July 20th, 2024

Oil Country: Newmarket residents proud of homegrown Oilers star Connor McDavid

By Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press on June 12, 2024.

Framed team photos are on display in the hallway at Clearmeadow Public School in Newmarket, Ont. on Wednesday June 12, 2024. Pictures that feature former student Connor McDavid — now a star forward with the Edmonton Oilers — have matching orange balloons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Gregory Strong

NEWMARKET, Ont. – A small trophy in Michaela McKeown’s classroom at Clearmeadow Public School serves as a reminder for students of what’s at stake in the annual floor hockey competition in the facility’s gymnasium.

Knowing that a homegrown NHL superstar won it on several occasions only adds to the allure.

McKeown, who has organized the event for students in Grades 3-5 at the Newmarket, Ont., school for almost two decades, said former pupil and current Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid – a tween at the time – used to dominate games on the gym floor.

Already a minor hockey sensation, McDavid would work the foam puck with his foam stick like it was on a string. What really stood out to McKeown, though, was the humility and team-first mentality he displayed at a young age.

Rather than accept the trophy from McKeown after guiding his Grade 5 squad to victory, she recalled how McDavid raised his hands in the air before pointing that it should instead be given to his jubilant teammates beside him.

“We already knew that he was special,” McKeown said Wednesday. “But at that moment I realized that this was somebody exceptional and somebody who was going to really do some exceptional things.”

McDavid, a three-time winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, went on to do just that. Now he’s four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time.

The Oilers will host the Panthers in Game 3 on Thursday night after dropping the first two games of the best-of-seven series in Florida.

“I hope everybody in Canada is cheering for the Canadian team, but certainly here in Newmarket, there’s no question,” said Newmarket Mayor John Taylor. “We’re cheering for the Canadian team and most of all we’re cheering for Connor McDavid.”

McDavid was a prodigy during his formative years in this town of 90,000, located about 50 kilometres north of downtown Toronto.

He was a standout player with the local York Simcoe Express as a youngster and later excelled with the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters and Canadian world junior team.

Drafted first overall by Edmonton in 2015, many hockey observers consider him the greatest player in the sport right now.

Ryan Gardner, the current coach of York Simcoe’s under-12 side, sometimes helps out when McDavid and other elite players train in the summer with former NHL star Gary Roberts at St. Andrew’s College in nearby Aurora, Ont.

“He’s the hardest on the track and he’s first out on the ice,” Gardner said of the Oilers forward. “He’s moving 100 miles an hour every drill he does. I wish every kid was like that. I think that’s a talent in itself, how hard (he works) and how much he puts into every exercise and every drill he does.

“Just being a professional and he’s obviously a great person too, polite and kind to everybody. I just think the intensity that he pushes in every facet of his game – if it’s on the ice or off the ice – it’s incredible for the level that he’s at.”

At Clearmeadow Public School, McDavid jerseys with the No. 97 on the back are a common sight.

A framed picture of McDavid in his world junior uniform is in a showcase near the main office. Down the hall, small orange balloons are pinned beside old team photos of McDavid with his former classmates.

“He was just a very quiet kid,” McKeown said. “He didn’t say anything about how good he was. But everybody would talk about how they would watch him on his driveway and on his Rollerblades in the neighbourhood, always with a hockey stick in his hand and always practising. So people knew.”

His legend has only grown over the years as he piled up points in the NHL. A large banner hangs in “Connor McDavid Square” near the town’s main drag and local viewing parties are scheduled for every game in the final.

A splash pad runs in the summer months in that Riverwalk Commons area. It’s transformed into a skating rink in the winter.

“Sometimes he’ll just show up at the outdoor rink and say hi to the kids,” said Taylor, who noted McDavid has been involved in a number of community efforts over the years. “It’s a powerful thing.

“I think it really inspires a lot of young people to try harder, to work harder at everything they do and to give back.”

McDavid had a 132-point campaign (32-100) this past season and has maintained that strong pace in the playoffs. He leads all players with 32 points (5-27) over 20 playoff games this spring.

“You hear about famous people and the accomplishments they’ve made and so on,” McKeown said. “It’s a very different feeling when it’s someone who’s so close to you, even if you don’t know them personally. It’s actually a little bit surreal.

“You realize that a regular person can accomplish great things. And the impact for the community I think is just pride, and knowing that somebody so close can make it so far I think is an inspiration for many students and adults alike.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2024.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on X.

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