Pretend you skip a grade and are the youngest person in your class. (Maybe you already are.) Then imagine, after your freshman year of high school, being sent straight to college. After three years of college, at age 18 you graduate and immediately get a job. And during your first week at work, thousands of people show up just to watch you figure out the office coffee maker.
That is, in short, the story of Connor McDavid, the first pick in this year's NHL draft and the player tasked with resurrecting the Edmonton Oilers' franchise. McDavid represents the fourth top pick the Oilers have made in the past six years — a testament to both their pitiful play and tremendous luck. (That good fortune was especially apparent this year when the Oilers had just an 11.5% chance to win the lottery and get the first pick.)
The phenom from Newmarket, Ontario, however, stands apart from the Oilers' recent high selections. Teams coveted him more, tanking to improve their odds at the top pick. Many considered McDavid the best prospect since Sidney Crosby, a player with whom he is often compared.
But it's another center McDavid evokes that has Oilers fans excited: the franchise's original savior and the NHL's all-time leading scorer, Wayne Gretzky. The comparisons to the Great One come easily: The players are about the same size, they play the same position, and they even wear similar numbers. (McDavid's 97 is his birth year; Gretzky's 99 is retired throughout hockey.) McDavid, like Gretzky, is a pass-first pivot who loves to set up his linemates but can still score spectacular goals. He shares the Hall of Famer's uncanny knack for knowing where players will be.
Yet for all McDavid's ability to anticipate, not even he thought he'd end up with the Oilers. If history is any guide, though, he knows exactly what happens next.
GROWING UP GREAT
Connor McDavid spent his childhood trying to get ahead. At five years old, he joined his eight-year-old brother Cam's local team in the locker room before games, even following the shirt-and-tie dress code. He consistently played with kids older than he was. For fun, he practiced.
"You hear insane stories about how when he's at home, he's stickhandling with [an imaginary] stick for five hours straight," says Corey Pronman, a hockey prospect guru for ESPN. "There's not an hour that goes by that he's not involved in some kind of hockey activity."
McDavid even watched hockey differently from most kids his age. He was less focused on who the great players were than on what made them great and what he could learn from them. When SI KIDS asked him his favorite team growing up, he predictably said the Maple Leafs. His favorite player? Pass.
"I would watch hockey games and focus on certain things that happen and certain players simply because I wanted to try to get better," says McDavid. "And I know it sounds a little bit unusual for a kid to be that way. That's just how it was."
Unusual is one word for it. Exceptional is another, which is why McDavid in 2012 became just the third player — after current NHL stars John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad — to be given official exceptional player status from Hockey Canada. That meant he could begin major junior hockey at 15, a year earlier than most players are allowed. Entered into the pool of Ontario Hockey League rookies, McDavid went first in the draft to the Erie (Pennsylvania) Otters. Foreshadowing his future with the Oilers, McDavid entered the OHL much-hyped, underaged, and on a bad team.
A MAJOR JUNIOR
Four hours from home and in a different country, McDavid played well at age 15, averaging more than a point per game, winning rookie of the year, and erasing any doubts he deserved exceptional status. But the young Otters experienced growing pains, going 19-40-9 and finishing last in their division.
"I think it was really rough on him," says Otters coach Kris Knoblauch. "I don't think he'd ever been part of a losing season. He was probably on the best or second-best team his entire playing career."
Even in struggling, however, McDavid's career arc mirrored that of Gretzky, who was also the OHL's rookie of the year while playing for a weak team in 1977--78. The Great One must have recognized the similarities, because he picked up the phone and encouraged his heir apparent to keep working hard. McDavid thought it was a prank. "Whenever you get a call and someone says, 'It's Wayne Gretzky,' it's kind of hard to believe," he says.
The advice paid off, as the next season McDavid had 99 points in 56 games, good for fourth in the league. More telling, though, were the first and second leading scorers: Connor Brown and Dane Fox, his linemates. The Otters finished the season 52-14-2.
McDavid's third and final season in Erie only cemented his status as a generational talent. Despite missing 21 games with a broken hand, he scored 120 points (44 goals, 76 assists), and the Otters finished first in their division.
And though his team would lose the league title, McDavid left junior hockey on a tear, scoring 21 goals in 20 playoff games. For his efforts he took home both the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as the OHL's playoff MVP and the Wayne Gretzky Trophy, given to the Western Conference champions. That McDavid has gotten in the habit of winning trophies with Gretzky's name on them is welcome news to Oilers fans who remember a certain silver chalice — the Stanley Cup — that bears the Hall of Famer's name four times.
Hockey player shoots. He scores. The crowd goes wild. There's no goalie in net. There's not even another team.... Wait, no, this is all wrong.
This scene played out at the Oilers' development camp in July. Fans came out in droves to watch McDavid. They cheered when he skated out and again each time he casually shot into an empty net during warmups.
Things only got crazier four days later when McDavid scored five times in an intrasquad scrimmage in front of a packed house. One goal was cheap — a pass that deflected off a defenseman's stick — but the other four were sensational, demonstrating the prospect's best skills: stickhandling, breakaway speed, and puck control. After he completed the hat trick, some fans even threw their caps onto the ice.
Though celebrating a scrimmage at the expense of a hat may seem ridiculous, it beats the recent tradition of Oilers fans throwing jerseys on the ice in protest of the team's uninspired play. Edmonton hasn't made the playoffs in nine seasons. They haven't had a winning record in seven. And they haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1990.
These droughts, combined with the team's history and McDavid's pedigree, have Oilers fans excited but also impatient. It's a lot to ask a rookie to be good at 18. It's something else entirely to ask him to be Wayne Gretzky.
But if Edmonton's fans are going to task someone with being the next Gretzky, they could do worse than a player who has invited the comparison his entire life.
"Expectation is something I've been dealing with for a long time now, and this is no different," says McDavid. "I guess it's a little bigger. That's all."
Photos: Jonathan Bielaski for Sports Illustrated (locker room), Joel Marklund/BILDBYRAN/Zumapress.com (Canada), Erich Schlegel/USA Today Sports (Oilers)