It's not all that long ago that Connor McDavid was on "home" ice inside the First Niagara Center.
At least for a night.
McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers' wunderkind rookie, played a home game at the FNC with his junior team, the Erie Otters, on Oct. 23, 2014. He scored a goal and had three assists in the Otters' 8-4 win over Niagara on that night.
"It feels like forever ago, really," McDavid said Tuesday following the Oilers' morning skate. "Definitely a lot of stuff has happened since then, but it's been a fun ride. Definitely miss my Otter days."
McDavid, of course, went on to become the No. 1 draft pick by the Oilers last June. That was a foregone conclusion – the only question was which team would land that lottery ticket. The Sabres' hosting of an Erie game was a rather blatant showing of what their true intentions were a season ago. Those were to lose as many games as possible in an effort to have the best chance at drafting McDavid, or to land Jack Eichel as the ultimate consolation prize.
The latter scenario played out and the first game between the top two picks (McDavid missed Edmonton's game against Buffalo in December due to injury) brought a playoff-sized gathering of media to the FNC on Tuesday. McDavid appeared relaxed in his press conference that stretched to nearly 10 minutes, reminiscing about coming to games here during his junior days. Some of his former teammates with the Otters were planning to make the drive up from Erie to take in the game.
"Definitely feels like a second home here, just with it being so close to Toronto, so I'm excited," McDavid said.
Predictably, McDavid took the same route as Eichel when asked about their first on-ice meeting as professionals.
"We don't really look at it like that, so I mean, for me and I think for both of us, it's just Buffalo versus Edmonton," McDavid said when asked if their rivalry, even if it is media-driven, can be good for the NHL. "I know that a lot of people are going to maybe tune in because they're looking at it maybe a little bit differently, but for us in our room, me personally, I think Jack said earlier today, too, it's not about just me and him, it's about, you know, the game and two teams that both need wins."
Also predictably, McDavid had high praise for Eichel's rookie season in Buffalo.
"He's had a great year," he said. "You know, it's good to see. It's good for the league, those young guys playing well."
McDavid, who was named NHL Rookie of the Month for February on Tuesday after scoring 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 14 games, reiterated what he said Monday about knowing Eichel on a very basic level from their time spent together during the pre-draft process, but there will be a chance for them to get better acquainted in the near future. Both players are expected to be named Wednesday to Team North America – a collection of American and Canadian players 23 or younger – for the World Cup of Hockey that will be held in Toronto in September.
"You know whether ... we're both on the team, it will be interesting to see. But if we are, it'll be fun," McDavid said. "It'll be a good opportunity to get a chance to play with him. I think the media always has us pegged as not liking each other or being rivals or anything like that, but we really just don't know each other, so that'll be a good chance to get to play with him."
One possible topic for McDavid and Eichel could be how to deal with losing. Each of them has done far more of that this season than they'd like. The Sabres are 26th in the 30-team NHL and just five points out of the basement, while Edmonton is 29th, with just one more point than Toronto.
"It's definitely not fun, but you know, it's all part of the process," McDavid said. "I went through it in Erie and those last two years in Erie were so worth the year's struggle we had there. That's what I'm trying to look at it as. I think we've been sticking to the process of trying to learn and get better each and every game. I think we've been doing that to some extent. The last couple games have been a good example of that, in how we've been playing structurally. But at the same time, it's not very fun losing."
Despite Buffalo feeling like a second home, McDavid hasn't kept up much with what the Sabres have done.
"Not really. We're so far apart really," he said. :They're in the Eastern Conference, we're in the West. Our schedules never really cross paths too many times, so, I think everyone follows the league just in general, just as a whole, but not in particular."
Other topics addressed by McDavid in his pre-game conversation with reporters:
• On the influx of young talent in the NHL outside of himself and Eichel: "I think it's been very good. There's a lot of good rookies this year. The list goes on and on. Two of them are playing here, so it's a good chance to see that. It's good for the game – the young guys playing well like that."
• On the possibility of playing for Team North America in the World Cup: "It's definitely exciting. There's a lot of young skill that's been showcased this year in the league, so it'll be cool to see them kind of all play together and see how that looks against the world's best. I think it will be a good chance for them. I don't think there will be too much expectation or anything like that so I think it will be a good opportunity for us just to go out and play and see what we can do."
• On if it will be weird to play against Canada in an international competition: "Yeah, it'll be a little bit different, but I think at the same time, you know, all the guys ... they understand the whole concept and all that, so I think at least for those couple weeks, you don't look at it as being Canadian very much."
• On what his advice would be for Auston Matthews, the presumed No. 1 pick in June's draft: "That's a tough question. I mean, everyone handles it differently. I think the way I tried to do it was not hide from it, but take it with a grain of salt. Never really pay too much attention to it. You guys are all great writers and all that, but I'm not really reading what you guys are saying. ... So I think that's the main thing. Try to live in your bubble. It can be scary and you feel like you're living in a fish bowl sometimes, but I think stay close to your friends and you know, take the support when you need it. Everyone's always trying to lend a helping hand, and sometimes you need it."
• On having such a long break in his rookie season because of injury (a broken clavicle forced him to miss 37 games): "Definitely your first 13 or 12 games or whatever ... just trying to find my way more – get a better understanding for the league. These last couple of games, I've been feeling more comfortable and all that. Definitely a learning process."
• On what he did while he was injured: "I was really lucky to have a great group around me. It starts with the Edomonton medical staff. They did a great job, and the coaching staff, of trying to keep me involved and mentally ready the whole time. I was really lucky to have that support around me."
• On getting to know Sabres defenseman Carlo Colaciovo and center Ryan O'Reilly, both of whom also played for Erie: "I've gotten to know (Colaiacovo) a little bit through ... skating this summer and being an Erie guy as well. O'Reilly skated with us during the lockout sometimes, and it was really cool to pick his brain on a couple things. The hockey world is pretty cool like that in terms of giving back. Especially young guys. Definitely appreciate eveything like that."