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GENE'S BLOG: Uncovering Connor

In his latest blog, Gene tells the story of when Sam Gagner was asked to skate with a young and almost undiscovered Connor McDavid

by Gene Principe /

EDMONTON, AB - "Connor McDavid, remember that name" was a call made by legendary play-by-play man Bob Cole after Connor had scored one of his 128 NHL goals.

They are five simple words which include the name of the game's greatest player or one of the greatest. The purpose of those five words isn't to start a debate on who is hockey's best but to set up a story on the Edmonton Oilers player who first saw Connor McDavid on the ice. 

While he was been watched from the youngest of ages all the way to present day, the one who uncovered Connor was Sam Gagner.

"My trainer at the time was Dan Ninkovich. He was training some minor hockey teams and he said there's this kid you should see," Gagner recalls. "He (Dan) said, 'Do you want to skate with him? Because he is going to be the next best thing. He is at a different level.'" 

Well, give Dan credit because he had an eye for talent even back then. You have to remember this was a decade ago when Gagner took Ninkovich up on the offer.

The summer skate happened after Gagner's second season in the NHL. It was 2009 and Gagner was 20 and McDavid was all of 12 years old.

"I was totally blown away by how good he was at that age," Gagner explained. "It was his edge work and his skills for drills around pylons. I couldn't believe it."

There was something Gagner also had trouble believing… "He beat me in some of the drills."

Now this isn't Sam being arrogant but let's not forget Gagner had already put together a 49-point rookie season that included some wicked shootout moves. He was a high first-round pick who had just completed year two in the NHL.

"I tell you it only took a couple of times on the ice and you could see what he was going to become."

Sam went about his way to the NHL but he would still see Connor at a few skates in the summer and would keep tabs on him. They also had a similar minor hockey background as both would suit up for the Toronto Marlies at different times during their youth hockey careers. 

Then, Gagner had a chance to coach McDavid in a bantam all-star game… "Myself and John (Tavares) were guest coaches and the idea was that we were supposed to roll all the lines equally."

Imagine an NHL All-Star game. Generally, the players end up with about the same ice time. That wasn't what McDavid had in mind.

"He kept looking back at us," Gagner recalled with a laugh. "He never complained but he was looking at us like, 'Get me out there more.' For the first couple periods we didn't but then in the third, we let him loose."

Along the way, Gagner ended up finding the man, Jeff Jackson, who would eventually become McDavid's agent. He is also Gagner's agent.

"Jeff grew up with my dad (Dave Gagner) so one day I just ended up mentioning him to Jeff," he said.

Here's where the story takes an interesting twist because what he told Jeff was this whiz kid's name and Gagner's recollection of the name appear very different.

"I know people have said that I called him something other than Connor McDavid," Gagner laughed.

As the story goes Sam called him David O'Connor. 

"I don't remember calling him that," he chuckled further.

Whether he did or didn't, it didn't take long before everybody, including Bob Cole, was saying "Connor McDavid, remember that name."

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