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Hockey McDavid faces enormous pressure in Edmonton, a city desperate for a symbol of hope

Connor McDavid sits on the bench during the the 2015 CHL Top Prospects Game in St. Catharines, Ont. McDavid is expected to be drafted by the Edmonton Oilers later this month. (Peter Power / The Canadian Press)

It was the summer of 2011 when Jeff Jackson heard about the next great prospect in hockey.

The former assistant general manager of the Maple Leafs had only recently launched a career as an agent. One of his clients, Sam Gagner, was training at a rink in Oakville, Ont. Then a centre with the Edmonton Oilers, Gagner was approached by a skinny 14-year-old who asked if he could join him on the ice.

“Afterward, Sam called me,” Jackson says. “He said, ‘You have to find this kid. I have been in the NHL five years, and he can do things I can’t do. His name is David O’Connor.’”

Gagner remembered the bantam-aged youngster had told him he was about to begin playing for the Midget-AAA Marlies of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. So Jackson made an inquiry with the club.

“I asked about the O’Connor kid, and they chuckled,” Jackson says. “They said, ‘Oh, you must mean Connor McDavid.’”

Four years later, there is no confusing the teenager with blazing speed and supernatural skills. He is hockey’s most promising prodigy since Sidney Crosby – and potentially the greatest player to enter the sport since Wayne Gretzky.

Legendary Oiler Wayne Gretzky, centre, screams for joy with teammate Mark Messier after Edmonton won the 1988 Stanley Cup. (Mike Blake / Reuters)

“In the history of the NHL, how many players have been so highly touted?” asks Andrew Ference, the Oilers’ captain. “There are not many. Probably only Crosby and him.”

Although nobody from Edmonton will confirm it, the playoff-starved Oilers are poised to pick McDavid first at Friday’s NHL draft in Sunrise, Fla. It is the fourth time in six years the team has had the No. 1 pick, which is not so much an honour as an embarrassment. In the NHL, it is not unusual for teams to prosper through futility, but somehow the Oilers have bucked that trend. Edmonton players have not hoisted a Stanley Cup since 1990, and they have not played a post-season game in nine years.

But the near-certainty of adding McDavid to a roster stocked with other top young talent is giving rise to fresh dreams in the NHL’s most beleaguered outpost. The team recently took a wrecking ball to its front office and hired a new coach, general manager and director of hockey operations. At the same time, a $480-million arena is taking shape.

The Oilers have chosen first overall in the NHL draft four times in the past six years. For their futility they got Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and will almost assuredly select Connor McDavid with their selection on Friday in Sunrise, Fla.

“A lot has happened with the organization in the last six weeks,” Jackson says. “There is a sense of excitement there. For a player to go to Edmonton, it’s pretty exciting.”

After tracking him down four years ago, Jackson called McDavid’s father, Brian, and asked to represent the NHL’s next anointed one. The family had already decided to sign with the Orr Group and declined, but Jackson became a partner in Bobby Orr’s firm a year and a half ago and was appointed his agent.

“It is funny the way things have worked out for me,” Jackson says. “It is just fabulous.”

One of the greatest players of all time, Orr recognized something special in McDavid when he first saw him about five years ago.

“We had a camp in Toronto where we brought prospects in to do drills – really difficult ones I’m not sure I could even do,” the Hall of Famer says. “I arrived a bit late and noticed this little guy on the ice and asked, ‘Who is that?’ Connor’s older brother had come to the camp and brought him along, and he was the one I was watching. My first thought was, ‘Wow, does that kid ever have great hands.’”

“The page has turned”

Oilers gnomes sit on a shelf below a lamp in the living room, and an Oilers blanket is draped over one chair. Two of Brian and Cheryl Stuart’s dogs are festooned in Oilers bandanas, and a blood-stained sweater Ryan Smyth wore when he had his teeth knocked out during the 2006 finals hangs in the den.

Cheryl and Brian Stuart, pictured at home in St. Albert, Alta., have been Edmonton Oilers season ticket holders since 1979, the team's first year in the NHL. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

Edmonton has felt the pain since then – of failure, of expectations dashed, of a once-proud franchise reduced to a league doormat. The town – and the Stuarts – are ready for a saviour on skates.

Together since 1988, the Stuarts live on the outskirts of Edmonton and have turned their home into an Oilers shrine. There are autographed pictures of Gretzky here, paintings and pencil drawings and Oilers sticks, ball caps and collectors plates there. A banner celebrating five Stanley Cups won between 1984-90 is strung from the ceiling.

The Oilers won five Stanley Cups in the Eighties, prompting the Hockey Hall of Fame to bestow dynasty status on the franchise. Sixteen years later in 2006 they made the finals but lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games. They have not been back to the playoffs since.

An insurance underwriter from Toronto, Brian settled in Alberta and has been cheering for the Oilers since 1979, the year four World Hockey Association teams joined the NHL. His collection of memorabilia is so extensive it once caught the eye of producers at Hockey Night in Canada, but he refused to appear on the air because he feared someone would steal it.

Brian is now 70 and retired and has owned season tickets more than half his life. Cheryl is 66 and a social worker – and taking Friday off to attend an NHL draft party for the first time. The shindig is being hosted by an Oilers fan site and is being promoted as “the most important party in the history of the world.”

“At the end of last season there was nothing on the horizon to make next season look exciting,” Cheryl says. “Then suddenly, all these amazing things happened.”

Connor McDavid, then playing for the Erie Otters, leaves a news conference at the Colisée Pepsi in Quebec City on May 29, 2015. (Mathieu Belanger / Reuters)

At home in Edmonton on April 18, Brian Stuart watched the lottery unfold with his 19-year-old son, Dougie. “When the Oilers won it, neither of us said anything,” Brian says. “We were both in shock. I just sat there thinking, ‘My God, what just happened?’”

Once one of the most successful franchises in professional sports, the Oilers have finished an average of 30 points out of the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. The team has had six head coaches in as many years, and has played so poorly that its owner, Daryl Katz, wrote fans an apologetic letter in 2014.

“We all thought this was going to be the year the Oilers turned the corner,” starts the letter, posted on the team’s website. “Obviously, that hasn’t happened, and it hurts.”

With increasing regularity, jerseys tossed in protest are raining down on the ice like caps after one of the Great One’s hat tricks.

The Oilers have had six head coaches in as many seasons: Craig MacTavish, Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Dallas Eakins and Todd Nelson. Between them they won 457 games and lost 494. The club hired former San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan in May, to lead McDavid and Co. into the future.

“I have felt bad for my buddies because I know how badly they want to win,” Gretzky says. “People [in management] like Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish want to be successful and love the city and want the team to do well. But now I think the page has turned.”

A humble prodigy

By the winter of last year, the hysteria surrounding Connor McDavid prompted his Ontario Hockey League team to hire a retired police officer as a bodyguard.

After Christmas, every rink the Erie Otters visited was sold out. Fans waited for hours after games to take a picture of the baby-faced teenager or to get his name scribbled on a scrap of paper.

Connor McDavid has his wingspan measured during the 2015 NHL Combine in Buffalo, N.Y. (Gary Wiepert / AP Photo)

Eating at a restaurant without being interrupted became nearly impossible for him in Erie, an industrial city of 102,000 in northwestern Pennsylvania. Each night, when he returned home, a stack of photos on the dining room table awaited McDavid’s signature.

“It was beyond anything you could imagine,” says Otters’ general manager Sherry Bassin, who is 75 and has been involved in hockey for five decades. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Scout's Honour

Connor possesses electrifying speed and acceleration. He gets his feet moving instantaneously and gets everything out of his stride, allowing him to pull away from good skaters quickly. You would think he has a turbo button for his skates. His vision is outstanding and he always seems to know who’s around him. He is more of a passer than a shooter and is the type of player who can make anyone better. He can blow you away with his puck handling ability. Emerging from the corner is one of McDavid's signature moves. He is so dangerous with his passing and shooting options cutting to the net, it makes him nearly impossible to stop.

NHL Draft Black Book

Born and raised in the Toronto suburbs, McDavid was a proficient skater at three, began playing hockey a year later, competed against nine-year-olds when he was six, and 17-year-olds at 13, a progression eerily similar to that of Sidney Crosby. Granted a rare exemption by Hockey Canada, he was permitted to enter the OHL as a 15-year-old, and became its most dominant player.

Now 6-foot-1 and about 195 pounds, he concluded the recent season with 120 points in 47 games and finished third in the league in scoring despite missing six weeks after suffering a broken hand in his first on-ice fight. Blessed with soft hands, almost otherworldly stickhandling skills and remarkable speed, McDavid skates around and through opposing players. His first few strides are among the fastest in the sport, and he is able to go full speed and in almost any direction – unflinching and irrepressible – at any time.

“He is the type of guy you think you have covered, and then he has another gear and he’s gone,” one scout says. “He brings something to the table you can’t teach.”

In one game during the second round of the OHL playoffs, McDavid scored five goals against the London Knights – his first on a snap shot, tucking in the second, wrapping a third around the goalie for a natural hat trick, flipping the puck over him for the fourth and tapping in a rebound from a nearly impossible angle for the last.

Connor McDavid in action with the Erie Otters last season. (Matt Mead / The Canadian Press)

In 20 postseason games, he had 49 points and was chosen the league’s playoff MVP, even though the Otters were beaten in the final round by the Oshawa Generals.

For the second straight season, one of his Erie teammates led the OHL in scoring. That was Dylan Strome, also expected to be among the first players chosen on Friday. The preceding year, Connor Brown, now one of the Leafs’ top farmhands, won the title, largely because of McDavid’s unselfish play.

“We had 11 rookies this year and started 16-1-1, and all Connor did was talk about how great his linemates were,” says Bassin, once an assistant general manager of the Quebec Nordiques. “That’s how humble he is.”

A deputy clerk of courts in Erie County, Bob Catalde opened his home up to McDavid at the suggestion of Bassin and a mutual friend. For three years, the mop-haired sensation lived with Catalde and his wife, Stephanie, their daughters Caisee and Camryn, and son Nico.

“The experience we had couldn’t have been better,” Catalde says. “Connor talks in terms of how he owes a debt of gratitude to myself and my wife, but I see it as the other way around.”

On game days, Catalde would don an apron, take over the kitchen, and prepare McDavid’s meals. The menu never varied: eight scrambled eggs with a heaping helping of fresh berries and a whole-grain bagel for breakfast, grilled chicken breast with brown rice and quinoa for dinner.

“The boy can eat,” Catalde says.

Afterward, McDavid would help clear off the dining room table. “My own kids wouldn’t do it, but he would get up and put his plate in the dishwasher every time,” Catalde says. “He has this ability that was passed down to him through his parents to keep everything grounded.”

On the ice, the frenzy around McDavid kept growing. He was besieged everywhere the Otters played.

Connor McDavid on the ice with the Erie Otters, playing against the Niagara Ice Dogs in Ancaster, Ont. on Aug. 31, 2012. (Peter Power / The Globe and Mail)

After a game in Guelph, Bassin tried to steer him out a side door and away from a huge crowd. Showing the disposition of an elite player who is conscious of his acclaim, McDavid ignored Bassin and signed autographs for 45 minutes outside in –28 C temperatures.

“He stopped me and said, ‘No, Bass, I was a little boy once, too,’” Bassin recalls. “How many 17– or 18-year-olds, when given an out, would say that? In getting him, the Oilers didn’t just win a lottery, they won the jackpot.”

The (former) city of champions

Bob Black has a bird’s-eye view of the Oilers’ new arena from a conference room on the 17th floor of an office tower in Edmonton’s city centre.

Construction on Rogers Place began in March of 2014, on a former rail yard, and the steelwork is scheduled to be finished this September. Cranes rise around the site. Crews recently began installing glass on the exterior of the structure – an 18,641-seat rink set for completion in time for the 2016-17 season and designed to be the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown arts and entertainment district.

The site will include a link to a new rail line, an outdoor plaza with a surface for public skating, an enclosed pedestrian corridor over one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, and a space for pregame parties, concerts and other gatherings.

The new Rogers Place arena in Edmonton is slated to be complete in time for the 2016-17 season. (Oilers Entertainment Group)

“We will have everything in there,” says Black, the executive vice-president of the arena corporation established by the Katz Group, which owns the team. “Product launches, corporate events, Stanley Cup celebrations.”

Black was 23 when the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup in 1984. The team won four in five years before Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, but has won only one – in 1990 – since then.

The drought has lasted so long that Edmonton councillors voted this spring to remove the slogan “City of Champions” from a half-dozen highway signs. Put up during the 1980s to celebrate civic pride, they quickly came to trumpet Edmonton’s sporting success, the Oilers’ especially. But now the slogan seems as stale as the team, which finished 28th, 28th, 24th, 29th, 30th and 30th over the last six seasons.

“It has been the same for Edmonton fans almost every year,” says Bryan Anderson, a longtime city councilor who voted against changing the City of Champions nickname. “Positive anticipation grows over the summer, and then fall happens and punctures our balloon.”

Scout's Honour

Connor isn’t overly aggressive or a stud defensively, but he isn’t a big liability either. He seldom cheats and he spent time on the penalty kill and used his anticipation skills to force turnovers. What makes Connor so dangerous in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill is his ability to blow past defenders in the blink of an eye if anyone so much as fumbles a puck. He makes teams pay when he’s given breakaways. He will instantly make [Edmonton] better. Connor is a future star in the NHL and we fully expect him to live up to all the hype.

NHL Draft Black Book

Intersected by the North Saskatchewan River, Edmonton sits in a lush and lovely valley. It boasts a wonderful heritage festival, one of North America’s oldest and largest street theatre festivals, and popular summer music jamborees. None of which truly differentiate it from most other major cities. But a championship sports team unifies the population in ways other things can’t.

“The Oilers making the playoffs in 2006 showed the younger generation what it was like here in the 1980s,” says Cheryl Stuart, who locked herself in her office and cried the day Gretzky was traded. “You walked around the city and everyone was wearing an Oilers jersey. When they are successful, the whole community benefits.”

Tongues firmly in cheek, Edmontonians have suggested the City of Champions slogan should be replaced with something more relevant. “We have gophers in our zoo” and “Bring a scarf” are among the recommendations.

“Once the Oilers and Eskimos weren’t winning so much, attempts were made to say that Edmonton is a champion in so many ways,” Anderson says. “People tried to find other reasons to justify the name.”

The most important draft in a generation

With so many hopes hanging in the balance, the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes was held on the evening of April 18 inside a studio at CBC headquarters in downtown Toronto.

Despite having only an 11.5-per-cent chance, the Oilers leapfrogged over the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes to secure the rights to draft the most anticipated player in a generation. An official of one desperate team snapped his pencil as lottery balls propelled out of a machine dashed his hopes.

“There is far more emotion in the room than you see on TV,” says Rogers CEO Guy Laurence. “The tension is unbelievable.”

Laurence acknowledges he was rooting for the Maples Leafs and Oilers because his company sponsors both of their arenas. The other reason is that Rogers has just recently signed a two-year marketing agreement with McDavid.

Across the country, 1.6 million viewers tuned in to the proceedings on TV, four times as many as usual. Inside the studio, there was a 15-minute gap between the lottery’s conclusion and the time it was telecast – just before the puck dropped in Game 2 of the Penguins-Rangers opening-round playoff series.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly reveals the Edmonton Oilers as number 1 in the NHL Draft Lottery on April 10, 2012. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Canadian Press)

“When it is all over, the guy that got the golden goose has to stand there with everyone who lost making polite conversation before you are allowed out of the room,” Laurence says. “It’s a slightly surreal atmosphere.”

In the moment after the Oilers won his draft rights, McDavid, on camera in the studio, looked shocked. His father later explained it was not because he did not want to play in Edmonton, but rather because he was overwhelmed.

In south Florida, six days from now, the Oilers will welcome him to the family, and soon after McDavid will sign an entry-level contract worth nearly $4-million (U.S.), bonuses included. His team hopes he will do for it what Crosby has done for the Penguins. The NHL is equally excited.

“Having a young talent of his stature raises the profile and brings attention,” Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, told The Globe and Mail. “But I think these things have to play out. This isn’t the first time we have seen a heralded star come into the league. Go back to Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, think about John Tavares.

“I mean, Connor McDavid is supposed to be a great player and we are excited to have him. I think, though, what’s going to determine his impact, not only on the league but especially the Oilers, is how he does when he takes the ice.”

In Edmonton, McDavid faces enormous pressure

McDavid visited Edmonton last weekend with his parents, Brian and Kelly. He was taken into the dressing room at Rexall Place, and given a tour of the new arena where he will skate with Taylor Hall and the team’s other young stars.

“It makes my heart pound just to think about it,” Cheryl Stuart says.

A big city, but one without pretenses, Edmonton has been frozen in its hockey past. Rachel Notley, Alberta’s popular new NDP premier, was away at college and backpacking across Europe, but vividly remembers the Oilers’ Stanley Cup years.

“I was articling as a law student in 1988 when Gretzky got traded,” says Notley, 51. “Everyone in the firm stopped working and there was a collective mental breakdown. There was a lot of wailing and airing of grievances.”

She remains an optimistic Oilers fan. “I am excited Connor McDavid is coming here, but I feel for a kid his age with so much pressure on his shoulders,” she says. “I hope people dial back the expectations a bit.”

Ference, a veteran of 16 years in the NHL and a Stanley Cup winner with the Bruins in 2011, says he will invite McDavid to move in with him and his family.

“I will offer him a place to live if he needs a spot,” Ference says. “I have a stable home and it will offer him a pretty normal atmosphere. As far as hockey goes, there is not a lot I could teach him. But I can help him with real-life stuff. That is where I can see myself connecting with him, as a guy who has been there and done that.”

Gretzky, meanwhile, doesn’t doubt Edmonton will embrace McDavid.

“I think he’s a special player, and I think Edmontonians are going to adopt him, and that he is going to love the city,” the Great One says. “People will allow him his privacy while they are enamoured with his ability. I think it will be a perfect fit.”

Follow me on Twitter: @globemartyk

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