EDMONTON, AB - A young fan peered over the tunnel leading from the Oilers locker room to the ice at Rexall Place.
“Here comes McDavid,” he shouted.
As the 18-year-old centre took to the ice, the gathering of about 3,000 hockey-starved Oilers fans gave him the loudest of the day’s cheers. Chants of “Conn-or! Conn-or!” began.
“There is obviously a lot of excitement in the air just to see him at a practice,” said one fan in attendance. “If this is a practice, I can only imagine what’s going to happen when he’s actually in the NHL.”
Even when Connor McDavid fired a few pucks into an empty net during warmups, the fans cheered. It was more fan support than McDavid had ever seen at a practice.
“Never like that,” said McDavid. “It was pretty funny skating them around and shooting them into the open net and they were celebrating. It’s funny but at the end of the day it truly means a lot the support that they’ve shown.”
Full tilt McMania, and it’s likely only just the beginning. The kid hasn’t played one game yet.
“I skipped work today,” one fan said. He wasn’t going to miss it.
McDavid, taken first overall in last week’s NHL Draft, was the consensus top prospect going in. He is touted as a “generational talent” and described by draft prognosticators as the best prospect to be drafted in years. Those expectations lead to excitement, which will lead to boiling points like today. It was a chance for fans to come out and see McDavid, who agreed to terms on his three-year entry-level contract Friday morning.
“I want to see him dangle on the defencemen,” said one excited young fan as he stood in line to enter.
From the moment he stepped onto the ice, McDavid felt the love.
“That was awesome,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s a Friday and we’re just doing a normal practice, we weren’t doing anything too special. It’s awesome that they came out to support and that was really fun to see that.”
Support like that might be hard to fathom for a young prospect, but McDavid understood the mood of the fans.
“You kind of get it. They’re excited and they should be,” said McDavid. “The Oilers are an exciting franchise right now. It’s awesome to see them out there.”
Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers
It wasn’t just McDavid the fans came out to see. Some said they wanted to see Leon Draisaitl. A large contingent wanted to see Darnell Nurse in action. Others were interested in prospects like defencemen William Lagesson and Caleb Jones.
“It was awesome,” said Nurse. “It was great to have the support out there, the fans out there. It shows how passionate of a city this place is for hockey and how hungry they are for the season coming up.”
Nurse was unfazed by the fan or media attention at the Orientation Camp open practice. Taken seventh overall in 2013, Nurse has experience with Oilers loyalists.
“I wasn’t surprised, just based on the surroundings and how excited all the fans are and how passionate of a city this is for hockey,” said Nurse. “The fans are crazy here and it’s awesome to be a part of. We’re real fortunate to have them.”
The future of the Oilers was on the ice at Rexall Place on Friday morning. It’s been an off-season of change in Edmonton, right from the top of the organization. Those changes, the additions at the draft and in free agency, and of course McDavid, have appeared to revitalize a passionate fan base. Also, seeing the young talent, like Draisaitl, Nurse and McDavid, brought into the organization through recent drafts provides even more hope for a bright future. Orientation Camp is a chance to see some of that.
As one fan in attendance put it: “It’s a big day for the Oilers organization.”