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Connor McDavid of the Erie OttersAaron Bell

Connor McDavid skated to centre ice and got a standing ovation, only this time it was from 3,221 fans in a half-empty arena instead of a packed and roaring Air Canada Centre.

McDavid stood on the blue-line and listened to O Canada, only this time he wasn't wearing red-and-white and, more importantly, didn't have a gold medal around his neck.

Thursday night the 17-year-old who evolved into Canada's best player at the world junior championship on the road to gold went back to work. As McDavid returned to the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League three days after the biggest accomplishment of his life, he fully appreciated the stark contrast of life on the bus in major junior hockey.

"It's a little different," the soft-spoken McDavid said after a last-minute loss to the Sarnia Sting. "You go from one night and you're playing in front of 20,000 at the Air Canada Centre and it's a little bit different here tonight. It was a little bit hard. It was a little bit of an adjustment."

But it was an adjustment McDavid was committed to making. Otters owner and general manager Sherry Bassin gave the Newmarket, Ont., native permission to relax with his family at home for a few days and meet the team "anywhere."

Instead, McDavid drove back to Erie and hopped on the bus with his junior teammates Wednesday.

"I told him to stay and rest and he said, 'No, no, no. I want to be with the team,"' Bassin said. "That's how humble he is. ... He set a new mould."

While Canadian linemate Curtis Lazar checked his gold medal in his luggage as he flew to Philadelphia to rejoin the Ottawa Senators in the NHL, McDavid left his gold medal at home with his parents. Two of his teammates, Remi Elie and new linemate Nick Baptiste, were cut from the team in training camp, so taking it to show off wouldn't have been wise.

The decision to go back to Erie and resume life on the road appeared an easy one. Maybe it was logistics.

"I had to get my stuff back to Erie somehow," McDavid said. "It's nice to see the guys and spend the day with them. It's kind of nice on the bus and on the road. It's good to see everyone again."

Watching McDavid dazzle on the ice, it's easy to forget that he's only 17 and will celebrate his 18th birthday next week. Barring something completely out of the ordinary, he'll be the No. 1 pick in June's NHL draft and is considered a generational talent in the skate tracks of Sidney Crosby.

McDavid accepts this part of his journey even if as a hockey player he's light years better than everyone on the ice. That includes bumps in the road like staying at the Quality Inn in Niagara Falls, Ont., Wednesday night when snow closed the 402 highway into Sarnia.

That snowstorm cancelled Erie's morning skate and meant McDavid's first time back on the ice after winning world-junior gold was in warm-ups Thursday night at Sarnia's RBC Centre. In a 5,500-seat rink that could've been in Anywhere, Ont., McDavid was there until the final buzzer and came down from the high that was Monday night.

"You have to at some point," McDavid said. "You can't live on a high of winning that game. You've got to come down sometime. It's going to be fast."

As Jenna Cimetta sang "O Canada," McDavid couldn't help but think back to three nights earlier when 19,004 patriotic fans joined him and his teammates for a more emotional rendition. On the ice, he didn't look like he had lost a step.

McDavid scored his 17th goal of the season in highlight-reel fashion when he went around Sting defenders like they were traffic cones and put the puck through Alex Black's stick before finishing. It was his 52nd point in what was just his 19th game of the year after missing two months with a broken bone in his hand and then two more weeks because of the world juniors.

But the real moment of coming back down to earth was in the aftermath of a tough defeat. The Otters blew a three-goal lead and gave up the winner with 2.3 seconds left, leading to McDavid's first loss since Nov. 6.

These weren't the stakes of the world juniors, but McDavid said "it's still really good hockey, top of the line, and you've got to be better than that."

McDavid was at his best with the nation watching at the world juniors. After shaking off the rust early, he finished tied for the lead in scoring with 11 points on three goals and eight assists.

With Canada, McDavid was the second-line centre and shined as a young player in what NHL Central Scouting's Dan Marr pointed out is "a 19-year-old tournament." He's even more important to the Otters, who hope to make a run at the Memorial Cup this spring.

Bassin said it would be difficult for an outsider to comprehend the value of getting McDavid back. The lifelong hockey man acquired two players before the trade deadline but said having McDavid back on the ice was like getting four, "because McDavid's like two."

"You wouldn't understand how much it means," Bassin said. "You can't begin to imagine."

Fans attending Monday night's gold-medal game could imagine their lives changing by winning the 50/50 raffle, which was worth an Air Canada Centre record $90,150. At Thursday night's Otters-Sting game, it was $1,810.50.

It doesn't get more "back to normal" than that.