Players enter through the garage at the back of the Erie Insurance Arena. Connor McDavid comes in through the door marked "No Entry." Security pretends not to notice.
Every step of his walk from the car to the dressing room is choreographed. In through the out door is a small part of a complex ritual. Once in the room, more small acts of faith.
"I don't want to tell you what they are, they're that embarrassing," McDavid says. "If I told you, you'd think I was crazy."
You imagine McDavid – a spotty 17-year-old who always looks as though he's just rolled out of bed – squirming as he says that. McDavid does not squirm. He stares at you so hard, he's in danger of punching a hole in the back of your skull.
We're sitting in a small chamber off the Erie Otters dressing room. There's a couch and a single folding chair. While we're talking, a janitor walks in and says: "I'm not sure you're supposed to be in here."
I start fumbling around for my gear. McDavid takes over. He apologizes, but he doesn't jump up or offer to leave. He turns his Manson lamps on the poor guy for a few silent beats. It's a staring contest and it isn't close. Five seconds in, the janitor cracks. He turns, muttering, and flees.
McDavid swivels back to me. I'm making a show of pretending I'd played it cool all along.
"I'm sorry about that," McDavid says. "Go on."
For years, people have been telling McDavid that he is a once-in-a-generation hockey talent. He's dealt with that pressure the same way he reacts to a pushy maintenance worker – politely deferential, but in full control of the situation.
Stalking, proactive, reactive all at the same time
The best way to describe McDavid's oversized bag of on-ice tricks is that he plays as if he's spotlit.
That's easy to do when you have the puck. McDavid commands attention even when he's nowhere near the play.
You could spend 20 minutes watching him sit on the bench.
For the whole time he's out there, he's stalking, proactive and reactive all at the same time. The best comparison is Mario Lemieux's predatory glide.
This is McDavid's third season in the OHL. He's one of only four players ever granted a special dispensation to enter the "O" as a 15-year-old.
Erie is a good, young team. This year, McDavid plays between a former fourth-liner and a rookie. When we meet in November, he's on pace to become the highest scorer in league history, and he's pulled the new guy – Alex DeBrincat – into the top five on the season's scoring list.
The 'O' isn't a glamorous league, and Erie is one of its less glamorous stops. A small, down-at-heel industrial city fading on the edge of the titular lake. This is, first and foremost, a high-school football town.
It has been the perfect, low-pressure spot to quietly develop the next Sidney Crosby. But now that he's only a few months away from the NHL draft, the big-league razzle-dazzle is starting to seep in.
When the Otters drove up to Barrie, Ont., for a game, they passed an ad hoarding outside the arena that read: "Connor McDavid vs. the Barrie Colts." People were waiting outside to get his autograph several hours before the game. That's becoming a regular feature.
"I've never seen that before," said his coach, Kris Knoblauch.
'Connor doesn't have bad games'
McDavid doesn't hate the attention. It'd be more correct to say that, like most things that aren't helping him improve his game, he tolerates it.
He was raised in Newmarket, Ont. He has the typical prodigy's backstory, one that hasn't changed much since Mozart: a precociously early attraction to his art (he was a proficient skater at 3); every waking hour was devoted to practising his skills (in the family driveway); an insistence on competing against older, more skilled competition.
He's spent his whole life looking for a challenge. Based on the work, he has yet to find one.
That lack has ruined many formative talents. McDavid is different in that he has an unusually inward turn of mind.
"I'm happy to be alone, just to be in my room by myself, thinking about what I have to do next," he says.
Ahead of a game, the players do their stretches together in a basement hallway. It looks like a typical high-school gym class, except everyone's really good at gym. Kids are yelling and pushing and laughing. McDavid, amused and aloof, is in the middle of the group as it exaggeratedly goose-steps up and down the corridor. He isn't razzing anyone. No one would think of razzing him. Like most stars who are comfortable in their skins, McDavid is simultaneously together and apart from his peers.
He struggles to think of a hobby outside of "hanging around with friends." He likes movies (the fallback "like" of everyone who can't think of something to say). He doesn't play video games or read much. He's close to invisible on social media. McDavid gets up, goes to school, goes to the rink, practises, works out or plays, goes home, eats, and goes to bed. That's it. Every day. He's a hockey monk.
Would he describe himself as obsessive?
"Yeah, I would," McDavid says. "When I was growing up my parents thought I was a perfectionist. I saw a sports doctor and all this stuff. When I wouldn't have a good game, I would be so torn, so upset about it. They felt like something was wrong. I don't know. It's just how I am and how every athlete should be. Good is never enough."
"I've heard about Sidney Crosby staying to shoot pucks after a bad game. Connor isn't like that," Knoblauch says. He stops for a minute to reconsider: "But, of course, Connor doesn't have bad games."
He has a bad game the night I show up. Midway through the second, he's hacked behind the net by a pipsqueak named Bryson Cianfrone. Neither player knows how to fight. McDavid's never been in a real, gloves-dropped scrap in his life. He starts swinging. The smaller Cianfrone is just hanging on.
The Erie crowd's up for it. A few seconds in, they realize it's not some third-line mook throwing wild, untutored haymakers. It's the biggest star who's ever rolled through town. The roaring dips. McDavid slams his right hand into the boards, breaking it. He goes off immediately. It gets very quiet.
This is the true beginning of the McDavid hysteria. It was supposed to start back home, ahead of the world junior hockey championships. But with the injury, we're already into the Whither Connor? stories in November. As usual with hockey prospects, a little blind aggression has made people like him more.
"I think it was the right thing to do. I would rather fight than turtle or anything like that," McDavid tells the Erie Times-News a couple of weeks later. "There's not a whole lot you can do in that situation. [Cianfrone] dropped his gloves. I'm not just going to sit there and take punches."
It wasn't the right thing to do, but that was absolutely the right thing to say.
McDavid more dominant at every stage
It's around this time that people stop talking as much about the other prospective No. 1 pick in June's draft, Boston University forward Jack Eichel.
Though they are about the same size, Eichel plays a bigger, more bruising game. He may be the more NHL-ready of the pair. This assumes that physicality is a more reliable indicator of hockey success than mentality. It's a broad assumption at the best of times, and probably a foolish one when it comes to McDavid.
Like all the best players, McDavid hasn't just adapted to new leagues. He's become more dominant at every stage. Until that streak ends, there's no reason to expect that he can't do the same in the NHL. He has every one of the component skills, and a thickening frame. All he needs to do now is trust that a kind hockey God will allow him to avoid the Oilers.
You do understand why people want to project a rivalry onto Eichel and McDavid, one that apparently does not exist. Hockey hasn't been as much fun since the air came out of the Crosby-versus-Ovechkin glory days. It'd be a boon to have that back again.
Neither player is anxious to start throwing gauntlets, although Eichel has taken very tentative steps in that direction.
"If I sat here and told you I didn't want to be the number one pick, I'd be lying, because I do. But I'm not going to lose sleep over it," the Massachusetts-born player told The New York Times. "There've been plenty of great NHL players who haven't been the No. 1 pick and have had good careers."
Good? We're about to learn how McDavid rates the idea of "good."
I ask him the same question: Does going No. 1 matter to you?
"Yeah, it does," McDavid says, insistent. "No. 2 would be" – a sigh and a gruesome pause – "good. But when you're playing on the driveway, you aren't picturing going No. 2."
McDavid warms to this idea of the superlatives that lie ahead of him.
"If you're in overtime in the gold-medal game, you don't picture yourself jumping over the boards and celebrating. You're the guy scoring the [winning] goal. That's how I feel about the NHL draft – why not be the No. 1 guy?"
Here's guessing that if he could afford to lose sleep over where he'll land in the draft, McDavid would consider it.
Do you know Eichel?
"I don't really know him at all, no."
Not at all?
"We've only played against each other a handful of times. I've never really talked to him."
I put it to him that that's a little odd, given that they will be a linked pair for the next little while at least – hockey's Bird and Johnson.
"Bird and Johnson?!" McDavid says, voice suddenly shrill and amused. "That's a pretty bold comparison for a couple of 17-year-old kids."
I drop it.
He's about to get the thing he wants
One-on-one, it is difficult to describe how self-possessed he is. Close your eyes, and you'd imagine you were talking to a player reflecting on his career from the distance of many years.
"I moved away from home at 15," McDavid says, weighing his decision to enter the OHL early. "My mother thought that was crazy, but I felt I was ready for it. I was prepared for all those new experiences."
When I mention to him that he is an unusually old head, he waits, not sure what I mean. I explain. He leans back for a bit and says, "Well, then. Thank you."
However much he is going to distinguish himself playing professional hockey, McDavid is already the world's oldest teenager.
In front of a group, he collapses in on himself. During his first world junior media scrum, pressed up against a wall in the basement of a downtown Toronto hotel, he begins in a whisper that gets gradually softer. By the end, he's inaudible.
All people want to know about is the broken hand. He keeps it protectively jammed inside a pants pocket. The hand will be fine in time for our annual two-week preoccupation with a group of teenagers. National disaster averted.
He may not enjoy attention, but that's not necessarily the same as shyness. He can intellectualize why people care, but he still doesn't get it.
"The strangest thing about my life is how people will pick you out and think you're different. Just because I've had some success," McDavid says. "A lot of people know my name, but they don't know how basic my life is."
Everybody looks at the very best and wonders: "What does he or she have?"
Talent's a part of it, but that's all. A lot of us were born to skate or sculpt or shoot the three. Most of us who had it, followed up. And a few who had it and followed up, followed it beyond every reasonable point. They gave up on extracurriculars and daydreaming and the prom. They focused on just the one thing, and wore it down until it was polished to a high shine.
That's what makes this moment in McDavid's life so interesting – he's about to get the thing he wants. How does that feel?
"I can tell you what I think it's going to be like, but I don't know what it's going to be like," McDavid says.
What do you think it's going to be like?
McDavid fumbles around for a bit, mentions "the media" – a necessary evil – and Twitter, which he ignores. He has no clue.
Well, if that's the case, what's he most looking forward to about being in the NHL?
"I don't really know," McDavid says.
In this moment, he is more average than he's ever been his whole life. He's all of us confronted with the object of desire, trying to work our way back to why we desired it in the first place.
That's why he has the rituals – the door, the walk-in route, the dressing room mysteries, his "lucky underwear." They make an extraordinary life simple.
It's about to get very un-simple.
McDavid's been thinking about this for a while now. He name-checks a few players he's known from junior who've moved on to the bigs – Aaron Ekblad, Sean Monahan, Andre Burakovsky.
"They say it's everything you dreamed of," he says. "They say you can't even picture how it is."
And who knows what Ekblad likes about the NHL, or whether McDavid will like that, too. But McDavid isn't thinking too hard about that.
"The thing I'm most excited about being in the NHL is being in the NHL."
He's 17. He has no idea what's coming. He's not exactly sure what he's working toward. But it hasn't stopped him yet. That's enough for now.