The McDavid Effect
CONNOR MCDAVID WAS NINE YEARS old in 2006, the last time the Edmonton Oilers reached the NHL playoffs. It was a season that lives on in memory for Edmonton’s long-suffering fans, one in which the Oilers became the first eighth-seeded team to reach the Stanley Cup Final. They began the playoffs with a stunning defeat of the Detroit Red Wings, the league’s most dominant team, in six games. The hockey gods continued to smile as the Oilers defeated San Jose and Anaheim in the next two series. They hadn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1990—seven years before Connor was born—and the city was delirious at the prospect of another championship. The good fortune continued through to Game 7 of the Final but, in the end, it wasn’t enough. The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Oilers, ending an unlikely postseason run that few had foreseen.
A slight kid who was so talented he had to play against boys several years older to feel challenged, McDavid was a hockey prodigy along the lines of Sidney Crosby, the NHL superstar who perfected his shooting as a
kid by taking aim at the clothes drier in his family’s home in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.
Even at nine years old, Connor was becoming a prodigy. Twenty-three inches long and ten and one-quarter pounds at birth, he was three years old when he skated on the rink his father flooded in their backyard in Newmarket, Ontario, an upper-middle-class community less than an hour north of Toronto. It is a tidy neighbourhood with well-manicured lawns, flowers that spill out of the window boxes and kids playing street hockey in culs-de-sac. Half as tall as a hockey stick, Connor spent hours on rollerblades in his basement, slapping pucks at nets at either end. He and his brother Cameron, who was nearly four years older, waged epic battles in their underground arena. Twice during their skirmishes, Connor incurred wounds that needed stitches, but he remained undeterred. He would hound Cameron until he was exhausted, then Connor’s mother, Kelly, would take over and play goal. When she grew tired, Connor’s grandmother would fill in, eventually to be followed by his dad, Brian.
“It wasn’t long before Connor was elevating his shots, and it got to be too scary for us,” Kelly recalled. “Brian would take over, but he always put on lots of gear.”
Connor’s parents registered him for organized hockey for the first time at age four. Technically, he was too young to play, so Kelly and Brian fibbed about his age, saying that he was a year older. By then, Connor was clamouring to join Cameron as his father taught his oldest son drills in the garage.
“We’d all be in there together, and Connor would stare and insist he be allowed to play,” Brian remembered. “It was fun, a dad playing with his boys, but Connor took it very seriously. He knew what he wanted to do. He emulated his brother and understood everything we were doing.”
At five, Connor started wearing a dress shirt and tie like the older boys when he attended Cameron’s hockey games, and would listen attentively to pregame speeches in the locker room. A year later, the hockey association in his hometown refused to allow Connor to play at a level above his
age group, so his parents registered him in neighbouring Aurora, where he competed against nine-year-olds. After that, Connor joined the York Simcoe Express, a team that was coached by his father. They went on to win four straight Ontario Minor Hockey Association championships.
By the time he was eight, Connor was sharpening his skills on an obstacle course that Brian set up along the length of the driveway outside the family home. The youngster would be out there for so many hours that neighbours began to fear for his welfare. Some thought that Brian was overbearing and forcing Connor to train too much, but that was never the case. Connor loved it, and, by then, was already talking about playing in the NHL.
Connor was always single-minded. Once, when he was ten, his dad dragged him out of a dressing room to pose for a picture with Mario Lemieux during a peewee tournament in Quebec. Afterward, Connor complained, saying that the photo opportunity with the NHL Hall of Famer had interrupted his pregame routine.
In his many hours of rollerblading on the driveway, Connor began to develop extraordinary stick-handling ability. First, he learned to control a puck while navigating around paint cans. Then, he created an obstacle for himself by attaching the ends of discarded hockey sticks to the paint cans, and pretended they were opposing players he needed to outmanoeuvre. When it became too easy for him, he taped the cans to a skateboard and used it to teach himself how to toe drag, deke and dangle beneath and around a moving object. As Connor practised, he timed himself, recorded the information and kept track of his improvement.
“The neighbours thought we were nuts,” Brian said.
When Connor was ten, he began training with Joe Quinn, a hockey skills instructor from southern Ontario who has fashioned a lucrative career out of teaching elite players to maintain possession of the puck while skating in close quarters at top speed.
“I still remember him as a skinny, freckle-faced little boy,” said Quinn, who coached Connor when he attended the Premier Elite Athletes
Collegiate School, a private sports academy in North York, Ontario, where the tuition is more than $20,000 per year. “He was the youngest of fifty-two kids in the school, playing against boys three and four years older, and he was better than all of them. He was young, but right away you could recognize he was special. He could stickhandle in a telephone booth.”
After playing for his father’s team, Connor joined the Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, where he excelled for three years at the bantam and minor midget levels. During the 2011–12 season, he scored seventy-nine goals and had 130 assists in eighty-eight games, receiving the award as the league’s top player.
By the time Connor was thirteen, scouts were regularly showing up at his games. NHL agents, meanwhile, began predicting that he would become one of the sport’s biggest stars.
Bobby Orr, a Hall of Fame defenceman and one of the greatest players of all time, remembers seeing Connor as a teenager at an invitation-only hockey camp in Toronto. Connor had not been invited, but Cameron had, and Connor tagged along and then joined his older sibling on the ice.
“I arrived a bit late, and noticed this little guy out there and said, ‘Holy crap, who is that?’ ” Orr said. “It turned out that Connor was the one I was watching. My first thought was, ‘Wow, does that kid ever have great hands.’
“Looking back at it now, I think I was a pretty good judge of talent.”
Not long after that, Orr visited the McDavids at home on a Sunday morning. Beforehand, Connor was calm, but Kelly was a basket case. Eventually he told her, ‘Mom, you really have to calm down.’ ” After meeting with Orr, the family agreed to allow his sports agency, the Orr Hockey Group, to represent the young prospect. Specifically, he would be represented by Jeff Jackson, a former NHL player who once served as assistant general manager for the Maple Leafs.
Jackson, who ran his own agency before he joined the Orr Group, first heard about Connor from one of his other clients, Sam Gagner. Then a centre for the Oilers, Gagner was training during the summer of 2011
at a rink in Oakville, Ontario, when McDavid approached and politely asked if he could join him on the ice. Gagner agreed, and was dazzled by what he saw.
“Afterward, Sam called me,” Jackson recalled. “He said, ‘You have to find this kid. I’ve been in the NHL for five years, and he can already do things I can’t do. His name is David O’Connor.’ ”
Although he transposed the name, Gagner remembered that the youth had told him he was about to begin playing for the Midget AAA Marlies. So, Jackson, who had just established his own agency, called the club and inquired about him.
“I asked about the O’Connor kid and the guy chuckled,” Jackson said. “He said, ‘Oh, you must mean Connor McDavid.’ ”
Jackson tracked the young talent down and told Brian he would like to represent the budding star. However, the McDavids had already agreed to sign with Orr. Later, Jackson was invited to join Orr’s firm, and by coincidence was appointed to be Connor’s agent. As Connor continued to develop, Jackson and Orr could only marvel at the young man’s potential.
“Watching him is a joy for me,” Jackson said. “Connor will make a play, and Bobby will ask me, ‘What did he just do?’ I tell him, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know how he does the things he does out there.’ ”
At fifteen, McDavid was granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada, which allowed him to join the Ontario Hockey League one year earlier than the official entry age. At the time, he was only the third player ever granted permission to enter the league as a fifteen-year-old, after John Tavares, now with the New York Islanders, and Aaron Ekblad, of the Florida Panthers.
The OHL teams were all desperate to land McDavid, and the Erie Otters wasted no time in choosing him as the first overall pick in the 2012 Priority Selection Draft. For the next three years, Connor would be playing in the hardscrabble city of one hundred thousand people in western Pennsylvania.
Of course, as a teenager, Connor wasn’t going to live alone. He was billeted for all three years with Bob and Stephanie Catalde, living in their household alongside their daughters, Caisee and Camryn, and young son, Nico. The Cataldes had never billeted anyone, but they were good friends with Sherry Bassin, then the general manager of the Otters, and Sherry convinced them to take in their prized rookie.
“I like to think we have a good home and a nice family, and I thought it would be a good environment for him,” Catalde, a lawyer and youth hockey coach, said. “It wasn’t long before things started to sink in and I knew how special he is.”
At their first meeting, Catalde made it clear that he expected Connor to behave properly, especially around his daughters. At the time he moved in, Caisee was fifteen and Camryn, who was named after the former Boston Bruins right wing Cam Neely, was twelve.
Connor quickly became a member of the family, an older brother to the girls and a mentor to Nico, then seven. McDavid would play knee hockey with Nico in the family room, skate with him and his teammates at practice and occasionally sit on the bench with them during their games. He even attended one game with his face swollen, a day after having his wisdom teeth removed.
“The experience we had with him turned out to be everything we hoped it would be and more,” Catalde said. “Connor talks in terms of how he owes a debt of gratitude to myself and my wife, but I see it as the other way around.”
On game days, Catalde cooked for Connor, always preparing the same meals. For breakfast, Connor would eat eight scrambled eggs, a large helping of organic berries and a whole-grain bagel. For dinner, he always asked for grilled chicken breast lightly brushed with olive oil, with brown rice and quinoa.
After he was done eating, Connor would rise from the table and put his dishes in the dishwasher every time.
“None of my own kids would do that,” Catalde said.
McDavid kicked off his first season with the Erie Otters by putting together a fifteen-game scoring streak that began in just his second game. He won OHL Rookie of the Month honours for October and November, and eventually finished the year with twenty-five goals and forty-one assists in sixty-three games. That was good enough to earn the title of the league’s top rookie.
All eyes were on McDavid from the outset that year. During the season, Wayne Gretzky called and told Connor he was rooting for him, and Lemieux invited him to watch a Penguins game with him in his suite in Pittsburgh, which is about 125 miles from Erie. The hockey world recognized the immense talent that was budding in Connor, and seemed to be opening its doors to him.
In his second season with the Otters, McDavid was named a second-team OHL All-Star and, as he began his final year in Erie, the hysteria around him continued to grow. Every rink the Otters visited over the second half of the season was sold out, and fans waited for hours to meet him. As teammates climbed aboard the bus following games, McDavid would wade into the crush of people and sign autographs. Eventually, the team hired a retired police officer as a bodyguard.
“It was beyond anything you could imagine,” said Sherry Bassin, who was involved in hockey for fifty years, including a stint as assistant general manager of the Quebec Nordiques. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Signing autographs could have been a full-time job for him.”
McDavid couldn’t go to a restaurant in Erie without being mobbed. When he would arrive at the Cataldes’ home late at night, the dining room table was piled with photographs for him to sign.
“There was one extremely cold night in Guelph where I suggested to Connor that he should go out a side door and hop on the bus instead of navigating through the crowd,” Bassin recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘No, Bass, I was a little kid once, too,’ and went out into the cold and signed
autographs for forty-five minutes. How many seventeen- or eighteen-year-olds, when given an out, would say, ‘No, I was a kid once, too’?
“He’s an unselfish person both on and off the ice. He made a point to come to my wife and I’s fiftieth wedding anniversary party, and stayed to the end.”
In Connor’s final year with the Otters, the team lost in the OHL finals, but McDavid shone throughout, accumulating forty-nine points in twenty playoff games. In one game in the second round, McDavid scored five goals against the London Knights: snapping in the first, tucking in the second, wrapping a third around the goalie for a natural hat trick, flipping the puck over the net minder for the fourth and tapping in a rebound from an impossible angle for the last. He was nearly unstoppable.
“I’ll cherish the moments I was able to watch him and the fact that I was able to coach him,” Chris Knoblauch, his coach for two and a half seasons in Erie, said. “As you watch him, you realize at times that you have become a fan. He does remarkable things, but never acts like he’s different from anyone else. He’s almost embarrassed when he pulls something off.”
That attitude extended beyond the ice, too. While setting records and building a reputation as the player of a generation, Connor was also excelling in school. In his final year of high school, on top of a grueling hockey schedule full of workouts, games and travel, he also held down a straight A average, studying everything from algebra to creative writing to digital design. Unwilling to be the stereotypical star athlete, Connor applied himself to his schoolwork with the same combination of diligence, integrity and hard work that he brought to the rink.
Connor’s peers and coaches recognized that mixture of skill, intelligence and modesty, and he was rewarded for it. At the end of Connor’s final year in junior hockey, he was selected not just the Ontario Hockey League’s top player, but also the top player in the Canadian Hockey League,
the umbrella organization that represents the three Canadian major junior hockey leagues across the country. He also won the CHL’s Student of the Year. Twice. In a row. By the time Connor was done in Erie, he had racked up ninety-seven goals and 285 points and had become the most decorated player in the history of the OHL.
“There is a difference between being liked and respected, but he is respected and loved,” Bassin said. “I’ve been around hockey for a long time, but feel blessed to have spent three years with him. One of the ways I judge a person is by asking if I like who I am when I’m around them. I love who I am when I’m around Connor McDavid.”
There was little doubt that Connor would be the first player selected in the 2015 NHL entry draft. The question was, by whom? Each year, a lottery is held to determine who gets the first overall pick, with the weakest teams having the greatest chance. Beleaguered fans in Toronto were overjoyed by the thought that Connor could land with the Maple Leafs. Some suspected that Arizona and Buffalo, the NHL’s worst teams, might have tanked near the end of the 2014–15 season to improve their chances of getting him. Whether or not there was any truth to that conjecture, it spoke volumes that people were rooting for their favourite team to give up a chance at success just for better odds at having McDavid on their team.
In the analysis and speculation leading up to the draft, the Oilers were a possibility to win the lottery, but nobody was predicting that McDavid was on a collision course with the team. Once one of the most successful sports franchises in history, the Oilers hadn’t made the playoffs since 2006 and the team’s roster of young talent had yet to produce the results that the fans and front office expected. And, besides that, the Oilers had won the lottery in three of the last four years. Nobody thought that it could happen again.
IN 2006, AT ABOUT THE same time that Brian McDavid began telling his wife that he thought their son’s hockey skills were supernatural, Daryl Katz began thinking about buying the Oilers.
The shy son of a pharmacist, Katz had grown up in an upper-middle-class family in Edmonton and, like just about everyone else in the city, was a huge hockey fan. He was twenty-one in 1984 when the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup, and he came to socialize with Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe and other stars, which made the Oilers even more special to him.
After graduating from law school at the University of Alberta in 1985, Katz articled for a local firm and was hired by another before setting up his own practice specializing in corporate and franchise law. In 1991, in a partnership with his father, Katz paid $300,000 for the Canadian rights to the U.S.-based Medicine Shoppe chain, and in 1992, the Katz Group of Companies—now one of Canada’s largest privately owned enterprises—was founded.
In 1996, Katz purchased the fading Rexall pharmacy chain, which by then had only a few dozen stores in Canada, and the following year he acquired the 134-store Pharma Plus outlet for $100 million. By 1998, the Katz Group’s portfolio included eighty Rexall stores, thirty Medicine Shoppes, all of Pharma Plus’s holdings and a few smaller independent retailers.
Over the next half-dozen years, Katz amassed billions through one acquisition after another and, by 2006, he began making a concerted effort to buy the Oilers. In May 2007, he made a $145 million bid that was rejected by the team’s ownership group of thirty-eight investors, and he was spurned again two months later when he increased his offer to $185 million. On January 28, 2008, Katz raised the ante to $200 million, an offer that was accepted, pending approval from the league. In June, Katz received permission from the NHL, and on July 2 he was officially introduced as the team’s owner during a news conference at Rexall Place.
Katz hoped, of course, that the Oilers would return to their spot among the NHL’s elite, but his interest in the team was more than a heartfelt gamble
and an attempt to revisit the fond memories of his youth. It was an investment in something much bigger: a vision he had for the city.
Before he acquired the Oilers, Katz had quietly begun purchasing land in Edmonton’s downtown core. The city centre was suffering from the same urban blight as other major municipalities, but the demise of downtown had been exacerbated in 1981 by the opening of the West Edmonton Mall, the largest shopping complex in North America. Alberta’s top tourist attraction, the mall is home to more than eight hundred stores, as well as hotels, a giant waterpark, amusement park, a casino, a skating rink and an aquarium with penguins and sea lions. It was spectacular and, when it opened, it diverted shoppers from downtown and discouraged development in the city’s core.
Recognizing the need to bring the Oilers and the city into a new era, Katz talked about the necessity of building an arena to replace Rexall Place. The rink opened in 1974, and ranked as the second oldest in the NHL behind Madison Square Garden, which underwent a $1 billion renovation in 2013. Located a few miles to the south of downtown, Rexall Place was once the jewel at the centre of a bustling shopping district. Over the years, however, the neighbourhood had faded, and Katz believed that a new team needed a new home if it were to rejuvenate the city.
At the time that he bought the Oilers, Katz said he was prepared to spend $100 million exploring the possibility of building a modern arena, a process he had already begun by seeking property downtown that was suitable for development.
“I didn’t have to be in the hockey business, but I saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime to do something for the city,” Katz said. “I would never have considered buying the team without the challenge and opportunity of building an arena and using it as the centrepiece for revitalization that would make us proud of our downtown again.”
Upon taking over, Katz left the Oilers in the hands of managers he admired, including Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish, key members of those
teams that had formed a dynasty. Leaving the business of hockey to his trusted lieutenants, Katz began pursuing in earnest his dream of building an arena. It was a protracted process that played out in public, requiring years of negotiations with the city and often heated debate. At one point, when talks were at a standstill, Katz even visited Seattle to meet with officials there who were anxious to acquire an NHL team. That move infuriated detractors who opposed using taxpayers’ dollars to help bankroll the billionaire’s building project.
Slowly—and, at times, agonizingly so—snags were resolved. Finally, on May 15, 2013, Edmonton’s city council approved the final piece of funding for the arena, and construction on Rogers Place began the following March.
As part of the deal that was brokered, the Katz Group agreed to provide $161 million in financing for the arena, with the city contributing $279 million. The rest of the money came from a variety of sources, including ticket surcharges and a community revitalization levy. The city also required Katz to spend $100 million to help stimulate development around the arena. Katz agreed, and didn’t stop there; in short order, he committed to spending more than $2 billion.
As Katz had envisioned it, the arena would be only a small part of a much bigger project. As plans emerged and development spread, the arena became the anchor of a sports, entertainment, retail and residential corridor. Called the Ice District, the area would cover twelve million square feet—roughly the size of twenty football fields—and include Canada’s tallest office towers outside Toronto. The construction would take years and, at its height in 2015, it was the largest private real estate development in Canada and the second-largest in North America, behind only Hudson Yards, a commercial and residential district on the Lower West Side of Manhattan.
“We did exactly what we said, and more,” Katz said. “It’s a public–private partnership, and because we have been so successful, I think it’s a model that other people will follow.”
The centrepiece of the Ice District would be the new Rogers Place. Katz laboured over plans for the arena, which was complicated by his insistence that it be built in the shape of an oil drop in deference to the energy industry.
“That’s Alberta, and that’s Edmonton,” Katz said. “I wanted it to be iconic. This city deserves that.”
By summer 2015, Katz’s plans for rebuilding Edmonton were well under way. Cranes dotted the skyline and construction in the downtown core was incessant. It seemed like Katz’s vision of a new heart of his city was coming together. His hockey team, meanwhile, remained a work in progress. From 2008 to 2014, the Oilers had finished twenty-eighth, twenty-eighth, twenty-fourth, twenty-ninth and last (twice) in the thirty-team league. Katz knew that something had to change; the product he put on the ice at the new Rogers Place had to match the quality of the facility they were building.
“My biggest wish was that the hockey team would be beginning to make a turnaround when we moved into the building,” Katz said.
And so, in June 2014, the team owner brought in Bob Nicholson, previously the president of Hockey Canada for sixteen years, as Vice-Chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group. Nicholson’s first assignment was to examine operations on and off the ice and determine what was needed to take the team from a basement dweller to a playoff contender.
It was clear that major changes had to be made, but at the time there seemed to be no reason to rush. The Oilers had rebuilt their roster with a handful of number-one draft picks during their tenure at the bottom of the league: Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov had each shown that they were highly skilled players, even if the team as a whole had been slow to improve around them.
The Oilers finished the 2014–15 season with a disappointing 24–44–14 record; at one point, they only recorded two victories in a span of
forty-nine days. They ended the year as the third-worst team in the league, leaving them with a slight chance of winning the NHL lottery and the right to pick McDavid. Few believed the Oilers could get that lucky.
“I thought for sure that Toronto’s name would be called,” Katz said. “I thought it seemed like destiny.”