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EDMONTON – When fans Photoshop a rookie phenom’s face onto that of Jesus Christ, as was the case in Section 122 at the Edmonton Oilers’ home opener, one senses that subtlety has no home among the expectations placed on Connor McDavid.
There’s a mania here for McDavid that goes beyond his label as a generational talent. It’s a sense of fanatic hope that should have been stomped out of the hearts and minds of these fans over the last several seasons of fired coaches and basement dwelling. Yet he arrives at a confluence of positivity for the franchise: The young superstar they didn’t expect to draft before winning the lottery, the management team that’s arrived to clean up old messes, the last year of a dilapidated arena in a geographically unappealing area.
There were more Connor McDavid jerseys worn to Thursday’s home opener than several current Oilers combined; many of them the bright orange hue that McDavid wore the day Edmonton drafted him first overall.
“I was once that kid, for sure, wearing someone’s number,” said McDavid, who grew up a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. “It’s very special. It’s a very cool thing to see that, and I’m very lucky.”
Brian McDavid, Connor’s father, wore a Bobby Orr jersey as a young fan; he now sees kids wearing his kid's sweater in tribute.
“It’s not a new experience,” he said. “When Connor was in Erie, it was more surreal seeing a smattering of McDavid jerseys in the crowd when he was 15. Then you saw more the following year. And then last year, you’d go to different rinks around the league and you’d see them. The whole thing is just surreal.”
Also surreal? Seeing Oilers fans check their reservations and pessimism to embrace their hockey Messiah -- with open hearts and open wallets.
THE REAL DEAL
Dave Waddell is having a few beverages at a watering hole in downtown Edmonton before the game, tallying up how much Connor McDavid has cost him thus far.
The blue jersey with the orange shoulders that ran him $200. The orange jersey he purchased the moment they went on sale for $250. The orange and blue T-shirts with McDavid’s name on the back for $30 apiece.
“So it was $500 before the first puck drop,” he said. “I’m bad with money.”
Waddell, 30, is part of a generation of Oilers fans just young enough to have missed the dynasty but just old enough to have gotten high off its fumes. His first game was the home opener in 1991; a few weeks later, Mark Messier was traded to New York.
“We kept a diary in school,” he recalled. “The other kids were writing things like, ‘I have a cat. His name is Fluffy.’ Well, I drew Madison Square Garden in crayon and a Ranger wearing No. 11, and wrote ‘Mark Messier was traded. I am very sad.’ So my first memories as an Oilers fan are crushing pain and misery.”
So Waddell can be forgiven for dropping dough at the first inkling of hope.
“You know what it is? Finally, something has turned in a good direction. We’ve been making slight turns north, in incremental progress, for the last decade, right? It wasn’t just McDavid. It was everything just kind of cascaded off of that. You get your new GM. You get your coach,” he said.
“This is my first time in my life as an Oilers fan that I don’t have Shayne Corson as the captain, I don’t have Bernie Nichols or Vincent Damphousse on the. I’m not worried about the team relocating.
“It’s cathartic. It happened in one burst. One overturned card. No offense to Hall or Nuge or Yak, but this feels like the real deal. And there’s more hope than there’s been for years."
Hope, as well as expectations, both from the fans on Connor McDavid and, more importantly, from Connor McDavid on himself.
THE STANDARD OF SUCCESS
McDavid hates losing.
Hates it. Which is a problem when you’re drafted to a team that, well, loses a lot.
They lost again on opening night in front of all those fans in all those McDavid jerseys, 4-2 to the St. Louis Blues. The power play sucked, going 0-for-5, to the point where coach Todd McLellan blamed it for the loss. McDavid played nearly five minutes with the man advantage, more than any forward outside of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but ended the game with no shots on goal and only three shot attempts.
“It’s obviously disappointing. We needed it to come up big tonight, and it didn’t again, so it’s something we gotta work on,” said McDavid after the game.
His voice barely rose from a whisper in the Oilers’ locker room, and he wore the disappointment on his face. The fans came to see the Connor McDavid Show, and it was postponed: no points, no shots and a game-worst minus-3.
His coach pulled as many positives as he could.
“Against a heavy, strong, well-prepared defensive team, I saw him skating through the neutral zone with more pace and speed, creating some opportunities. Unfortunately for us, that line was on the ice for some goals against,” said McLellan.
“He’s getting better every night. I don’t know how much pressure he’s feeling. I think I do. But I don’t really know how much he’s carrying with him. I’m sure that he feels that a large chunk of our 0-4 record falls on his shoulders.”
The key for McLellan, in the early days of the Connor McDavid Era, is to try and make the rookie understand that he’s just a name on the roster. That victory or defeat doesn’t rest upon what McDavid does.
So McLellan pulled McDavid aside after the Oilers’ loss at the Dallas Stars, and gave him a simple message: You have an equal part in every loss and every win for this team.
“With the focus on him right now, he’s maybe taking on a little more than he should be,” said McLellan.
For Brian McDavid, it’s hard to see his son pressing himself.
“It’s very difficult. When something’s not going the way they want it to go, you want to be there for them. The part that’s the most difficult is that it’s so public. It’s played out on such a big stage,” said Brian McDavid.
“He’s focused on the team. He wants the team to do well. He knows that people are focused on him to help do that. Then there’s the personal side. He wants to score some points because that’s what people expect him to do.”
Connor McDavid was happy to get opening night behind him. “It was good. The fans were rockin.’ It’s too bad we couldn’t give them something to cheer about,” he said. “Looking forward to getting back into a normal routine.”
One gets the sense from McDavid that he’d rather not be the unicorn at the circus. He uses the word “normal” a lot, in the sense that he just wants to be one of the guys in the room and in the sense that he’s over these Special Events at the start of his career.
But is there any way for a rookie sensation to achieve that normality?
“I think so, yeah. Now that all the peaks are kinda gone – first game, first home game, they’re kinda all out of the way – it should just be normal here,” said McDavid.
Even if McDavid’s talents are anything but.
THE GREAT HOPE
Tom Levicki is a long-time Oilers fan, wearing a Connor McDavid jersey outside Rexall Place on Thursday night. He made a pilgrimage to St. Louis to see McDavid’s first NHL game, and now he was about to watch McDavid on home ice for the first time.
He had seen other moments of hope and potential squandered by this team through the years. But he’s a believer with McDavid and the new regime.
“It’s a little bit different, yeah. But it’s the whole change. The management, everything. A whole new hope again, I guess,” he said.
There’s that word: again.
How many rebirths, new regimes and fresh starts can one franchise have?
“We had it with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle in the first round. Who knows?” he said. “It feels a little different this time around. I think it’s going to be a little more fun. He’s elite.”
Edmonton is a hockey mad market. Everyone seems to own a jersey, as if they’re standard issue. (And they are, sort of, as the Oilers gave an orange sweater to all their season-ticket holders.)
Everywhere you look there are references to the glory years, from the Gretzky statue out front of the arena to the photos inside. There are mannequins dressed like the Oilers found atop the baggage claim in the airport. The world’s largest replica Stanley Cup is found outside of the city’s United Cycle. And in case you missed it the first time: Fans bring giant pictures of top draft picks Photoshopped onto Jesus Christ’s face.
There’s no telling how long it’ll take for the team’s success to match the mania surrounding it. There’s no telling how many tough decisions are ahead for this new management team, involving players that have been here for years. There’s no telling when the Edmonton Oilers return to glory.
What’s evident, though, is that the fans believe wholeheartedly that they’ll get there. You can see it in the sea of Connor McDavid jerseys, feel it every time his stick touches rubber. There’s palpable, tangible, actual hope here. And while he may not be a Messiah or a Messier, they believe McDavid’s going to be at the forefront of that resurgence.
"He handles all of that stuff so well," said Brian McDavid. "And he doesn't like to lose."
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