The Next Great One.
It’s the label Connor McDavid has lived with for years. He could laugh it off at times, even as his wondrous skill started to cause plenty of chatter in the amateur hockey world. But there’s no denying it anymore.
We’re down to months, and not years, before McDavid almost certainly becomes the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft as an 18-year-old. Wayne Gretzky, the original Great One, rang McDavid’s cellphone out of the blue one day early last year. McDavid has already had his picture taken with Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby.
McDavid wears No. 97 for the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters in honor of his birth year. Why does Crosby wear 87? Birth year.
“If you haven’t heard the name Connor McDavid and you’re a hockey fan, you’re dead,” Sherry Bassin, the Otters general manager/managing partner, cracked Thursday in First Niagara Center. “You gotta check your pulse because you need a mortician.”
Pulses certainly quickened around here when the word spread McDavid was in town for an announcement the Otters will be playing downtown two months from today. Start the countdown.
Some autograph hounds walked into the FNC pavilion after the news conference and got some quick signatures while social media chatter was everywhere, both locally and across the hockey world.
Sabres fans liked the following line the best, when McDavid was asked his general thoughts about the franchise that will be hosting his junior team for one night.
“It’s a great organization from what I’ve seen,” he said. “I know Cody Hodgson pretty well and I hear nothing but good things. They love playing here. Sam Reinhart was so proud and so happy when he got drafted here. It’s a great organization and it would be an awesome spot to play.”
The Next Great Sabre?
Let’s throw a dose of reality on the issue. Right now.
If the Sabres finish last again next season – a big if based on their July moves and the inactivity of teams like the Winnipeg Jets – the new rules passed by the NHL earlier this week leave them with just a 20 percent chance of winning the lottery.
(Before the Twitter gotcha mob speaks up, I’m aware the odds increase some if the New York Islanders don’t make the playoffs. We won’t know that until April).
What does McDavid think about the rule changes? What, the talk about teams tanking is about me?
“It’s pretty crazy,” he said. “I don’t think too many teams are throwing seasons. I don’t think that’s how hockey works. I don’t think that’s how anyone who plays hockey thinks. Owners, GMs, coaches, players.
“No one just throws games away. It’s not how it works. Maybe it’s just a bit of a coincidence I guess, but we’ll see how it goes.”
The Sabres are bringing both McDavid and American star Jack Eichel, the presumed No. 2 pick, to town before Halloween. With HarborCenter in its infancy, president Ted Black said the team wants to become a “global” presence on the hockey landscape. A few games in June might help that of course too, just for the record.
The Sabres are mostly selling hope. Who can blame them with this roster? It’s not going to be 52-points bad, but it’s still going to be bad. McDavid would instantly change that.
To other teams in the NHL, the Sabres’ premature dalliance with “McEichel” has to seem a little greasy. Their website and Twitter feed were downright giddy all day Thursday. And it’s not like they’re a college outfit recruiting a high school star. The kids don’t choose where they play.
But let’s be honest. The Sabres want to let McDavid and Eichel get to know them a little, months before things get serious. Let them meet some team execs, some fans and media. Tour the facilities. For once, don’t you like that the Sabres are doing something that other teams probably despise?
In a way, one thought is market the guys who are actually your own players. On the other hand, a long-term prism is what’s needed right now. Let the rest of the NHL squirm a little over what might be growing here.
This is going to be a crazy year for McDavid. The World Junior Championships are going to be in Toronto and Montreal, which will make things complete chaos for McDavid and Team Canada. The buildup to the draft will be incredible, especially in the city that wins the lottery. Just picture this town, for instance, for 2½ months if the Sabres are holding the No. 1 pick.
McDavid watched this year’s draft on a family vacation to Barbados. Seeing friends like Aaron Ekblad, Reinhart and Sam Bennett walk across the stage certainly crystallized how close his turn really is.
“You’re going through the draft and you’re thinking you’re one year away,” McDavid said. “It’s a pretty crazy thought, but it’s still a long road.”
McDavid and the Otters contingent didn’t get a chance to tour HarborCenter because of the beehive of construction activity going on there. But they got taken through the Sabres’ facilities in the arena, the ones owner Terry Pegula spent upwards of $10 million on a couple years ago, and McDavid was duly impressed.
“It’s pretty state of the art. It’s an unbelievable facility,” he said. “I hope they give the Erie Otters the home room when we’re here.”
Buffalo fans hope he gets comfortable in the digs. The rest of the NHL hopes it will be his only time there.