At dusk on Thursday, Rick Forster sat outside his room at the Black Sea Motel watching the sun set over Okanagan Lake, a fjord where fishermen cast for sockeyes and keep watch for Ogopogo, a mythical sea serpent around which tales have been spun for nearly a century.
A retired realtor, Forster drove nearly 1,000 kilometres this week from central Alberta to take in the Young Stars Classic. It is the fifth year NHL rivals have come to interior British Columbia for a tournament that is hosted by the Vancouver Canucks and also features first-year players from Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg.
"I thought about coming for a few years, but never got around to it," the 70-year-old said, unbuttoning a light jacket to reveal an orange No. 97 T-shirt. For him, and thousands of others who have made the pilgrimage, this year is different. "Where else can you see Connor McDavid for $10?"
On Friday night, the Oilers' prodigy made his debut against Vancouver rookies before a full house of nearly 5,000 people at the South Okanagan Events Centre. Edmonton's remaining games on Saturday night against the Flames, and Monday morning against the Jets, are also sell-outs.
There is a jazz festival and dragon-boat races in Penticton this weekend, but the hockey games and, primarily, McDavid, are the biggest draw. There is not a room to be had along the lakefront strip, and accommodations in outlying communities are scarce.
A year ago, the six games played during the Young Stars Classic drew 16,000 fans. This year, with McDavid taking part, 20,000 tickets were snatched up the minute they went on sale.
"We knew right off that things were going to be different," Carla Seddon, the event centre's director of marketing, said Friday morning. Across the lobby, fans lined up hoping to obtain a small number of standing-room seats made available at the last minute. "We had tour bus companies calling from Edmonton asking for blocks of seats before the event went on sale."
Seddon said more than 90 passes have been handed out to news media and scouts for these practice games, which include only a handful of players likely to earn spots on regular-season rosters. The interest mostly can be attributed to McDavid.
The first pick in the June NHL draft, the 18-year-old whiz kid is the most talked-about player to enter the game since Sidney Crosby 10 years ago, and has drawn comparisons to Wayne Gretzky.
This week, the Oilers announced an online lottery for spectators who want to attend training camp next weekend at a rink just outside of Edmonton; before that, the team moved a rookie preseason contest against the University of Alberta next week from a cozy rink on campus to Rexall Place.
In July, 3,000 fans showed up to see McDavid practise one day during rookie orientation camp, and 7,000 came a few nights later to watch him scrimmage.
A season-ticket holder for 33 years, Forster is a throwback to the glory years in the 1980s when the Oilers were capturing Stanley Cups one after another. It has been 25 long years since they won one.
"This sort of takes me back to those amazing days," Forster said Thursday as he sat in front of his lakefront hotel. Reggae music drifted over from a restaurant next door where patrons sipped mojitos, downed Malpeque oysters and dined on pistachio-crusted mahi mahi. "So many hockey people who know say McDavid is the real thing.
"It is scary how good the team could be. I think the Oilers are going to win a Stanley Cup within a couple years."
Players from rival teams and fans crowded around the rink to watch McDavid at Friday morning's pregame skate. At times, he raced through drills so fast that the sleeves on his jersey rippled in the breeze.
Upon leaving the ice, hockey's most-talked-about prospect briefly waded into the crowd and signed autographs. On his way to the dressing room, he stopped to have his picture taken with Caleb Syvenky. The 7-year-old was wearing a McDavid T-shirt and an Oilers cap.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he was wearing orange and blue underwear," his father, Greg, said.
For five years, he has brought Caleb from their home in Kelowna to see the NHL rookies.
"This is the only possible year Connor will be here this year, so his teacher let me pull him out of school today," Greg said.