The Connor McDavid Story: How the Future of the NHL Became a (Reluctant) Star

Matt Crossman@@MattCrossmanSpecial to Bleacher ReportOctober 9, 2015

Getty Images/Andy Devlin

ST. LOUIS — Connor McDavid walks through the hall under the stands in the Scottrade Center a few hours before his NHL debut. He arrives in a makeshift media room and stands in front of an Edmonton Oilers banner. The TV cameras click on. He exhales and looks straight ahead.

The Next Big Thing has arrived.

This generational player has sweat-caked hair that flies in every direction, as if he combed it with his stick. His sneakers are untied. Sweat glistens across his forehead, a remnant of the morning skate that ended a few minutes ago. The acne on his face serves as a reminder that though he doesn't play like it or act like it, he's still only 18.

McDavid, a 6'1", 195-pound center picked first overall by the Oilers in the June draft, looks every questioner in the eye and answers so softly he's almost inaudible from a few feet away. Not that he says much anyway. His least favorite subject to talk about is himself, and that's what all the questions focus on. Still, the queries come, because this is a big moment for McDavid, for the Oilers, for the NHL.

McDavid is far more than just a highly touted rookie playing in his first NHL game. He's the most anticipated player since at least Sidney Crosby, if not ever. He starred in commercials for Adidas and Reebok/CCM before he touched the puck in a game. He's been called the next Crosby, the next Lemieux, the next Gretzky not for weeks or months but for years. He is widely seen as the future face of the sport, even if he hates all the attention that comes along with that.

If there has been tension in McDavid's journey to join the hockey elite, it has been this: He has always wanted to be just one of the guys, even while his talent has made him anything but just one of the guys. McDavid does things on the ice that few players his age—any age—can do. He's been that way since the first time he played the game.

He plays hockey like Steve Nash played basketball. He has the foresight to see a play develop before it actually does, the quick-twitch creativity to formulate a plan based on that knowledge, and the hand-eye coordination to make the pass or shot to execute that plan. And he does all of that while skating with incredible explosiveness.

"He's working very hard to fit in," coach Todd McLellan says. "He doesn't want to be special. But he obviously is."

In McDavid's journey from precocious young talent to the cusp of NHL stardom, everything that can go right did. He was born with great talent, and he added to it with hard work. He learned to be humble and respectful from his parents, Brian and Kelly, who otherwise stayed in the background.

Many athletes get their drive from proving doubters wrong. Nobody has ever doubted McDavid. If anything, he was late to believe how great everyone else said he was. That process was years in the making and started when he enrolled in Premier Elite Athletes' Collegiate, which is commonly known as PEAC, a private school for top-notch athletes in suburban Toronto. For three years, he trained with and played alongside some of the best youth hockey players in Ontario.

From the day he arrived at PEAC as a seventh-grader, he was a full-fledged phenom. But even in his third year there, he didn't seem aware of his own stature. As he rode on a bus to a game one day against a team from another PEAC campus, he scanned the other team's roster. He saw some of the biggest names in Toronto youth hockey; names he'll see on NHL rosters one day. He looked up at Neil Doctorow, the founder of PEAC who owned it at the time, and asked, "Do you think we're going to win?"

Doctorow considered it a sweet and innocent question, utterly transparent about McDavid's opinion about his place in the hockey world. McDavid did not lack confidence; he knew he belonged at PEAC. But he did not know, not then, that his name belonged beside those names.

"I said, 'You're Connor McDavid. What are you talking about?'" Doctorow says. "He had no concept how much better he was than these kids."

McDavid scored six goals in the game.

In Canadian youth hockey, a player's participation in a league is based on his birth year. For all of his life, McDavid played a year up. At PEAC, the teachers moved him up a year academically because they struggled to find ways to challenge him at his proper grade, says Deirdre Quinn, who taught McDavid's communication technology and art classes for three years.

Her classes were not his favorites. He preferred subjects that are black and white, right and wrong, just the facts. Communication technology and art involve too much subjectivity. But he put in the work necessary to do well in her classes anyway.

"He wasn't banking on anything, even despite people filling his head all the time—you're going to be amazing, you're going to be the next big thing," Quinn says. Then and now, McDavid paid little attention to such fawning praise. "He just continued to care about the things he should be caring about as a 15-year-old, which is school and getting good marks."

McDavid was so quiet that Quinn tried to push him out of his comfort zone by calling on him to answer questions and making him give presentations in front of the class. She laughs when she says she hopes he thinks that helped when he gives interviews in the NHL.

Sometimes her classes captivated him—like the time she gave her students a video assignment to produce either an autobiography or a biography of a person they admired. She knew McDavid would never do a project on himself. He chose as his subject his favorite hockey player—Crosby, the Penguins superstar. He stitched video highlights together and wrote captions to tell Crosby's life story.

Near the end of the report, Quinn says, McDavid summarized his view of Sid the Kid by Photoshopping a crown onto Crosby's head and declaring Crosby should run for president.

After three years at PEAC, McDavid became the third player in history to be granted "exceptional player" status by Hockey Canada, which meant he could apply for the draft for the Ontario Hockey League, a training ground for the NHL, at 15 instead of 16.

Sherry Bassin, then the owner and general manager of the Erie Otters of the OHL, first scouted McDavid when he was 14. Bassin, who has spent five decades in hockey, knew within two shifts that McDavid owned special talent.

But Bassin saw much more. He saw character in the way McDavid treated his teammates, how his muted celebrations after goals showed he knew the game was not about him, how he fed teammates so they would score, and often. At the OHL draft, Bassin selected McDavid first overall the next year.

Shortly thereafter, McDavid showed up for a summer scrimmage with the Otters, but he refused to wear the team's gear. "I met with him and said, 'What's going on there?'" Bassin says. "He said, 'Mr. Bassin, I haven't made the team yet.' I told him, 'If you don't make the team, I'm moving to China.'"

McDavid made the team and moved from his family's home in Newmarket, Ontario, to live with Bob Catalde and his family in Erie, Pennsylvania. The Cataldes became his billets, the hockey term for host family.

Catalde's father and father-in-law thought he was crazy letting some strange 15-year-old boy live at his house, especially considering Catalde has daughters who were 15 and 12 at the time (18 and 15 now).

Courtesy of the Catalde family.

Catalde wondered if they might be right. So when McDavid, his parents and the Cataldes met at Catalde's house to determine whether McDavid moving in was a good idea, Catalde made it clear he thought he was doing McDavid a favor by letting him stay there. He said he expected McDavid to behave, especially when it came to his daughters. His message: If I even suspect anything, you're gone.

Catalde spelled out other rules, too. No girls were allowed in the house when Bob and his wife, Stephanie, weren't home. Nobody, boy or girl, could come over without approval beforehand. If McDavid was going to miss dinner, he had to notify Catalde well in advance.

As Catalde spelled out the rules, McDavid stayed quiet. He managed to croak out something like, "Don't worry." His parents, too, reassured Catalde that McDavid's behavior would not be an issue.

It only took a few days for Catalde to know he need not have worried, and life in the Catalde household with the future No. 1 NHL draft pick started to become normal. McDavid rarely broke any of Catalde's rules, and he was a typical teenager. He stayed up too late, looked like a zombie in the morning and never ate his vegetables.

Catalde and McDavid formed an odd tandem. Catalde is barrel-chested and boisterous with a handlebar mustache. McDavid still looked like a boy. He was small and shy, and facial hair was yet but a far-off dream. Catalde can talk your ears off. McDavid listens his off. Yet they bonded.

McDavid had his own room in the basement and retreated there often. He emerged for meals and to watch TV. "He really needed his down time," Catalde says. "You can imagine the pressure on that kid, and everything else that was going on. He just needed to decompress."

But McDavid wasn't a hermit. He proved to be unbeatable in ping-pong and played knee hockey with Nico, Catalde's now-10-year-old son. McDavid sometimes argued with Catalde, a lawyer, about current events. He presented concise and disciplined arguments about the issues of the day. ("He would have made a great lawyer," Catalde says.) Catalde remembers one conversation in particular about the American judicial system in which McDavid expressed frustration that the process sometimes allows the very obviously guilty to walk free. That offended McDavid's black-and-white idea of what's right and wrong.

Catalde coached Nico's hockey team, and McDavid frequently attended practices and games. He quickly identified players' strengths and weaknesses, and Catalde says McDavid learned the players' names faster than he did.

McDavid spent summers at his parents' home in Newmarket, a suburb of Toronto. By the summer of 2014, Nico had become good enough at hockey to play in international tournaments in Toronto. McDavid often came to watch, because that's what big brothers do for their kid brothers, and that's how McDavid and Nico see each other. When McDavid showed up for Nico's games, he usually pulled his hoodie tight over his head and sat in the corner near the Zamboni to try to escape notice. It never worked. Someone always recognized him, and that someone wanted an autograph, and soon dozens of someones surrounded him.

One day, Catalde tried to talk him out of going to Nico's game because McDavid had had his wisdom teeth removed the day before. "He was sore as all get out," Catalde says. "His face was still swollen."

McDavid went to the game anyway and dealt with the crowd of autograph hounds like he always did—with patience. They went out to eat afterward. McDavid couldn't chew, so he ordered scrambled eggs and a smoothie. The wait staff mobbed him while he ate.

At Erie, game days were metronomic, in part because McDavid craves routine and in part because he's superstitious. McDavid got up at the same time and ate the same breakfast, which Catalde made for him: eight scrambled eggs, a plate of organic strawberries and a whole grain bagel. For a late lunch, McDavid ate a chicken breast lightly brushed with olive oil and seasoning, quinoa and brown rice.

Then he went to the rink and made one preposterous play after another.

His status grew with each of them. He inked an endorsement deal with Reebok/CCM at 15. (McDavid extended his deal with Adidas, now the parent company of Reebok/CCM, before the NHL season started.) He signed with Bobby Orr's agency.

The hype around him was so great that it led to him meeting Crosby and Mario Lemieux and a host of other NHLers. Crosby, in particular, left him wide-eyed. When Wayne Gretzky called him unannounced to encourage him, McDavid was more than just wide-eyed. He didn't believe it. He thought it was one of his buddies pranking him.

Last year was McDavid's third and final season in Erie, and by then, any modest expectations about his future were gone. Except, perhaps, inside his own head. Though every prognosticator wrote it in stone that he would be the No. 1 pick, in interviews beforehand, he rarely conceded that point.

He was the OHL Rookie of the Year in 2012-13, the MVP in 2014-15 and the Scholastic Player of the Year twice. (He went to a public high school for the first half of each school year and worked with tutors in the second half.)

In his final season, he scored 44 goals and tallied 76 assists for 120 points in just 47 games. His coaches and teammates saw him make so many incredible plays they struggle to name their single favorites. Many of the top moments involve passes instead of goals—which is not to say the goals were anything less than incredible.

Otters coach Kris Knoblauch described him as "almost embarrassed about how good he was. … When he'd score a highlight-reel goal where he would've undressed a defenseman, a lot of the times it was almost as if he was hanging his head, that he felt bad for the guy."

Fans besieged McDavid on every road trip. In the first round of the OHL playoffs this spring at Sarnia, Ontario, a fan walked into the locker room during intermission to try to get a picture with McDavid. He was quickly removed.

McDavid hated the attention, but he sees treating fans well as an obligation that comes with his status. He insisted that kids be brought to the front of the line so he could sign for them first and resisted offers to sneak out the back door. "I was a little boy once, too," he told Bassin one night.

He was 17 when he said that.

McDavid's naturally quiet disposition makes him seem guarded. When he becomes comfortable around people, "quiet" is still often the first word those who know him use to describe him, but he opens up when he gets to know people.

"One of the biggest pleasures for me as a coach was being able to see him have fun with his teammates, goof around," Knoblauch says. "Recognize, yes, he is a kid, he is enjoying his childhood."

McDavid and Bassin pulled a comedy routine on several Otters, particularly catching right winger Taylor Raddysh. "It's not your fault," Bassin said to Raddysh, within earshot of McDavid, who recognized the gag because Bassin had pulled it on him in his first year in Erie. Bassin then walked away, leaving Raddysh to wonder what wasn't his fault.

The hook was set.

Raddysh asked, what wasn't his fault?

McDavid joined the conversation and agreed with Bassin. He told Raddysh that it wasn't Raddysh's fault. Raddysh wondered, even more, what they were talking about. "Don't worry about it," they told him. "It's not your fault."

Raddysh pressed them more. What did he do? What wasn't his fault? Bassin and McDavid tried to keep straight faces. "We're giggling inside to each other," Bassin says.

Finally, Bassin and McDavid couldn't hold their laughter and told him: It's not your fault you're so ugly.

The Buffalo Wild Wings in Erie became the scene of important and silly events in McDavid's life. First, the important: Before Otters officials asked Catalde to host McDavid, they vetted Catalde in a meeting there. Now, the silly: When McDavid joined the Otters, his new teammates took him there for an initiation. He had to eat spicy wings. (Wings, McDavid likes. Spicy, not so much.) In the next three years, McDavid took part in that tradition when other players joined the team.

In his years with the Cataldes, McDavid became a Buffalo Bills fan. It was inevitable. Catalde owned season tickets for 25 years, attended three of the Bills' four Super Bowl losses and watches every game.

Catalde returned to that Buffalo Wild Wings one recent Sunday to watch his team. He and McDavid texted back and forth about the Bills as they trounced the Dolphins.

With a plate of wings in front of him and Nico beside him, Catalde laughed as he read McDavid's missives. He imagined McDavid lounging on the couch in Edmonton, his hair askew and wearing socks that don't match as he tapped out a text that said the game was in the bag. In classic Bills' fan fashion, Catalde replied to McDavid not to count it a win yet, even though the Bills led 27-0 at halftime. McDavid texted back: Ha, ha, I knew you were going to say that.

When Edmonton drafted him, McDavid called his time in Erie "the best three years of my life so far." Bassin and Catalde enjoyed it about that much, too. The boy they met three-plus years before became a man, right before their eyes. They both say that even with all of the changes in his life, he remained the same humble person he was when he first arrived in Erie. Bassin called McDavid and Catalde texted him early on Thursday. Both were excited to watch his debut at home and disappointed that circumstances prevented them from attending in person.

Looking back, Catalde laughed at himself for how stern he acted in that first meeting with McDavid, playing the tough-guy dad protecting his daughters. The idea he was doing McDavid a favor made Catalde shake his head, too. That shy, skinny little 15-year-old enriched his life. "I owe him a debt of gratitude," Catalde says.

Weeks before he touched the puck in an NHL game, McDavid starred in TV campaigns for Adidas and CCM. The Oilers were deluged with interview requests for him before the season started. His lifelong dream of playing in the NHL has become reality, and he is becoming wealthy in the process.  

"You know how a lot of younger athletes, when they get money, it can harm them or corrupt them in some way?" Catalde asks. "I will absolutely guarantee you that won't happen to him. For two reasons. One, his parents won't let it happen. Two, he doesn't care about those things. All that kid cares about is winning and being the best hockey player in the world. He knows that's a realistic goal."

All this from a kid who just four years ago wondered about his place in the PEAC pecking order and three years ago wouldn't wear Otters gear until he officially made the team.

On the eve of the biggest game of his life, McDavid slept fine. But it hit him in the morning: I'm playing in the NHL tonight. He confessed he was nervous as game time approached. Once the game started, he showed a few signs of nerves. He was called for offsides and lost his first six faceoffs.

Within a few minutes in the third period, he split two defenders to create an open shot for himself and spun counterclockwise with the puck in front of the net with astonishing speed and grace.

Blues goaltender Brian Elliott stuffed him both times and the Oilers lost 3-1, but they were glimpses of what he might become.

The game long over, McDavid walks through the same hallway to the makeshift media room in the Scottrade Center. He's wearing a gray suit with a purple shirt and tie. His dress shoes don't have laces.

He shoulders through the media scrum and runs his hand through his hair, which is still wet from his postgame shower. His nose is red. His eyes are blue. The questions start. His voice is so soft he frustrates the TV guys. They came prepared, though. They know from experience that the only way to capture his voice is to crank up their microphones.

"You only get to do this once," McDavid had said earlier, and in 20 years that might make him sad. Today, this night, not so much. "I'm glad it's over," he says.

He says he doesn't know what he'll think of his debut years from now, when he has time to reflect, because all the hype made it a blur. There will be more hype to come—his first goal, his first appearance in his hometown of Toronto and his growth into a superstar. None of that will allow him to be just one of the guys.

Matt Crossman is the author of more than 40 cover stories in national magazines. He has written for Sporting News, SI.com, CBSSports.com and many others.


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