Nation World HQ
February 16 2017 09:00AM
How big of an influence can one single player have on an NHL team? I went to Edmonton to get the answer – and met it at the airport. Here is the story of how Connor McDavid’s quick journey to the top has made the Edmonton Oilers an NHL club to be reckoned with again.
By Uffe Bodin
Last weekend, Uffe Bodin was one of our honoured guests and he wrote about his trip to Edmonton on the website HockeySverige.se. Note that the original article was written in Swedish and has been translated into English.
Travelling for 18 hours can be draining on both the body and mind. When I landed in Edmonton with a couple hours of bad airplane sleep, my head was not where it should be. Therefore, I thought I was hallucinating when I arrived at the luggage carousel and saw a very familiar face right in front of me.
"Can it be ...? No ... How could that be possible? "
At this point, Connor McDavid is probably used to being stared at, but probably not by a bearded Swede with an open mouth and a skeptical look on his face.
McDavid was back from a short vacation with his girlfriend in the Bahamas, and had a hood tucked over his head to try and hide his identity as best as he could. It didn’t help very much. As soon as people at the airport noticed that the city's biggest celebrity was in the building they begin to whisper and point. Some people had the courage to go up and ask for a selfie or an autograph. Me, I just wondered how I could possibly be so ignorant that I didn’t even realize that I was on the same plane as one of the best hockey players in the world.
The fact that Connor McDavid is one of the first faces I saw in Edmonton couldn't have been more symbolic. Because, to tell you the truth, I probably wouldn’t be here if it were not for him. It may sound drastic to claim that a single player could make such a big difference to a hockey club, but that's what McDavid has done for the Edmonton Oilers.
It's an argument that was confirmed to me the next morning. At the cozy café, Little Brick, located just outside of downtown Edmonton, where the guys and girls behind OilersNation have their headquarters, I had breakfast with Jay Downton and Adam Mandryk. They are two of the driving forces behind the company that is OilersNation, as well as multiple other Nation Network sites such as Daily Faceoff, hockeyfights.com and NHLNumbers. When I ask them about "The McDavid Effect,” Jay chuckles:
”Did you know that it is the title of a book about Edmonton? It is about how everything changed for the whole city when the Oilers won the lottery and drafted Connor.”
By "everything" Jay Downton literally means EVERYTHING, not just hockey-wise. He claims that McDavid was the beginning of an altered state of mind throughout the city of Edmonton. Not only did the Oilers have a tough time for many years, the city itself has also been forced to see their fair share of economic setbacks due to declining oil prices and a weak Canadian dollar. That was, at least, until a young hockey player gave the city a new sense of hope.
”It's one of those things where everyone remembers where they were when the Oilers won the lottery,” says Adam Mandryk, referring to April 18th, 2015 when the club drew the winning ticket in the Draft Lottery and the opportunity to pick McDavid.
Jay Downton was at home with his parents when the good news arrived.
”I just screamed. My dad wondered what was going on and I explained to him that we had won the lottery. He asked: ’Oh, will the Oilers pick him?’”
It didn’t take long for the OilersNation guys to pick up the momentum surrounding their new young phenomenon. They printed a t-shirt with the lottery reference in the form of a golden ticket that said "McJesus." In one day they sold 700 t-shirts.
”When we organized our annual draft party, we had 400 people there and we managed to raise $12,000 dollars for charity. It was crazy,” says Downton.
Adam almost gets emotional when the subject is brought up.
”I remember telling a friend that ’This changes my life. All the shit we've been through these past ten years doesn’t matter anymore’. That’s how much it actually meant to me. It is the beginning of a new era.”
Connor McDavid’s first season with the Edmonton Oilers was hampered by the collarbone fracture he suffered in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers in November of 2015. This season, McDavid has remained healthy and has given his team that much needed boost. The Oilers are well on their way to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since reaching the finals and losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. At the same time, McDavid is also involved in a tough race with Sidney Crosby at the top of the scoring list. The fact that the team is winning for the first time in a decade has an enormous significance for the whole city, according to both Jay and Adam.
"I'm obviously very biased, but I think the Oilers mean everything to the people here. There is a civic pride that might have been a bit weak over these last few years. Wherever we went in Canada, people have made fun of us for being from Edmonton just because the Oilers have been so awful. Now, it's like we're slowly getting our swag back,” says Jay while Adam nods as a confirmation:
”I can only go to myself and say that there’s a direct correlation between how the Oilers are performing and how happy I am. You can call it the ’Oilers Happiness Index”, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people that feel the exact same way”
The rich history of the Edmonton Oilers has not always created the best prerequisites for success. In the 1980s, players like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey spoiled the fans in Alberta's provincial city with a hockey dynasty that is almost unparalleled. After winning five Stanley Cup titles in seven seasons from 1984 to 1990, Edmonton was dubbed the "City of Champions" and set the bar at an inhumanly high level for future teams. The decline in recent years has made the Championship epithet a rather painful one.
"That amazing history gives you something to live up to,” says Oscar Klefbom, one of the Oilers three Swedes, when meeting him after a morning skate.
"Even today, you can meet people who say ’Damn, you are bad. It was way better in the 80s’. But that kind of sentiment makes it more fun if we can make it to the playoffs now. That’s the obvious goal for the team.”
With a superstar like Connor McDavid in the lineup, it certainly looks like things are about to change. When I asked Oscar Klefbom how much of an impact he thinks McDavid has had on the Oilers this season, he almost shakes his head in disbelief:
"He is incredible,” the native of Karlstad says.
"He contributes with something every night. Although he might have an off game, he still walks away with two assists and helps us get a point or two. The other teams put their best players on him, but he still manages to create time and space for himself and his linemates. For the defensemen on this team, it is incredibly useful to be able to practice against such a player too. Just trying to match his speed and compete with someone like him on a daily basis is very helpful."
Before this season, Connor McDavid became the youngest captain in NHL history. Although he is the youngest player in the dressing room, with only about 100 NHL games under his belt, he has already earned the respect among his peers.
"He goes out on the ice and sets the tone with his game. He always does the simple things first, do it right so that we have a good foundation to our game. He is still so young that you can’t expect him to yell at a guy like Milan Lucic. That would be a bit extreme. But he is a very good leader in his own way.”
Connor McDavid coming to the city, and the success that has followed, has also made Edmonton a more attractive location for other players. The Oilers used to be a team that had trouble attracting free agents, and sometimes even had difficulty retaining their own stars. Adam uses examples such as Chris Pronger – or "He Who Should Not Be Named”, which is what he actually calls him – who asked to be traded, as well as Michael Nylander and Dany Heatley, who both opted out of the chance to play for the Oilers at various times.
This summer's prestigious signing of Milan Lucic shows that the times have changed.
"I remember when Lucic visited the city just before he became a free agent and that someone photographed him at the airport wearing a McDavid t-shirt. I thought it was someone who had photoshopped the picture at first, but it turned out to be genuine and that says quite a lot about how it has changed,” says Jay.
”Previously, there has been a lot of bullshit talk that this city is too cold to attract anyone, but it is not what it's about. Guys want to win and that’s what they look at when they pick their teams. Just look at the Detroit Red Wings and the teams they put on the ice when they were at their best, although the city was in really bad condition. Now that Connor is here, he’s creating a little of the same mentality. Players want to come here, play with him and win.”
But just as hockey is considered to have lifted the general mood of the residents of the city, it has also had a positive impact on the economy. Jay and Adam say that tourism has also received a boost. More and more people come to Edmonton to watch hockey, and it’s not just Canadians. Europeans are also becoming more attracted to flying here to get the chance to see McDavid and the Oilers in action. If you are adaptable, you can get from Stockholm to Edmonton in just over ten hours with Icelandair. A short stop in Reykjavik is all that is required.
"They started flying here three or four years ago and it is clearly the best option when you want to go here or go home. It's the only way we fly nowadays. Really easy,” says Anton Lander, who has belonged to the Oilers since he was drafted in 2009 and has played with the team since 2011.
McDavid and the Oilers are not the only reason that Edmonton is doing well right now. The brand new arena, Rogers Place, in the centre of the city has a lot to do with that too. The arena, which cost $650 million Canadian dollars to complete, looks like a huge spaceship from Star Trek that has landed in the middle of the city. It is undoubtedly the most impressive hockey building I have set foot in. It can accommodate 18,641 spectators, and when I got a tour of the arena, I was struck by how good the visibility is, no matter where you are. The players can’t complain either.
"I'll stick out my neck and say that we have the best dressing room in the NHL,” Lander says proudly.
"Everything is fantastic. Now, you have not seen the gym or the lounge, but it’s something extraordinary. It's incredibly fun to have these conditions. You can’t complain about not having the tools to develop. This facility has everything you need from our own chef, kitchen and stuff. It is incredible.”
Rogers Place is located in a part of downtown Edmonton that used to be run down - a place you typically stayed away from during the late evenings and nights. During a walk to the stadium, Adam Mandryk tells a few horror stories about how the area used to be. Among other things, there was a bus station where ex-convicts were dropped off when they were released from prison and how the bars in the area quickly turned into nests for criminals. Today, the same area is a construction site. Right next to Rogers Place, new hotels and apartment buildings are being built, while the old dilapidated buildings that haven’t been demolished are being renovated, revamped and turned into hip bars and shops. The timing could not have been better.
"During a five-year period, they will construct buildings for about four billion dollars here. It has created a lot of jobs that have sheltered us now that the oil prices, that are so important to us, have dropped. You can compare it to Calgary, who have had a much tougher time for that same reason,” Adam explains.
Before the tour of downtown Edmonton was over, Jay and Adam take me to a large replica of the Stanley Cup, which is located right next to the big sporting goods store, United Cycle just south of the river that divides the city in half. The trophy, which has most of the names of the players of the winning teams engraved, shines beautifully in the winter sun. I tease my hosts a little bit by saying that "this is where you come to remember how it felt to win something”. Jay laughs:
”Give the team a few years and I think we could win it again,” he says.
Adam is also hopeful.
”2019 or 2020, that’s when I think we can be fighting for it again. It actually feels realistic.”
Who could believe that an Edmonton Oilers fan would exclaim that a couple of years ago?
There’s no longer any doubt to me that the self-confidence has returned to "the City of Champions."
A confidence wearing number 97 on its back.