The Savior: Connor McDavid leads Erie’s return to relevance

Flashback to March 5, 2012. It’s game five of the GTHL Championship between the Toronto Marlboros and Mississauga Rebels. With a win the Marlboros will be crowned champions. In a close affair the teams find themselves tied 2-2 with the clock dwindling in the third period.

There’s energy in the air, however. A certain type of feeling that overcomes and consumes fans, spectators, coaches and players alike. It’s as though you know sooner or later something special is about to happen. And the feeling proves to be prophetic as it unfolds before your eyes.

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For teenagers and young men plying their trade in the Ontario Hockey League, few cities with OHL organizations receive less recognition and exposure than Erie.

As one of three American-based teams in the league, Erie is often overlooked, especially north of the border, due to both the small market in which they play and their recent lack of success.

Indeed, Erie has missed the playoffs in four of their last eight seasons and hasn’t advanced past the conference quarterfinals since the 2003-04 campaign.

Unfortunately for the Otters, the most notable headlines in recent years ran the gamut from laughable: see Connor Crisp strap on the goalie pads, to the devastatingly tragic: see Vince Scott, a former Erie Otters player who was killed in a car accident in 2010

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However, April 7, 2012 marked a turning point for Erie as the organization adopted a new look, albeit a young, shaggy-haired one in the form of Connor McDavid, who was tabbed first-overall in the 2012 Priority Selection.

As only the third player ever to receive “exceptional status” from the OHL, McDavid enters the league with a ton of hype and fanfare, as well as the pressure of turning around the fledging OHL franchise he now fronts.

McDavid’s hype isn’t underserved. As an underage player for the Toronto Marlboros ­– a team that didn’t lack for talent with McDavid’s teammates Roland McKeown, Joshua Ho-Sang, Sam Bennett and Jeremiah Addison also tabbed within the top-12 selections – No. 97 was their best player.

Blessed with the ability to make something happen every time he touches the puck, and endowed with the vision and hockey sense in the form of NHL greats, it becomes clear when you watch McDavid play that there is something special about him.

In the hockey world, and especially Canada, titles such as “Phenom” and “The Next One” are tossed around just about every year. From Lindros to Crosby, Stamkos to Tavares, and now, MacKinnon to McDavid, fans, scouts and analysts have an insatiable desire to uncover hockey’s next gem.

Few players live up to the hype of the titles placed upon them, and for a myriad of reasons. But by all accounts, according to those in the know within the hockey world Connor McDavid is the real deal.

Erie Otters General Manager Sherry Bassin has nothing but praise for his young star, making note of the fact that McDavid’s humble demeanor and abundance of character will serve him well down the road. Bassin even went so far as to proclaim McDavid the first-overall selection in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, and to anoint him “The Future.” Those are lofty expectations for a player who has only played two career OHL games thus far.

Everywhere you look, you’ll see rave reviews about McDavid. From his minor hockey coach Ken Strong to his new bench boss Robbie Ftorek, respected hockey minds drool over his skill level and potential. Yet, for all the accolades and endorsement’s, McDavid remains grounded, stating in the Oct. 8 issue of Sportsnet Magazine (in which Kristina Rutherford wrote a feature on him) he “feels weird” about the fact that Erie fans can been seen wearing shirts with his name on the back.

It’s a feeling he’ll have to learn to deal with, as his jersey will undoubtedly be a top-seller.

As with any rookie in the OHL, the jump to the elite junior level can be daunting with McDavid admitting in an interview after his first career game against Niagara (in which IceDogs star Dougie Hamilton welcomed him to the league with a solid body check) he was nervous before the game.

To see McDavid play, you’d never realize the 15-year-old had some nerves before his much anticipated debut. While he was kept off of the game sheet, he showed flashes of the brilliance and creativity that has become synonymous with his name. His first career OHL goal came in game two, adding an assist as well for good measure.

While not without his faults, faceoffs and defensive coverage are areas scouts say need some fine tuning, as well as bulking up and adding weight to his frame, McDavid’s poise, hockey sense and vision has brought an aura of opportunism to Erie that’s been lacking since their OHL Championship season in 2001-02.

As the building block of the Erie franchise for the next three years, it won’t be a surprise to see the Otters return to relevance. Despite being an overlooked small market, the Otters’ young star will make it too difficult for anyone to ignore Erie in the coming seasons.

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After Jeremiah Addison has his shot from the point blocked, No. 97 is on it in an instant. He looks off the defenseman attempting to contain him in the corner by making it look as though he’ll send the puck back to the point before spinning off him and breaking toward the net.

It all happens in an instant and before you know it, McDavid is cutting across the crease and sliding the puck past the goaltender with 21.6 seconds left to win the championship for the Toronto Marlboros.

It’s a rare breed of player that can make spectators feel like they know something special is about to happen. But McDavid is a rare talent. Best of all, for the Otters, something special is taking place in Erie after years of hardship. And it’s going to be a sight to behold thanks to No. 97, Connor McDavid.

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