The youngster widely considered Canada’s best hockey prospect since Sidney Crosby didn’t get his wish to play in the world junior championship.
Instead, 15-year-old Connor McDavid of the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters will be the star attraction at the world under-17 championship that begins Saturday in Victoriaville and Drummondville, Que.
The native of Newmarket, Ont., will help make talent-rich Team Ontario the favourite to claim gold at the 10-team tournament.
“He’s been Erie’s best forward all year and he’s fun to watch,” said Ontario coach Troy Smith, who also patrols behind the bench for the Kitchener Rangers. “Being 15, I’m sure he’ll be out to prove he belongs.”
McDavid won’t be eligible for the NHL draft until 2015, while most players will be in the class of 2014. But he has already gained international experience skating for the OHL against Russia in the Subway Series in November.
“There’s always hype in any sport, but this kid really lives up to it,” said Mark Edwards of Hockey Prospect, an independent scouting service. “He’s special, and he’s a great kid too.”
The under-17 tournament has five Canadian teams – the Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West and Pacific – as well as national squads from the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland and Slovakia. Russia won last year in Windsor, Ont.
Ontario will be seeking a fourth gold medal in six years and ninth overall. Quebec, the West, the U.S. and Russia have each won three times, while Finland won once, in 1990.
The OHL has only three times ever granted “exceptional status,” which allows a player to play major junior hockey a year early at 15. Two of them will play for Ontario – defenceman Aaron Ekblad, who was the league’s first overall draft pick of 2011 by the Barrie Colts, and McDavid, who went first to Erie this year.
Ontario will have four players from the Kingston Frontenacs, and Smith said two of them, Sam Bennett and Spencer Watson, will start the tournament as McDavid’s linemates. McDavid and Bennett played minor hockey together.
He said Ekblad will also be key as the lone returning player from last year’s tournament.
Smith will be at his fourth under-17 world event, second as head coach. He said the challenges are to gel quickly as a team, avoid injuries and to get some breaks.
Quebec will play host to the event for the first time since 1994 and will also be a contender with former NHL sniper Donald Audette as head coach and his son, 16-year-old Daniel Audette, as his star player.
Daniel Audette was selected first overall in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft this year by the expansion Sherbrooke Phoenix, who have four players on the squad.
“They’re 16 years old but they’ve been playing a lot,” Donald Audette said. “They’re a step ahead of the ones who don’t play as much.”
As for coaching his son, Audette said: “He knows he’ll be treated like another kid. If he plays well, he’ll play more. We’re definitely looking forward to his offensive contributions. He wasn’t first overall for nothing. And he was there last year and is the only one with experience at that level.”
Team Quebec has three players from the Victoriaville Tigres who will be skating on home ice, and Audette hopes crowd support will give his side extra legs.
“But I’m not trying to put more pressure on them because we’re in Quebec,” he said. “We’ll try to concentrate on doing our best as a team.”