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Hockey ‘There was Gretzky, and then there is Connor’: Edmonton gets its first glimpse of McDavid

Connor McDavid, the first overall pick in the 2015 NHL entry draft, takes part in the Edmonton Oilers orientation camp in front of fans in Edmonton on July 3, 2015.

JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A line snaked 300 metres from the front doors through the parking lot at Rexall Place at 8:45 a.m. Friday, 2 1/2 hours before Connor McDavid was scheduled to appear.

Children played tag around a bronze statue of Wayne Gretzky while their parents, dressed in new No. 97 hockey sweaters, stood baking in near-30 C heat.

The Oilers usually hold their six-day rookie orientation camp in a small rink on the outskirts of Edmonton but moved the training sessions to their home arena to accommodate fans eager for a first look at the 18-year-old who is shouldering the hopes of this city and its long-suffering team.

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So many spectators showed up – and so early – that employees of the former Northlands Coliseum waded out into the throng to hand out free popcorn and bottles of water as a thank-you gesture.

"This is the second coming," said Angel David, a long-time Oilers fan and season-ticket holder. "There was Gretzky, and then there is Connor."

There is no mistaking that the shiny-faced No. 1 draft pick has Edmonton in a tizzy. Friday was the third day of camp but the first time proceedings were open to the public.

Approximately 3,500 turned out to watch McDavid and 30 other prospects participate in drills for a little more than an hour. Larger crowds are expected at practice sessions on Saturday and Sunday, and on Monday night, when the camp concludes with a scrimmage.

The lower bowl at Rexall Place was half full when McDavid, showing a flair for the dramatic, skated onto the ice last in a long line of players and right into the faithful's hearts. The crowd erupted at his sight and within seconds was chanting – "Connor, Connor, Connor." They cheered wildly as one of his first shots clanked loudly off the crossbar.

"It was awesome," McDavid said, describing the moment he realized a throng had turned out to greet him. "I didn't know what to expect. It was just a normal practice. People here are excited and it is nice to see that."

Only a few hours earlier, the Oilers locked up McDavid for three years, signing to an entry-level contract the most anticipated player to enter the sport in at least a decade. He recorded 285 points in 166 games for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League in three previous seasons, drawing comparisons to the Great One and Sidney Crosby.

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The Oilers, of which a nine-year playoff drought is the longest in the NHL, won a lottery to secure the right to pick McDavid with the first choice in the June 26 draft. It is the fourth time in six years the team has picked first and this time a new general manager and coaching staff has been brought in with him.

"It feels surreal that we have this guy here," said Randy Fernandez, a season-ticket holder for three years. His children, ages four, six and eight, stood beside him, tugging at their orange McDavid T-shirts. "The odds of winning the lottery weren't in our favour, but it looks like the hockey gods were looking out for us."

Twenty-three banners hang from the rafters at one end of Rexall Place, honouring the division and league championships and five Stanley Cups the team won between 1984 and 1990. Retired jerseys of seven players hang at the other end – but all are from the Gretzky era. It is as if the team has been frozen in the past.

"The Oilers have a history that's rich and that's deep and that's strong, and is something we'll never escape," said head coach Todd McLellan, who came to the Oilers this spring after leading San Jose to the playoffs six times in seven years. "But our group is about creating its own history. The past doesn't drive the future. We have to drive our own future."

McDavid, a 190-pound centre who skates as if he is rocket-propelled and effortlessly dangles and dekes his way through defencemen, is the centrepiece around which McLellan is building the team. The teenaged prodigy talks as if he's uncertain of his status, but McLellan expects him to be in the lineup when the 2015-16 season begins in St. Louis on Oct. 8.

"He talks about 'making the team' because he is a very respectful young gentleman and he understands that he has to earn it," McLellan said. "But I expect him to push forward and play for our hockey club next year, and I think, in his heart, he does, too. His skills are remarkable and he is a very humble, focused young man who does things right, and that's tough for an 18-year-old to do."

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The Oilers' brass in the past two days has gathered at one end of the rink and watched his every move. "It's hard for your eyes not to find 97 to see what he is up to," McLellan said.

The franchise is in search of a new identity, one that includes winning. Fans who are tired of losing feel they deserve better – and are convinced a new day has dawned.

"I was at home at dinner the night they won the lottery," said Bob Stauffer, the commentator during Oilers games and a talk-radio host. "My wife says it is one of only two times she has ever heard me scream. The other was when Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal [in the 2010 Olympics]."

On Friday, fans cheered McDavid when he passed the puck, when he deftly directed a shot through the goalie's five-hole and even when he missed. They oohed and ahhed when, at the end of a drill, he balanced the puck on the end of his stick.

On a weekday morning, thousands came and cheered, and cheered some more.

"These people have been dying to get their first glimpse of him," said J.J. Hebert, the Oilers' senior director of media relations and communications. "It shows how passionate they are."

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In Edmonton, the McDavid Era has begun.

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