Monday, February 18, 2013

A Prodigy on the Way to Stardom by The New York Times

Connor McDavid, 16, was awarded exceptional-player status and was drafted a year early into the Ontario Hockey League.

A Prodigy on the Way to Stardom
by Tim Rohan

ERIE, Pa. — Three hockey lifers watched Connor McDavid from worn, creaky seats at the far end of the ice. All was quiet when a crisp swoosh, the sound of a skate shredding ice, cut through the air. It sounded like paper tearing. Practice seemed to stop.

McDavid dangled the puck right and then left, as if it were glued to his stick, and sent the goalie sprawling to his side.

Gary Roberts, McDavid’s trainer, turned to Sherwood Bassin, the general manager of the Erie Otters, and to Bobby Orr and said, “Could you imagine him in two years?”

Bassin nodded. Orr leaned in. His face creased as he smiled.

He first saw McDavid two and a half years ago, at his own summer camp. McDavid, small but smooth, moved easily, naturally low to the ice, during a stick-handling drill. He was the best player there, by far.

“Oh my God,” Orr thought, and then said aloud, “Who’s that?”

“How old do you think he is?” an assistant replied.

McDavid was 13, at least two years younger than the others.

He would grow to 5 feet 11 inches. He would be awarded exceptional-player status so he could be drafted a year early into the Ontario Hockey League — first over all by the Otters. Reebok-CCM Hockey would begin discussions for an endorsement deal. And he would choose Orr to be his agent. All before he turned 16, in January.

Connor McDavid has tallied 54 points
in 52 games and is widely considered the
favorite to be chosen first in the 2015
N.H.L. entry draft.
Now he draws the O.H.L.’s best defensemen, men with beards, some four or five years older. His teammates, mired in another lost season, need him, their young center, to score, to facilitate and to win if he can. He has tallied 54 points in 52 games and is widely considered the favorite to be chosen first in the 2015 N.H.L. entry draft.

At a recent practice, he scored that goal and made Roberts dream.

Orr fidgets at the thought. Give the boy time.

This is the dichotomy between prodigy and star, now and then, good and great. McDavid is skilled, but not yet strong; respected, but innocent and naïve; serious, but 16. His love and passion for the game have already bled into obsession. It is rare in someone so young but obvious to those he encounters each day.

At 3, when McDavid first went ice skating, he shook off his father’s hand.

At 4, he begged his parents, Brian and Kelly, to let him play hockey a year early, so they lied about his age.

At 5, he wore a nice shirt and tie to every one of his older brother’s games, just like the players. He listened to the pregame speech in the locker room, sat in the stands next to his mother and explained, in precise detail, any moment she missed while chatting with the other mothers, as the other brothers were off lollygagging.

At 12, he dominated his father’s Sunday pickup games, weaving through a forest of adults, ducking under arms, passing through legs, scoring for fun.

At 16, there he was, weaving again, as Bassin, Orr and Roberts sat in the stands.

Working Toward Future

Roberts, after playing 21 seasons in the N.H.L., had opened a training center in Ontario, and he worked with McDavid last summer. He introduced McDavid to strength training, to evaluations and progressions — to that lifestyle.

One day, Roberts had McDavid watch the Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos work out, and McDavid wondered aloud, “Wow, am I ever going to get that strong?”

He would, Roberts assured him, in time.

Then his shot would punch. Then his forearms would fight better on face-offs.

All his life, he had been smaller, weaker, playing above his age.

After school most days, he battled with Cameron, his older brother by four years, who was a head taller and a half-person heavier. Their games were epic, the brothers said, until McDavid began to win routinely.

He spent hours alone in their driveway in Newmarket, Ontario, in-line skating through his own obstacle course. He zigzagged around paint cans and hopped over old sticks, up and down the driveway, and finished with a shot on net. He timed himself and kept records.

Sometimes Cameron joined in, sometimes not. Losing to his little brother was frustrating and embarrassing. He would knock McDavid around, whack his leg and catch him in the eye.

McDavid felt no need to retaliate. He had won.
McDavid, third from right, of the Erie Otters,
draws the best defensemen, some five years older.

A Reluctant Big Shot

At practice now, leaning back in the stands, unworried about McDavid’s work ethic, Roberts said, “He’ll be a beast in two years.” 

Once practice ended, McDavid hung around with a friend. They shot at an advertisement on the side boards, trying to hit the letters in order. After a few minutes, McDavid was the last one off the ice. 

That evening, he had dinner with Orr and a few teammates. At the end of the night, he returned to his host family’s home, tucked away in the suburbs. The finished basement he shared with his teammate Stephen Harper was complete with two beds, two desks, two bright blue beanbag chairs, two striped couches, thick blinds perfect for postpractice naps, a PlayStation 3, an Xbox 360 and a flat-screen television, to watch “Family Guy” and his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. 

In the middle of the room sat a Ping-Pong table. 

Bob Catalde, McDavid’s host father, was the family’s undisputed table tennis champion when McDavid arrived, quiet and polite. 

The first time Catalde and McDavid played on the table, McDavid let him win. He went easy, too, on Nico, Catalde’s 8-year-old son. Nico played hockey but considered McDavid less an idol than someone to hang around after school. 

Usually they played video games together or watched TV. Catalde prepared McDavid’s pregame meals — grilled chicken, brown rice and quinoa — and drove them places. (McDavid does not have a driver’s license.) 

At dinner, Nico would eat his vegetables, and McDavid would not. Catalde would slip broccoli, peas or spinach into his pasta, and when McDavid picked around them, Catalde would tease, “I’m calling Gary Roberts!” 

Even so, McDavid still took his plate, rinsed it and put it in the dishwasher. 

Catalde wanted him to be comfortable. But McDavid was too shy to decorate his side of the basement with posters of his favorite player, Sidney Crosby, whose ascent from junior hockey McDavid wanted to emulate. 
Last year, when Crosby compared himself and McDavid, McDavid thought it was pretty crazy. And when Wayne Gretzky called to say he was rooting for McDavid, that was crazy, too. 

“If my kid can grow up to be as well-rounded as this kid is, I mean, with all the pressure he has,” Catalde said, adding: “He’s good with everybody, but he’s clearly uncomfortable. He doesn’t like the attention. He doesn’t like being the big shot.” 

That Thursday night, after dinner with Orr, McDavid played table tennis with Catalde. McDavid was unmerciful, curling shots down the line, smashing winners over Catalde’s head. He was quiet, except to call out the score. 

Not since that first time had McDavid let Catalde win.
“Uh-uh, no way,” Catalde said, shaking his head. “He hates losing more than he likes winning.”

Jerseys and T-shirts with McDavid's name
and number are sold on game days.
Out of a Circle 
The next day, snow was falling outside as some Otters gathered in a back corridor of the arena to play sewer ball before a game against the Niagara IceDogs. The object was to juggle a soccer ball as a group, without using hands, and keep it from dropping. 

They formed a circle, and it was obvious which one had just turned 16. His limbs hung under a loose T-shirt and shorts, his face appeared blotchy, and his brown hair stuck up in the back of his head, as if he had just gotten out of bed. 

The others sarcastically call McDavid “exceptional.” They rag on him for every bad pass because, of course, they say, he can do no wrong — which is not so far from the truth. 

Bassin said McDavid’s passes were so creative, his vision so clear, that he slid the puck when and where his teammates were open, but maybe not ready or able. On the ice, in pads and a sweater, McDavid is the coordinated and cool one, something like Orr in a pickup game with his neighborhood buddies. 

After games when he was much younger, McDavid was a mess, his mother said. He would cry and shake, anxious under his own pressure, feeling so indebted to produce for his teammates, his buddies. 

The others in the circle had sensed this obligation. Perhaps they should have been jealous of McDavid, of his skill and stature. But they were not. 

They described him as an unselfish, pass-first center, not too preoccupied with scoring to backcheck. They would poke fun at his age and his innocence, but only out of respect, only because they liked him.  

After a loss to the Niagara IceDogs,
McDavid stopped and posed for photographs with fans.
When sewer ball ended, the boys dispersed. The group is among the youngest in the O.H.L., and by its record, among the worst. That night’s opponent, the IceDogs, was another struggling team and had not won in its last eight games.

Orr settled into a suite, with Bassin, a few other guests and Brian and Kelly, who had driven three and a half hours through the snow.

The game started sloppily, as if it were being played outside.

Orr sat in a folding chair and leaned forward, watching closely. The IceDogs scored first. It was evident they would score again, and again. There appeared to be more empty seats than fans. The referee could surely hear the man heckling him from the second-to-last row.

Then McDavid picked up the puck in his own zone and started up the ice. The crowd buzzed. With each stride, he gained speed and intent. He bent lower, then lower — swoosh — through the neutral zone, past one IceDog, past two, three.

They stood still, like driveway paint cans, or so it seemed. He was a blur.

“Oh my God,” someone murmured. Others stood.

McDavid had only the goalie to beat. He deked right, the goalie slipped aside, and, as he pulled the puck back, after it had been so loyal, so true, it slid away out of reach.

Everyone groaned, as if each had been shaken awake in the middle of a dream.

Jack Whipple watched the sprint from his perch in the corner of the rink. At every other home game for 17 years, since the Otters had moved to Erie, he had sat in the corner as a goal judge and watched the net. There, McDavid came racing toward him.

“He’s a step and a half ahead of the others,” Whipple said. “Just watch the little things he does. He’s the only one of the team that has any finesse around the net.”

The Otters trailed by 3-0 at the first intermission, then 3-1, then 4-1 midway through the second period. The IceDogs knocked McDavid around and clogged the open ice.

Jason Smith, the Section 17 usher, watched the struggle from his post. He stood on the top step of the tunnel and leaned on the wall. He moonlighted as an usher, by day teaching 11th-grade social studies to students older than McDavid.

“He seems to give 110 percent all the time,” Smith said. “You can tell he cares. Right now, they’re down, 4-1. A lot of them will give up. He won’t.”

McDavid tried to recreate his earlier moment. He just might have, had he exercised restraint, had he been patient and paced the play. The IceDogs mobbed him instead.

Outside, the snow swirled and continued to fall. Gary Baughman, the maintenance man, shoveled and salted the steps.

Throughout the night, he peeked in from the concourse to catch a glimpse of McDavid — to see a boy learning, experimenting, tinkering. Maybe so that someday he could say he saw McDavid play way back when. — The New York Times

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