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Connor McDavid, left, chats with Craig MacTavish after being selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL entry draft on Friday, June 26, in Sunrise, Fla.Alan Diaz/The Associated Press

Connor McDavid's NHL career officially began on a blistering, dripping-wet day in an arena on the edge of the Everglades, an odd venue for the coronation of the sport's most-celebrated recruit since Sidney Crosby.

The NHL draft was held Friday and Saturday at the Florida Panthers' home rink in Sunrise, 30 kilometres from the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, a lovely city but one where hockey still struggles to gain a foothold.

It is not Montreal or Toronto or any of the other original six cities; in fact, when it comes to Canada's pastime, it is not even Tampa, whose Lightning were finalists for this year's Stanley Cup.

But the sport's most important day in 10 years didn't wilt in the heat of suburban South Florida. Perhaps it is McDavid's rising celebrity. Perhaps there is increased interest in a hometown team that is beginning to improve. Or maybe people simply wanted to go somewhere with air conditioning.

The number of fans who turned out at the BB&T Center on the weekend was a huge surprise.

A franchise that drew a league-low 11,265 per home game in the most recent season attracted several thousand more for McDavid's ordination, and about half that on the second day, which is usually an intimate gathering attended mainly by hopeful players' families and friends.

Nearly all of the seats made available were full on Friday night, with standing-room-only in several sections. The NHL estimated the crowd at 10,500, but team officials thought the figure was way too low.

"The Panthers did a good job promoting the event," said Don Renzulli, the senior vice-president of events and entertainment for the NHL. [On Friday] there were a few empty seats here and there, but that's about it."

Peter Luukko, the Panthers' executive chairman, said he has probably attended 20 drafts and has never seen a larger second-day crowd.

"I am left with a pretty warm feeling," Luukko said. The long-time president of the Philadelphia Flyers joined the Panthers in February. "I have no doubt this market can support hockey. It's roughly the same size as Philadelphia, and there is no reason it can't succeed.

"It's our charge to put a better product on the ice. It is clear to me that there is interest here."

There have been rumblings that the team is potentially a candidate for relocation, seeming to suffer from the same malaise that afflicted the Thrashers in Atlanta and has stymied the Coyotes in the Arizona desert. Las Vegas has an arena under construction and approval to begin pursuing a franchise from the NHL, in case any established warm-weather teams get cold feet.

The Panthers' arena is far from the oceanfront in Fort Lauderdale, and a 45-minute drive from the hotels the NHL chose as the host sites. The rink is adjacent to a massive outlet mall called Sawgrass Mills – named for the tall grass that airboats plow through in the Everglades.

Whether alligators and Aaron Ekblad, the young Panthers star and the league's best rookie this season, go well together remains open to debate.

But the draft itself made for lively if not compelling theatre, on Friday night especially. There was little secret Edmonton would select McDavid, a brilliant, 18-year-old centre who has dominated at every level he has played, lastly for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League.

He is wickedly fast and wields a hockey stick like a magic wand, has not yet grown out of his freshly scrubbed baby face and is most obliging to fans, even if he is too young yet to be deeply engaging.

Peter Chiarelli, the Oilers general manager, said Saturday that he does not expect McDavid to have significant impact immediately. But there have only been a handful of prospects to enter the NHL with such enormous fanfare – Guy Lafleur, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros and Crosby, arguably. Fans dressed in various teams' stripes cheered when McDavid's name was called, beginning a 3 1/2-hour first round. Sabres' fans roared when Jack Eichel, the Boston University star, was taken with the second choice, and have already coined a motto in his honour – Jack to the Future. Panthers' fans raised an enthusiastic ruckus when Lawson Crouse, a big, rough-and-tumble winger most recently skating for the Kingston Frontenacs, unexpectedly fell into their lap at pick No. 11.

By comparison, Saturday's second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds offered many names but little intrigue. Teams blew through their selections, finishing in about the same amount of time it took to conclude Friday's prime-time blockbuster.

Trades created more excitement on the second day than the draft itself, with Edmonton getting much-needed help in goaltender Cam Talbot from the Rangers, the Canucks dealing netminder Eddie Lack to the Hurricanes and Dallas acquiring goalie Antti Niemi from San Jose.

The last player chosen on Saturday was John Dahlstrom of Sweden, a forward taken 211th by the Chicago Blackhawks. The 18-year-old waited about seven hours over two days to hear his name.

"I feel a sense of relief," Dahlstrom said.

He arrived in North America three weeks ago to attend the NHL combine in Buffalo and then spent a week doing high-altitude training in Aspen, Colo., before heading to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday.

On Friday night, he was surprised by the raucous crowd and got caught up in the excitement of seeing McDavid welcomed into professional hockey. On Saturday, he sat, fretting, his hopes fading with the proceedings.

"At the end, I just sat there and hoped for Chicago," he said. "That was my last chance. I am just happy to get drafted."

There is much more at stake for McDavid. He and his family flew back to Toronto on Sunday and were then heading home to Newmarket, Ont. On Tuesday, he will fly to Edmonton where long-suffering fans are so jubilant it won't take much for them to offer him the keys to the city.

He will undergo a physical exam on Wednesday with other rookies, and likely take to the ice for the first time Thursday at the outset of the team's development camp.

After being selected on Friday night, McDavid partied into the wee hours with his family.

"We didn't want the day to end," his mother, Kelly, said Sunday.

Now the hard work really begins.