Connor McDavid has a unique challenge in making the Edmonton Oilers successful again
Cameras and tape recorders crisscrossed the Edmonton Oilers’ locker room, cycling from stall to stall to capture the stories of the day. A familiar buzz filled the circular space, questions and conversations between players and reporters floating through the air the morning before a home game.
But the moment Connor McDavid stood up, everything else stopped. The rest of the room fell silent. When the most prominent athlete in Edmonton was ready to speak, all the attention came flocking to him.
“He could run for mayor and win tomorrow,” said Tom Gazzola, an Edmonton sports radio host in his 13th season covering the team. “He’s basically a god, worshipped for what he does.”
McDavid never asked to be the Chosen One in Edmonton, to procure the prophetic pressures placed on him as the Oilers’ prodigal son. Had draft lottery luck played out differently when he entered the league as the highest-touted prospect in years back in 2015, he might have ended up in Arizona or Buffalo, Carolina or New Jersey.
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But instead, he ended up here, in a city trying to recapture the glory days of one of hockey’s most storied dynasties (the Oilers won all five of their Stanley Cup titles between 1984-1990), and following in the footsteps of the sport’s undisputed most legendary player (four of those championships were claimed with Wayne Gretzky as captain).
There are few cross-sport comparisons to McDavid’s situation, which has seen the 22-year-old center make three (soon to be four) All-Star teams, twice lead the league in scoring, and claim the 2017 Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player — but only reach the playoffs once.
He is like hockey’s version of Mike Trout (considered arguably the sport’s best player despite lacking in postseason accolades) but also carries a burden similar to Cody Bellinger (the best player on a team mired in a championship drought). His meteoric rise mirrors that of Giannis Antetokounmpo, as does his status as a star on a small-market team — even if he is reluctant to bask in much of the spotlight.
“He’s the best — if not, arguably the best — player in the world,” said teammate Zack Kassian, who has played on McDavid’s top line often this season. “With that comes a lot of expectation, and a lot of pressure as well. That’s what makes him such a good player. He’s so mature for his age. He is really good at handling all sorts of situations.”
Not so subtle reminders of those expectations are everywhere around the Oilers’ home rink. A three-story image of McDavid is plastered against a column in the main concourse, while replica Stanley Cups greet visitors at the entrance to the team’s locker room.
“When you’re that type of individual, when you’re recognized everywhere, where you represent not only yourself, your teammates, your city, but your game as a whole,” said current Kings coach and former Oilers coach Todd McLellan, who coached McDavid through his first four NHL seasons, “the eyes are on you all the time.”
McDavid credited McLellan, who was the No. 1 overall pick’s first NHL coach, with helping cultivate his development.
“He was really patient with me, gave me every opportunity to be successful,” McDavid said. “There were a lot of nights where I probably didn’t deserve my next shift, but he kept putting me out there.”
McLellan deflected all the credit back on the speedy scorer who entered Thursday tied with teammate Leon Draisaitl for the NHL lead in points with 51.
“He has a lot of people around him that help him, but at the end of the day, he gets to make the decision on how he’s going to behave in any situation,” McLellan said. “And he makes it right. So give him credit.”
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McDavid arrived in Edmonton in the midst of what Oilers fans coined the “Decade of Darkness” — 10 consecutive non-playoff seasons following the club’s surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.
That rut appeared to be snapped three years ago when McDavid keyed an Oilers’ berth in the Western Conference semifinals, where they lost a Game 7 to the Ducks. But, the club has failed to qualify for the postseason in the two years since.
During those lean years, McDavid escaped much blame. Last season, most listener calls Gazzola fielded during pre- and postgame shows rather bemoaned the Oilers’ unbalanced roster, lack of depth and years of dicey front office decisions. Criticism of McDavid was so rare that, it was news when fans were caught heckling him and his parents leaving a local restaurant in March 2018.
“They know that it’s not McDavid that is leading to these losses directly,” Gazzola said. “People here get that.”
Still, even with the Oilers in second place in the Pacific Division heading into their meeting with the Kings on Friday night, reservations remain. For the first time since moving into Rogers Place four years ago, the Oilers aren’t selling out every home game. Fans in Edmonton and around the hockey world, Gazzola said, are still “wait and see” mode.
After all, they know what their budding star can do in the regular season. They’re ready to see it consistently extend into the postseason now.
“I can’t tell you the admiration I have for him as an individual, never mind as a player,” McLellan said. “The way he carries himself amongst everybody is pretty impressive at such a young age.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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