dreary winter morning in any of the cold, dank rinks scattered like snowflakes across Canada. Through hundreds of hours of drills and countless forgettable games, tens of thousands of parents warm their hands and stomp their frozen feet as their cherry-cheeked offspring partake in a pastime that for many becomes a lifelong obsession and, for an exceptional few, a vocation.

There is great joy in seeing children learn discipline and sportsmanship, and watching them grow through the jubilation and pain of winning and losing, but there is not a lot of hope they will advance beyond that. There are 494,000 youths registered to play minor hockey with Hockey Canada, and only about half of the 690 players in the NHL are Canadian. That means for every 1,000 kids there may be one or two whose talent is noteworthy, and among them only a fraction will get a whiff of the NHL.

Photo courtesy of the McDavid family

In minor hockey, responsibilities fall on parents: lugging gear; driving to practice in the darkness before dawn; tying skates that are just right only when they are uncomfortably tight; paying handsomely for equipment that is outgrown from one fall to the next.

Division of labour varies. In two-parent households, gender stereotypes are often still evident: Dads tote their kids’ bags into stuffy arenas, while moms nurse their aspiring Gretzkys’ bruises and heal their emotional wounds.

“It’s different for everybody,” says Theresa Dostaler of Madoc, Ont., who in 2010 founded an organization called Canadian Hockey Moms that now has more than 20,000 followers on Facebook. She has three children between ages seven and 12 in hockey; once, they had a combined eight games in the same day. “Some moms take on a coaching role, but most provide emotional support and are the organizers of everything. It just adds a whole other layer to what it takes to be a mom.”

As Connor McDavid grew up, it was his father who helped develop his skills, and his mother who nurtured his heart.

“People keep asking what we did to keep him so grounded, and I think about it and I don’t really know,” Kelly McDavid says. “We used to drive long distances in the car with our boys and that provided great opportunities to talk.

“Cameron and I had music in common, but with Connor sometimes it would take a while for things to come out. I was the one he would talk to if there was something bothering him. I think boys sometimes are afraid to talk about certain things with their father. They don’t ever want to disappoint their dad.”

If you think sending your baby off to college is gut-wrenching, try packing one off to the NHL. It is hard to think about your teenager running afoul of tough customers like Dustin Byfuglien, Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic.

“I get a little bit overwhelmed when I think about [the upcoming season],” Kelly McDavid says. “There is going to be so much pressure on him, it makes me anxious. For now, I am keeping that at arm’s length. I have cherished the weekends we have had together this summer. I realize we may not have many more.”

‘What is he doing?’

“To me, he is still the same normal kid with the messy room he has always been”
– Kelly McDavid

On a warm summer evening in July, boys jostle as they play ball hockey in the cul de sac at the end of the street where Connor McDavid lives in Newmarket, a town of 80,000 a little more than an hour north of Toronto. Basketball hoops and hockey nets sit at the end of driveways, window boxes overflow with flowers in front of the neat, two-storey homes that line the block.

Unlike Sidney Crosby, who learned to shoot in his youth by firing pucks into a dryer in the basement, McDavid banged shots off the garage wall and mastered stickhandling by navigating through elaborate obstacle courses that his dad set up in the driveway.

Through thousands of repetitions, he acquired his ability to dangle and deke and dupe defencemen with a dip of a shoulder here or an almost imperceptible shift of weight there. Keeping tabs on him has proven futile for opponents, like chasing a shadow or tossing a net over an apparition.

“What he does out there on the ice isn’t even fair,” says Cory Genovese, a defenceman who played against and with McDavid in four seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. “I think sometimes even he doesn’t understand how good he is.”

Three years ago, Hockey Canada gave McDavid permission to enter the OHL as a 15-year-old, and he has astounded everyone since. After failing to register a point in his first game with the Erie Otters, he went on a 15-game scoring streak and, with the exception of a few blips here and there, has not stopped since.

In three years in Erie, he amassed 353 points in 200 games, and last winter helped Canada win the gold medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships. In his final season in the OHL, he recorded a point in 45 of 47 regular-season games and finished second in scoring, despite missing six weeks with a fractured bone in the pinkie finger on his right hand.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The injury occurred Nov. 11 during his first hockey fight, a row with Bryson Cianfrone of the Mississauga Steelheads. After exchanging slashes behind the net, the former hockey school classmates dropped their gloves and unleashed punches. McDavid pummelled his smaller opponent, but in the process one of his haymakers slammed into the glass.

At home in Southern Ontario, Kelly McDavid saw the incident unfold on the Internet.

“I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, what is he doing?’” she says.

Perched on the edge of her seat, she watched Connor skate off the ice very slowly, clutching his throbbing paw. Then she waited to hear from her husband, who had driven five hours to Erie, Pa., to attend the game.

“I sat here on pins and needles until Brian called and confirmed that Connor had broken his hand,” she says.

After X-rays at a local hospital that night, McDavid was examined by a specialist in Toronto the next day. Surgery was unnecessary, but for the next four weeks he had to wear a cast.

As hockey fans across the country worried he would miss the world juniors, McDavid kept in shape by doing bag skating – gruelling drills where players sprint for short distances and then stop and start again and again.

The plaster came off only days before the event began – and then he quickly enhanced his growing reputation. Serving as one of Canada’s captains, he notched a tournament-leading eight assists in seven games and was named to the all-star team.

“The interest and attention in him progressed, starting with when he broke his hand,” Kelly says. “But after the world juniors, things really took off.”

At home, when she sees him on TSN, Sportsnet or ESPN, she still feels a sense of surprise. The rise to prominence has taken four years, but to his mom it seemed to take only a heartbeat.

“When I watch him on TV, I say to Brian, ‘Oh, look, there’s Connor McDavid,’” she muses. “He says, ‘Why do you call him that? It’s just Connor.’ But I tell him, ‘No that’s Connor the hockey player, not my son.’ To me, he is still the same normal kid with the messy room he has always been.”

Letting go of losses

“He would tell you that he didn’t think it always helped him, but I could see him settle down right away”
– Kelly McDavid

Since he was a child, Connor McDavid has competed against players at least one year older than himself. In his first season with the Bantam AAA Marlboros, he struggled slightly with the transition.

“He’d get quiet and I would worry,” Kelly recalls. “He’s a thinker. He is definitely a thinker.”

Eventually, an appointment was made for him to see Brian Shaw, a sports psychologist who serves as an adviser to the Toronto Blue Jays. Like many elite athletes, McDavid is a perfectionist, which carries an emotional burden.

Coping with defeat was especially difficult for him when he was younger, and often he agonized, feeling as if he had let his older teammates down. Shaw told McDavid it was not wrong to feel upset after a loss or a tough game, but that at a certain point he had to let it go.

“He told him, ‘That is what makes you who you are,’ and taught him techniques to help him get over it more quickly,” Kelly says. “It was good to have a third party come in.”

Connor and his mother would talk in the car on the way to the appointments, attend the sessions together, and then have another lengthy conversation on the drive home.

“He would tell you that he didn’t think it always helped him, but I could see him settle down right away,” she says.

As the McDavids began to think about the pressure associated with Connor’s first season in the NHL, they considered reaching out to the parents of fellow prodigies for advice. They had dinner once with Rino Spezza, whose son, Jason, also entered the OHL at 15, and made his debut at 19 with the Ottawa Senators.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

McDavid’s arrival is far more anticipated, however. Seven thousand people turned out to watch him during a scrimmage in Edmonton earlier this summer, all three of the Oilers games sold out at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton, B.C., last week, and more than 14,000 poured into Rexall Place on Wednesday for an exhibition between the team’s rookies and the University of Alberta Golden Bears. The annual event was moved from a 2,700-seat rink on campus to accommodate the overwhelming interest.

Shortly after the Oilers won the right to select him in the NHL draft lottery, Connor and his parents travelled 2,700 kilometres to visit Edmonton for a few hours one Sunday. They received a tour of the $480-million arena Daryl Katz is building downtown, and then visited the billionaire team owner at his expansive home overlooking the North Saskatchewan River.

“The whole day was very nice,” Kelly says. “It made us feel welcome and certainly eased our minds. We know he is going to be in a good place.”

High-end mini-sticks

“They would be down there for hours, shouting and playing and fighting and scaring me half to death”
– Kelly McDavid

Photos stretch around the basement of the McDavids’ home in Newmarket. There are pictures of Cameron, a talented player who opted to go to university after skating for the hometown Hurricanes of the Ontario Junior A Hockey League, and dozens more of Connor, who was discovered by Bobby Orr at age 13 after tagging along with his brother to a skills camp in Toronto.

In one photo, a three-year-old Connor beams as he stands atop a rink his father flooded in the backyard. At four, in his first official hockey photo, Connor grins through his facemask.

“That one is my favourite,” Kelly McDavid says. “Isn’t he cute?”

There is a framed copy of Connor’s first newspaper clipping from 2009, and near it a framed edition of the Hockey News in which, at age 15, his name first appeared. There are winning team photos from the 2013 Under-18 World Championships and this year’s world juniors, and a picture of him in an Oilers jersey after his name was called at the NHL draft.

“It was quite a night,” Kelly says. “We didn’t want it to end.”

The McDavids were introduced by Brian’s sister, who was dating one of his beer-league hockey teammates, and have now been married 26 years. He is a business strategy and operations consultant and former retail executive with the Hudson’s Bay Company; she is the human resources director for Miele, a high-end German appliance manufacturer.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Connor was turning a year old when the family moved into its house in Newmarket, and soon after he was peppering his mother and grandmother with shots in the basement. Eventually, they passed the job on to Brian, who played high school hockey for St. Michael’s College and still plays with buddies several days a week.

“It wasn’t long before Connor was raising his shots up, and it got too scary for us,” she says. “Brian took over, but he was always wearing a lot of gear.”

Now, the NHL awaits. In some ways, Connor has been preparing for this almost since he learned to walk. At five, he wore a dress shirt and tie like the older boys when he went to Cameron’s games. At 10, his dad had to practically drag him out of a dressing room to pose for a picture with Mario Lemieux during a minor tournament in Quebec. Cranky, Connor complained to Brian that it had interrupted his concentration before his peewee game.

As a youngster, the sport’s next great prospect played mini-sticks in the basement with his friends. First, he would have them congregate in a room off to the side. “That was like their dressing room,” Kelly says.

Then he would have them all march out together, and sing Oh Canada before they played.

“They would be down there for hours,” his mother says, “shouting and playing and fighting and scaring me half to death.”

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