In July of 2015, a video went semi-viral in the hockey world for a day or so. Connor McDavid, the much-touted first overall draft pick of that year, had scored five goals in a scrimmage at the Edmonton Oilers’ prospect camp. In the video, McDavid seems calm and focused, hardly seeming to know the response his performance is sure to get. The reaction was predictable: half were hyperbolic and rhapsodic, the other were snide and joking about his opponents. But all were impressed.
McDavid had been a known quantity long before that. His entry into the league has been anticipated by hockey experts since he was fourteen. Depending on who you ask, teams may or may not have tanked their season to increase their chances of winning the draft lottery and the right to draft him first overall. Later this past July, the Hockey News held a poll asking readers who they thought had the best chance of winning the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals in 2016. Connor McDavid garnered 8% of the vote, ahead of past winners Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, reigning Art Ross winner Jamie Benn, and tied with known quantities Tyler Seguin and Vladimir Tarasenko — before he had played even a single NHL game.
From the moment Bill Daly announced that the Edmonton Oilers had won the 2015 Draft Lottery, the future of the franchise was rested firmly on the eighteen year-old shoulders of McDavid. Repeatedly described as soft-spoken and shy in articles and interviews, McDavid’s every microexpression was scrutinized as people played armchair psychologist and projected their own feelings about Edmonton, or Toronto, or Buffalo onto his reactions. At the draft, Oilers owner Darryl Katz greeted McDavid seemingly on the verge of joyful tears. There were McDavid 97 shirts on sale in the NHL Store by the next day. At eighteen years old, Connor McDavid is already a star.
This would have happened no matter where McDavid went. He would have been deified and treated as the harbinger of change in any market, whether the lottery had been won by the Kings or the Coyotes. But Edmonton is a joke of a franchise. This wasn’t always the case, of course, as any casual fan of hockey knows. Once, they were home to the Great One, and to seemingly endless records and championships. Then they slid into the downward spiral that has resulted in four number one overall draft picks in six years, three of those consecutively. This is the place that Connor McDavid walked into: a place hungry for hope, and hungry for a return to glory. A place where, should he truly lead them to a championship, he will undoubtedly be immortalized in bronze beside the Gretzky statue. It’s feels like a strange sort of destiny that it’s Gretzky’s original team that won the right to draft him. The home of hockey’s most mythical figure is giving rise to a new legend.
What I find most fascinating about hockey apart from the game itself is how its narratives are constructed. Every sport creates its myths, but perhaps none in North America do it as effectively and as thoroughly as hockey. In Canada in particular, hockey-playing tykes are under a microscope from almost the moment they strap on skates in hopes of spotting and nurturing a future Gretzky to full potential. The first time Sidney Crosby was ever interviewed, he was six years old; footage of him as a fourteen year-old is used in a famous Tim Horton’s commercial. The World Junior Championships have become a huge phenomenon, especially in Canada, and the Memorial Cup is broadcast all over Canada.
It can be easy, sometimes, to forget the players we watch in those tournaments are as young as fifteen or sixteen. It can be easy to forget that behind the amazing highlights and spectacular stats is a young teenager who has left home at a young age and will likely never be socialized in the same way as his peers. That is to say: the majority of their interaction will be with the other boys on their team, which to be honest happens in ordinary high schools as well, but that’s by choice rather than necessity.
The CHL tries, with their billet system, to give the boys something approaching a normal life; but when they’re living on the road as essentially young professionals, possibly before they even have a car, it’s impossible to ignore that their lives aren’t like other people’s. And they aren’t even like the lives of young athletes of other sports. In the NHL, players are eligible for the draft as long as they turn eighteen by the start of the next season and have graduated high school. So unlike players in basketball or football, hockey players can be and are recruited straight out of high school. They aren’t forced to plan out part of their life in advance; their whole goal is the NHL, and if somehow they don’t make it, then they’ve spent the last three years of their life isolated from their peers working towards a goal some spend their lives trying to achieve.
All of this builds into creating an environment that deifies boys as young as fourteen and puts an obscene amount of pressure on someone whose life is still very much in the air. While watching Connor McDavid’s first game last night, I was both amused and dismayed by Sportsnet’s insistence on lingering on him during the anthem. Though the lone goal scored by Edmonton was a flukey shot that deflected off Blues player Alex Steen, much was made of the fact that Connor McDavid happened to be on the ice at the time. He’s eighteen; this was his first NHL game; and everyone was watching to see what he would do.
Was it a disappointment, then, that he failed to tally any points and that he struggled on faceoffs while draft rival Jack Eichel, down in Buffalo, scored his own first NHL goal? I don’t think so; and yet I feel like many will feel that way. The entirety of the last year has been a waiting game for the day Connor McDavid officially entered the NHL, and for his first game to be anything less than explosive feels like something of an anticlimax.
All sports do this, of course. But I’m not sure if any sport aside from maybe football puts this amount of pressure on athletes from the moment they enter their first game. Maybe it’s a function of hockey’s low-scoring, which means that one person can be all the difference, or maybe it’s that we were blessed with Gretzky, someone who so completely dominated the sport that it’s impossible to imagine anyone surpassing his records, leaving us to always be looking for “The Next One.”
Beyond the pressure this puts on the athletes themselves (Connor McDavid has already admitted to seeing a sports psychologist), this habit we have of idealizing our athletes creates other dangers. When we conflate the legend with the people themselves, it allows us to forget their trespasses. We remember the legend of Bobby Hull, whose domestic violence towards his wife was a widely-known secret even during his heyday (and his family has openly discussed it), and erect a statue of him before the United Center. We know the myth of Patrick Roy, who was also involved in domestic violence allegations, and saw him presented with a coach of the year award by Semyon Varlamov the same year Varlamov was arrested for abuse of his girlfriend. The myths we build are so towering, so overwhelming that any slight threat to them is earth-shattering, much less anything as serious as this summer’s rape allegations against Patrick Kane.
And the NHL has a vested interest in building these legends and painting over the cracks; that is, after all, where their marketing comes in. Players are put through the wringer and then up on a pedestal for the league, glorified when they succeed, demonized if they step out of line (but only if it comes to goal celebrations or speaking out of turn), and forgiven their misdeeds — as long as they can still play good hockey for their team.
The narratives for these players is often predetermined by the time they get to the draft: Connor McDavid (or Sidney Crosby) is the savior, Josh Ho-Sang is a problem child, Jack Eichel is brash. And while there is often a seed of truth in these stories, it’s the beginning of how they’ll be perceived for the rest of their careers. Failure to match these expectations or, in some cases, living up to them can have a huge impact on that player’s life and personality. We’ve seen the expectations laid upon first overall picks come crashing down to earth in cases like Rick DiPietro or Alexander Daigle. And what does that do for the person, who has to watch fans and media turn those failures into myths of their own kind?
Every draft is filled with teenagers hoping to make their way to the NHL and create a name for themselves, but sometimes I wonder if they truly know what they’re accepting when they walk up to the stage. When their name is called, that’s the end of who they were. The moment the jersey is over their head, they are no longer an ordinary young man. They are part of a larger story, the mythology of their team, and their success or failure will define how they are remembered. The name on the front is more important than the name on the back, we say; but at what point do we forget that the name on the back is more than a name?