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McDavid continuing to live up to 'phenom' label

by Arpon Basu
It's easy to get caught up in the hype that surrounds any player who is dubbed a "phenom" before he is even legally allowed to drive a car -- and sometimes that hype can even exceed that player's true potential.

But that doesn't appear to be the case with Connor McDavid.

The 15-year-old center for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League spent the past week competing for Ontario in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Drummondville and Victoriaville, Quebec, before his team was knocked out of medal contention Wednesday in a 2-1 loss to the host Quebec team.

Among the eager onlookers at one of Ontario's games was Hockey Canada head scout Kevin Prendergast, a man charged with identifying talent for the Canadian Junior National Team.

As McDavid and his Ontario teammates warmed up for a preliminary-round game against Slovakia during the weekend, Prendergast was asked if the hype in this case has overtaken the true potential of the player.

Prendergast's eyes lit up as soon as the question was asked.

"Oh, I think it's legitimate," he said. "You just have to watch him play to be a believer."

Eichel making waves of his own

Photo credit: Tom Sorensen

While Connor McDavid is receiving a lot of the attention, there was another player eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft who's been turning quite a few heads at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Victoriaville and Drummondville, Quebec, this past week.

U.S. center Jack Eichel will be in McDavid's draft class, and he has impressed with his combination of size and skill for coach Danton Cole's team.

Like McDavid, Eichel also is playing junior hockey -- in the United States Hockey League with the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-17 team. He has notched 10 points in 15 games this season. While Eichel's statistics may not be quite as eye-popping as McDavid's, the product of North Chelmsford, Mass., is showing flashes of becoming a tremendous player.

"He's very talented, he's very powerful, he's a big, strong kid," Cole said of his star center. "But the thing that separates the really good athletes from the good athletes is the guys that are driven. Whether they're quiet or really loud guys, the real good ones are driven. He's fun that way because he wants to get better every day, he wants to learn, he wants to work. He's been a lot of fun to coach."

Eichel, 16, scored three goals in four games through the preliminary round at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, but aside from that he showed tantalizing skill for a player who is two years shy of his NHL Draft eligibility because his birthday is in October. And at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Eichel already has NHL size -- and he's still growing.

But while Eichel would have every reason not to be, he remains a humble young man who always is looking to get better.

"I guess I would say I've always had great mentors," Eichel told in Victoriaville during the weekend. "My dad's always on me to make sure I'm not cruising, or if you're playing a team that might not be as good as some other teams to always make sure you're giving 100 percent. If you let your foot off the gas for a minute somebody could notice that, or you could even get hurt. I like to always play the same way, and that's always playing hard."

Eichel's skating and stickhandling ability are at an elite level, regardless of his size. When his big frame is factored in, they become even more impressive. And when you add in the work ethic Cole is so high on, Eichel's potential appears to be unlimited.

"Practice is the place where you get better," Eichel said. "So if you're always working your hardest in practice it's going to pay off for you."

Eichel already has committed verbally to play for Boston University, and he's turned down overtures from the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, who hold his Canadian Hockey League rights.

He said his long-term goal is "to be doing something with hockey." Chances are that two years from now, Eichel will be all but assured of reaching that goal.

-- Arpon Basu

McDavid, a native of Newmarket, Ontario, will not be eligible for the NHL Draft until 2015, but he already has emerged as the runaway leader to be taken No. 1 when his time finally arrives. Granted exceptional-player status by the OHL, McDavid's play in his first season of junior hockey has made it clear that the hype is, indeed, warranted.

After being held off the score sheet in his junior debut, McDavid notched a goal and an assist in his second game with Erie, which was the first of a 15-game point streak, during which he totaled 20 points. By the time he left the team for the World U-17 Hockey Challenge, he had 40 points in his first 35 games.

"Coming into this year I didn't really know what to expect," McDavid told following a 12-0 win against Slovakia in Plessisville, Quebec, last weekend. "I watched a lot of video to try and learn as much as I could, but I had no idea what to expect. I was fortunate to have a good start and I just hope to keep that going in the second half."

Aside from scouts, none of the people who packed that tiny arena in Plessisville last Saturday ever had seen McDavid play. However, his name was at the center of nearly all the discussions among the fans during the intermissions.

Indeed, as Prendergast said, they had watched him play and became believers.

"It's his hockey sense," Prendergast said. "He understands the game, he knows where to be, he knows what to do with the puck, he's not afraid to do things with the puck and he has confidence in everything he does. He's really amazing to watch."

McDavid put all his talents on display in that game against Slovakia, notching a hat trick in the second period before sitting for much of the third period of the rout. But a few plays that didn't result in goals in the first period were perhaps his most impressive.

There was the time early in the game where McDavid made a quick cut to the middle with the puck to elude a Slovak defender then, while in very tight on the goal, attempted the move made famous by Peter Forsberg by dekeing to his forehand then bringing the puck back to try to tuck it through the goalie's legs on the backhand with one hand. Most players would not even consider the possibility of trying such a move, but McDavid nearly accomplished it.

Later in the period, McDavid went outside, inside then back outside on a Slovak defender to get in on goal. Then he tried yet another deke on the goaltender, but was stopped. Again, the final deke was a display of the imagination referred to by Prendergast.

McDavid's rocket start in the OHL and his obvious talent have made him a star attraction for the media, which is a lot of pressure to heap on a kid who will turn 16 on Jan. 13. But even there, he appears to be dealing with his new-found star status with incredible ease.

"It's been a whirlwind, things have just taken off so quickly," McDavid said. "I enjoy doing things like this [with the media]. I still find it really cool that people want to do stuff about me. It's just a great time for me."

McDavid said he prefers to set short-term goals and focus on those, rather than see things in the big picture. Once he achieves a short-term goal, he sets another one. But there is one long-term ambition about which he can't stop wondering.

He took part in one game of the Canadian Hockey League's Subway Super Series in November, a sign that he is among the top junior talent in the world. Though he was not invited to the most recent Canadian Junior National Team's selection camp in Calgary, McDavid admitted he dreams of the day he can represent his country at the IIHF World Junior Championship.

"It's tough not to think about that," McDavid said. "Playing in the Subway Series, I thought that was sort of a first step in making the team. I felt fortunate to get invited to that, but I wasn't even kind of expecting to get invited to Calgary. But watching the World Juniors on TV, it's tough not to think that could be me in a couple of years, or even next year if I'm lucky enough."

Prendergast said McDavid won't need luck to make the Canadian team as a 16-year-old; he simply will need to maintain what he has shown already in order to get there.

"Sure, it's conceivable, he's got the talent. It's a long way away, but he's going to have to push the button for us to make a decision on him," Prendergast said. "I don't know if there is a ceiling on him at this point. You want to see him continue to improve, and the pressures of everyday life will continue to mount for him, and it's how he's going to handle that. But the bottom line is he's a hockey player, and as long as he keeps that in the forefront of his mind of what he wants to do and keeps the distractions away, he's going to be fine."

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