Connor McDavid had the weight of the world on his shoulders before ever shooting a puck as a professional ice hockey player.
The National Hockey League (NHL) is regularly on the lookout for ‘the Next One’, a title typically bestowed upon a young Canadian prospect who might one day go on to emulate ‘the Great One’, Wayne Gretzky, who remains the league’s all-time leading scorer and is considered by many to be the best player to ever set foot on the ice.
It is, without question, the most difficult of titles to live up to, but McDavid has carried that burden of expectation with him ever since being granted exceptional-player status in 2012 by the Ontario Hockey Foundation, which allowed him to enter the Ontario Hockey League at age 15, one year earlier than typically permitted.
An unassuming, shaggy-haired teenager, McDavid still dominated when up against older players, and as he did, the hype around him swelled. By the time the 2015 NHL Draft rolled around, the question wasn’t whether the Richmond Hill-born centre would be the first pick, but which franchise would be fortunate enough to land an individual many believed had the ability to transform a struggling team into a championship contender.
As fate would have it, the lottery winners were the Edmonton Oilers, with whom Gretzky himself once built a nine-year dynasty which included four Stanley Cup triumphs. Now, the 57-year-old glares down on the ice from the director’s box as the club’s vice chairman. But even then, with the knowledge that Gretzky would be watching his every move, McDavid says he wasn’t fazed.
“I have never really felt affected by outside pressure,” he explains. “I have my own internal pressures to work hard and play well and that is all I have ever really worried about.”
McDavid has already cemented his status as one of the NHL's top talents in just three seasons
Given the start that McDavid has made to his NHL career, it is difficult to disagree with that sentiment. Despite an injury-hit debut season in 2015/16, McDavid was named the league’s rookie of the year, prompting the Oilers to make him the youngest captain in NHL history. He went on to lead his side to the Stanley Cup play-offs in 2016/17, ending the franchise’s ten-year post-season drought, which at that point was the longest in the league.
Amidst all that, McDavid has also become the most decorated young NHL player since his idol Sidney Crosby entered the league in 2005. He has won the Art Ross Trophy – awarded to the NHL’s leading scorer – two years in a row, while his peers across the league have voted for him as the best player in each of the past two seasons. In 2017, he was picked first on 147 of 167 Hart Trophy ballots to become only the third player to be named NHL MVP before the age of 21 – following in the footsteps of Gretzky and Crosby.
For Jeff Jackson, who has been McDavid’s agent since he was 15, McDavid’s individual success has not come as a surprise, although he maybe hadn’t envisaged that it would come so soon.
“Knowing the type of player Connor was [growing up], you could surmise what his future might look like in some ways, although I think that in many ways he’s probably already surpassed some of the expectations so early in his career,” says Jackson, who leads representation firm Orr Hockey Group.
I have never really felt affected by outside pressure. I have my own internal pressures to work hard and play well and that is all I have ever really worried about.
“He’s such a talented kid who’s also very grounded and humble about his success, but at the same time driven on a daily basis to try to be better. That’s what you see with all of these great players through time; they don’t just rest on their laurels, they continue to try to get better, and that’s what he’s like.”
Despite that, though, Jackson says that there is no specific career path that he and McDavid have mapped out. The temptation to compare his achievements to those that have gone before will always be there, but Jackson insists it is important for McDavid to be allowed to write his own chapter of history.
“I know that his goals are always to have team success, which will flow from individual success for him,” says Jackson. “If you look at all the great players throughout sport, right from Bobby Orr through to Kobe Bryant to Tom Brady to Wayne Gretsky, all those great athletes had great team success, and they were the leaders that drove that success.
“So I know that - just like every other NHL player – he hates to lose, he’s driven by a desire to be successful and to win, so in terms of mapping that out, it’s in his head, he wants to win. So yeah, we’ve talked about having success, but it’s something that’s just ingrained in him.”
McDavid with long-time agent Jeff Jackson
Indeed, for all the hyperbole that has been floated around him, McDavid is the one who has bridged the gap between himself and some of those aforementioned great players to become one of the most recognisable talents in North American sport. That might seem like a hefty responsibility to shoulder for a 21-year-old, but McDavid has already accepted that the spotlight is now likely to follow him wherever he goes.
“I guess it’s just a natural evolution that once you get to the NHL and become part of your team’s city and community, you get noticed more and more is expected of you,” he says. “I love playing and living in Edmonton and the fans of our team are amazing and it’s been a lot of fun interacting and getting to know fans both in Edmonton and around the league.”
As McDavid’s profile among NHL fans continues to grow, it is only natural that prying sponsors will come knocking. Jackson admits that “we have lots of overtures from companies all the time” which he and his team review before having regular catch-up sessions with McDavid, whose parents Brian and Kelly are also involved in the process. Ultimately, though, it is McDavid who has the final say on any commercial contracts that he signs.
“I am fully involved in looking at those opportunities,” McDavid asserts. “I have a great team behind me and they do a very good job helping me assess and manage my various partnerships on an ongoing basis. Our bottom line is that the partnership needs to be authentic in that we believe in the product or the service that a potential partner is behind and is something that I enjoy and can relate to.”
McDavid prepares to face off against his idol and fellow Canadian Sidney Crosby
Soft-spoken and approachable, McDavid exudes a maturity beyond his years - a quality which has already made him an ideal spokesperson for a number of companies. His existing sponsorship portfolio includes CIBC, the financial institution of which his entire family are customers, as well as nutrition specialists BioSteel, whose products McDavid has been using throughout his rise through the league system. He is also part of CCM Hockey’s high-profile stable of players, and it has taken him only three years to become the cover star of the NHL’s EA Sports video game series.
But while McDavid might be one of the most famous faces in the NHL, his commercial team are conscious that the league’s players have often struggled to generate the same exposure as their counterparts in basketball, football and baseball. The most marketable names are the rare few who manage to transcend ice hockey into mainstream sports consciousness, and a lot of focus has now turned towards transforming McDavid into one of the sport’s rare global stars.
“I think it’s an evolving process with him,” explains Jackson. “We try to take a holistic approach and authentic approach where he’s involved with a brand that has meaning for him. One of the things that we’re trying to do is to make his brand more of a global one with reach outside of the hockey sphere, where he’s known outside of that world through cool collaborations with athletes from other sports, that kind of thing.”
I guess it’s just a natural evolution that once you get to the NHL and become part of your team’s city and community, you get noticed more and more is expected of you.
That international push will be aided by sports marketing and talent management giant Wasserman, which in March acquired an equity stake in Orr Hockey Group to become a major player in the sport. Wasserman already has a large NBA and MLB player representation practice and also represents some NFL players, and Jackson says the tie-up will bring a lot of capabilities that Orr Hockey Group doesn’t already have in-house, including the ability to create crossover content which will be key to helping McDavid reach new audiences.
“That’s where we’re really at in our strategic plan with him, to have more of a say in the content so we can prove more about ourselves,” says Jackson. “One of the key things in our decision to partner with Wasserman was based on the fact that they’re one of the world leaders. There’s a lot of things that work together that we didn’t have previously that will allow us to be able to do that kind of thing where we cross-pollinate and do more unique activations.”
EA Sports unveils McDavid as the cover star of its NHL 18 video game
Jackson adds that – as he does with all of his clients – he’s regularly reminding McDavid of the need to build an affinity with his fans by remaining active on social media. That particular notion was publicly echoed recently by New Jersey Devils left winger Taylor Hall, who called for NHL players to show more personality across platforms such as Twitter to help grow the sport.
McDavid, for one, boasts nearly 650,000 followers on Instagram, but – at the time of writing - has posted just six times on the platform since the Oilers’ last game in April. Jackson admits that social media strategy is something McDavid is still figuring out.
“We all know for the star players of the past - or even for someone like Crosby - there was no social media, so they didn’t have to deal with any of those things,” says Jackson. “The players who are coming in now have to deal with that whole universe, and Connor – for lack of a better term – is finding his voice there. He’s finding his comfort level with a cross between posting personal stuff that fans relate to and like to see and posting stuff for his corporate partners, and that’s evolving.
“Again, with the help of Wasserman and their digital and creative team and their analytics department, that’s part of what we’re trying to do, but it all comes down to his comfort level. We can tell him, ‘this is what you should be doing to optimise all this for your partners,’ but at the end of the day, if he’s not comfortable with it we’re not going to make him do it.”
One of the things that we’re trying to do is to make his brand more of a global one with reach outside of the hockey sphere, where he’s known outside of that world through cool collaborations with athletes from other sports
There remains, however, an important balance to be struck between McDavid’s off-ice commitments and maintaining his excellence within the confines of the rink, especially now that the demand for his time is only going to grow. Posing for pictures, signing autographs, attending events and shooting commercials for sponsors is all well and good, but only when it doesn’t become detrimental to the player’s performance.
“We’ve already determined that we’re probably at a point where if anything we’re going to reduce the amount of time that he’s committed to going forward, which means new deals will have different terms of time obligations,” says Jackson.
“I don’t know what the magic number is but we’ve already identified that there is a limit and we’re not going to go beyond that because he needs to not only be able to train and focus in-season, but also in the off-season he needs to be able to do the things he needs to do to prepare for the next season. He also needs to have some downtime with his friends, time with his family, and ultimately enjoy being a 21-year-old kid.”
Fans swarm McDavid at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas
McDavid is also well aware that he will only remain relevant to fans and brands for as long as he is performing well for the Oilers. The NHL’s most memorable men are those who have led their teams to championships, and while McDavid has already picked up a host of individual accolades, he acknowledges that winning Stanley Cups and Olympic medals – should NHL players be permitted to play at future Games – will ultimately determine his standing within the sport.
A recent eight-year, US$100 million contract extension signed with the Oilers ought to give McDavid the platform and added motivation to do just that, and he remains confident that once his goals are achieved, everything else will naturally fall into place.
“My primary focus is always about being the best hockey player and teammate that I can be and my ability to train and prepare is first and foremost,” he says. “Again, my agency team at Orr/Wasserman does a great job in both negotiating and managing my partnership time commitments and I feel like I have a very good balance currently.
“I am always primarily focused on my hockey career but I also really enjoy meeting and talking to interesting people in business and getting their perspective on things. As I get older and become more established, I assume that I will have built some relationships that will provide opportunities on the business side of things and I look forward to that. But right now, I just try and focus on hockey and helping my team have some success.”