The Future of Hockey Plays in Erie Now
Connor McDavid skates toward the NHL as the Otters are in the midst of their best season since 2002.
It's cold in the JMC Ice Arena. So much so that the crisp November air outside of the building makes any exposed skin feel nice and warm in comparison. Still, that's the way it goes in an ice rink, the steel overhead beams colored a shade of baby blue that embraces the frozen sheet of water that lies beneath them.
Several people are lacing up their skates, mostly teenagers with some adults sprinkled in along the brown and yellow wooden bleachers and by the blazing fireplace near the end of the rink. Some have come from school, others from home or work, fresh faces popping out from different colored practice jerseys as they prepare to go out on the ice.
Across from me sits one of the youngest of the group, a 16-year-old with lightish-brown hair swept to the right to stay out of his eyes. Even though he's wedged himself and his bulky shoulder pads between the bench and the bolted-down table, he seems comfortable, yet quiet enough that it can be hard to pick up his voice amid the hum of the JMC vents. Honestly, he looks like he could be any other teenager that can finally get his driver's license.
But he's not. He's Connor McDavid, and he's a superstar.
One scout called him "The Next One." USA Today dubbed him "the LeBron James of hockey." Canada's Sportsnet even ran a headline that regarded McDavid as "Better Than Crosby," a big, bold message in big, bold words.
And here he is, quietly answering questions before he and the rest of the Erie Otters take to the ice for practice. Typically the major junior hockey team would be suiting up at the beautiful new Erie Ice Arena, but Trans-Siberean Orchestra is in town for a show, which leads to McDavid answering questions about his youth by the table near the JMC snack counter.
"I started skating when I was 2 or 3 and started playing games when I was 4," the Newmarket, Ontario native says, his eyes darting up and down occasionally. "My dad made me realize that if I put in a little bit of work, then I could play. I've come a long way since then."
That he did, going from his friendly hometown hockey team to becoming one of just five to be granted Exceptional Status by Hockey Canada and the Ontario Hockey League, allowing McDavid to be drafted by the Erie Otters as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection at the age of 15, a year earlier than what is normally permitted. Since then, he's become a symbol of the next generation of hockey players and is adored in his home country, a level of fame that McDavid admits he still isn't completely used to, but that he isn't letting get to his head.
"I don't know – I just try and surround myself with good people. They don't let it get to me at all," he says, players starting to shuffle past to head to the ice. "It's been almost a year now, and it's still pretty special to me."
Still, when there are scouts and media members comparing you to all-time greats like Mario Lemieux and active legends like Sidney Crosby, it's understandable that such praise and attention could take a toll.
"Obviously it puts a lot of pressure on him and it's a little more difficult to play through that," Otters Coach Kris Knoblauch says, as he laces up his skates, pucks occasionally pounding against the boards while he speaks. "Some players can handle it, and Connor does a really good job handling that pressure. But he's still a kid, he's only 16. You watch him on the ice, and you don't realize that he's as young as he is, but when he takes his helmet off and gets into his street clothes, you see a different side to him. To say if it's fair or not, it's just the way it is."
The spotlight will always be on McDavid, but Erie does offer him a bit of a reprieve, for better and worse. While McDavid is a superstar in Canada, where it's not uncommon for hockey fanatics to waylay him on the street for autographs, things are a bit different in Erie and the United States in general. There are plenty of puck diehards in town, but it doesn't quite compare to the fervor of our neighbors to the north.
"People don't understand. For instance, this kid McDavid in Canada is huge," says Sherwood Bassin, general manager of the Erie Otters."You should see the lineups to see him, which would be, with the culture of basketball around here, the lineups to see LeBron James."
However, Bassin, the only general manager the Otters have had since they came to Erie back in 1996, when the Niagara Falls Thunder moved to The Flagship City and took on a certain semi-aquatic mammal for their team name. The team claimed the top prize in the 2001-02 campaign, but it's been over a decade since then that a banner's been hung from the rafters.
What's worse is that in recent seasons, the team has struggled mightily, with the Otters only managing to win 29 total games out of a possible 136 in the past two years, causing attendance to dip and confidence in the team to wane.
The Otters executives understand this, acknowledging that the team won't necessarily draw sellout crowds right away, even with a player that many expect to be the first overall pick in the 2015 NHL entry draft.
"We've maybe let some people down in the past, especially the last two years with a 10- and a 19-win season, and I think it's our job to mend those fences and put trust back in the organization," says Dave Brown, the assistant director of hockey operations.
Well, this year, the team is doing just that. The Otters have already matched their win total from last season, taking just 23 games to do so, marking them as a force in the OHL just a year after dwelling near the bottom of the standings.
In a way, the seasons that frustrated fans are the reason why the team is in the position it is. By stripping the team down and sucking up the losses, they built up their draft picks, netting them a phenom like McDavid, along with other talented teens. As Bassin explains, the Otters aren't here to just make the playoffs every year; they're goal is to win championships. For that, the Otters needed to amass plenty of talent.
"Let me give you an example of the quality of the players in the Canadian Hockey League: Of the first round picks, 22 are from our league," Bassin says, leaning back in his chair and decked out in a dark blue Quebec Nordiques sweatshirt. "That tells you what kind of development league we are. There is a significant chance that we have the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft in two years by the name of Connor McDavid. We already have a first round pick from the Washington Capitals [left wing Andre Burakovsky], a top of the second round pick for the Columbus Blue Jackets [goalie Oscar Dansk], a high round pick for the New York Islanders [defenseman Adam Pelech], and a sixth round pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs [right wing Connor Brown]."
The OHL is a bit different than the other professional sports franchises in town, you see. The SeaWolves and the BayHawks are Minor League Baseball and NBA Development League teams, respectively, where MLB and NBA teams can send their already drafted or signed players for extra seasoning. Major junior hockey, on the other hand, is a level typically where NHL teams draw their prospects from, drafting players out of the Canadian Hockey League to feed their own minor league teams. Given the ages of some of the players, they'll still stick with the team for a year or so after being drafted, so the Otters are a young squad that's loaded with talent.
The fact still remains, however, that it can take a drastic turnaround to get fans to trust a team after two seasons that made mediocrity look desirable. Luckily for Erieites, the Otters aren't the only part of gameday that's had a makeover.It's rather appropriate that a team that looks completely different than last year's version now plays its games in the renovated Erie Insurance Arena. It's still early in the season, but Friday, Nov. 15 is a big day for the Otters, as Erie takes on fellow OHL stalwart Sault Ste. Marie before tackling division rival Guelph the following day.
There's a sizable crowd on hand, with 3,563 excited fans taking the stands, although for a matchup of the top two teams in the entire OHL, you'd almost hope for more. Still, Dave Brown seems to be pleased, watching the game from his favorite spot right behind the glass by the Zamboni entrance, where he can view the game with minor distractions. Luckily for me, he was willing to watch tonight's matchup with a reporter on hand.
For stretches of time, we don't talk, instead focusing on the game at hand. Brown barely flinches when defenseman Darren Raddysh checks a Sault Ste. Marie player into the boards right where he's standing, nose never moving farther than six inches away despite the collision. At times, he'll crack a joke with Director of Operations James Frey or one of the sales associates as they pass through. At others, he'll shout out advice to the players like many fans do, despite the players not being able to hear them, a curse sometimes slipping from his lips when things don't go the Otters' way.
It's evident that Brown cares about these players. Unlike the fans, he sees them both on and off the ice. He makes sure to point out to me that tonight's game marks defenseman Spencer Abraham's 200th game. He looks out for his guys, serving as a confidant when needed.
"You've got to be careful that they understand that you're in a management role, but at the end of the day because they're 16 to 20 years old and are living away from home, they need someone that they can talk to and that they can trust," Brown says while Ylvis' viral sensation "The Fox" blares over the speakers after the first period is over, the game still knotted at 0-0 with the Otters outshooting the Greyhounds 15-5 in the first 20 minutes.
Looking out on the ice, it's hard to believe that these players are the same quiet, acne-fighting individuals from the JMC. Earlier that week, Goalie Devin Williams was smiling wide as he told me of how he got his inspiration to start playing from watching Red Wings games with his grandmother back in Saginaw, Mich., while Swedish first round NHL draft pick Andre Burakovsky joked about how long it took him to get used to the prevalence of fast food in America. Then there's McDavid flying up the ice, deking around the opposition with relative ease.
These young professionals start to make a move on their Sault Ste. Marie counterparts in the second period. First year center Dylan Strome cuts in front of the net, and as Brown shouts out "shoot it," the 16-year-old fires a wrist shot past Greyhounds net minder Matt Murray for the first score of the game. Players celebrate, fans cheer, and all is good in Erie Insurance Arena. Erie strikes again later in the period,with Patrick Murphy picking up a rebound off of a Strome shot and collecting the first OHL goal of his career. Once again, there is much rejoicing.
From there, the Otters outlast the Greyhounds to the tune of a 3-0 victory, outplaying their opponents and claiming the best record in the entire OHL. The team will go on to extend their lead the next day, coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the third period against Guelph to force overtime, where McDavid works his magic and nets the game winner. It's still early in the season, but things are looking good for the team. Even better, Brown and the Otters are getting to do it without having to sacrifice quality in the locker room.
"There are a lot of good players that don't have the personality or character traits that we want Erie Otters to have," the bespectacled Brown says. "That's one of the things that now that we enter into the new era of Otters hockey, those character traits become even more important. Maturity is a big thing. The last couple of years we've gone through a rebuilding process where we were very young, and I think our guys are now realizing as they get older that this is a bit of an occupation. It's not just playing hockey."
Every so often, people will call hockey, or any other sport for that matter, "just a game." For the Otters, it's more than that. It's a career. It's a commitment. It's a calling.
"I always said when I was a kid that I wanted to be an NHL player," Burakovsky says before that November JMC practice. "My dad was a professional hockey player. That's why I started playing because he played."
So far, it's been a good year for the 18-year-old from Sweden, averaging over a point per game and realizing his dream of being drafted by an NHL team. Still, it was tough for Burakovsky to leave his home overseas to come to The Flagship City.
"It was a big step," the high-scoring Scandinavian from Malmö, a Swedish city over twice the size of Erie, says. "The first two weeks were really hard. The food is different, how you live, how you practice, everything is different, so it's taken a while to get comfortable, but now it's very good."
Much like how college kids will get homesick while away at school, the players yearn for home as well, except it's hard to go and visit when your job includes a 68-game schedule, and of course, practices upon practices upon practices. And that's not all – these are still young adults, learners in the prime of their development, so there's still education to be considered.
Several of the players are enrolled in high school at McDowell, trying to makes sense of subjects while studying defensive schemes.
"It's kind of weird going to school with kids that go to your games," Devin Williams says with a smirk. "It's different, but it's fun at the same time. You get to live both the life of a high school student and play in the OHL at the same time."
In addition to education, there are other facets of a 16- to 20-year-old'slife that these players strive to maintain, because it probably wouldn't hurt to try and live somewhat normally during a person's formative years. It's not always easy, but players make do however they can.
"That's the juggling act that they play. They play a role in terms of having to make sure that they're well-rested and making sure their nutrition level is up while still trying to live the life of a teenager and doing things that teenage kids do," Brown says, maintaining eye contact despite the flurry of activity going on in the Erie Insurance Arena during that Nov. 15 game against Sault Ste. Marie. "It's important to have that balance, because these guys are more than just hockey players, more than, for lack of a better term, jocks. One thing you'll find is that there's a wide spectrum of guys that have interests where they're pretty good musicians or other things. They get painted with the impression that they're solely hockey guys, jocks that just play video games."
While the only version of McDavid, Burakovsky, Williams, or any of the other Otters that fans see may be that of them on the ice, some Erieites get a closer look at the players. In fact, some live with them.
These people are called 'billets,' host families for these young athletes when they live in Erie during the hockey season. It's the billets who help players maintain a sense of normalcy, welcoming a member or members of the team to become part of their family.
"Their parents leave them at the age of 16 with total strangers, and they're not sure when they're going to see them again," Melissa Fowler says over the phone. "I can't imagine, as a parent, doing that. Obviously, you want to do what's best for your child, and if that means having them play somewhere else in a league that's out of town, that's what you do."
Fowler and her husband first gained billet status when they took in Hayden Hodgson in January. The couple had decided to get involved with the Otters sponsorship program when the NHL lockout left them looking for other puck-related outlets. Someone from the Otters eventually called them and asked if they would like to provide a home for one of their players. Since then, Hodgson's become more than just a guest; he's an older brother to her three children and a teenage son – just with a Canadian accent.
"A lot of times his friends will come over and play pool in the basement, play air hockey, or watch movies," Fowler says. "You see them on the ice and they're professional hockey players and there's a lot of hype about them this year, but then you meet them and hang out with them off of the ice at the house and they're normal, everyday teenage boys."
Once they're on the ice, however, these same boys become something else: hockey players. It's the reason why they came to Erie and the OHL; because here, they're one step closer to that ultimate goal that each and every Otter strives for – the NHL.
"The whole idea of the league is that this is their development league," Bassin says in his gravelly voice, one that's spoken to hundreds of players in the past and hundreds more to come. "Kids come here with the dream to play in the NHL."
Of course, not everyone can make it to the big leagues, with many falling short of that sacred plane of hockey existence. Players that don't end up signing a pro contract to the next level aren't forsaken completely, as they receive a scholarship for four years at the university closest to his original hometown residence, rewarding athletes for their commitment.
Yet there will be those that we'll see in the NHL some day in the future. With the expectations set for McDavid, fair or not, we may even be able to say that a superstar played right here in downtown Erie for a few years, honing his skills before taking the NHL by storm. One time McDavid had his photo taken with Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby when he and some fellow Otters were down in Pittsburgh to take in a Penguins game. Soon thereafter, the shot became dubbed "the past, the present, and the future."
In a way, that phrase sums up the Otters organization quite nicely. Erie has seen past players like Brad Boyes, Michael Rupp, and Ryan O'Reilly rise to the NHL, but now the city has a championship-caliber team to root for, anchored by fresh-faced teenagers that deserve your attention, because there is the potential for some bright futures on this team.
Off the ice, you may see some typical fresh-faced kids, but let them suit up and we've got some superstars in the making right here in the inviting steel confines of Erie Insurance Arena. The opportunity to see the future of the NHL is here – don't let yourself get left out in the cold.
Alex Bieler can be contacted at aBieler@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Catch20Q.