McDavid making long-awaited NHL debut amid nerves, hype and curiosity

ST. LOUIS — Connor McDavid has dreamed of playing in the NHL since he was a kid, but there was no tossing and turning on the eve of his big-league debut.

McDavid got a good night’s sleep, and it wasn’t until he woke up in a St. Louis hotel Thursday morning that he let his mind wander. That’s when the nerves kicked in.

“That’s kind of when it hit me that I’ll be playing in my first NHL game,” the Edmonton Oilers’ No. 1 pick said hours before suiting up against the Blues. “That’s when I first realized. Last night I had no problem sleeping, like nothing at all. Just woke up this morning and that was kind of it.”

McDavid enters the league with the nerves of any 18-year-old but unlike other rookies, also carries the weight of being compared to Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky. There’s also a curiosity factor in play that might be the highest of its kind in the history of the sport.

“I did spend some time talking to Sid about his experience and even since then the world has really changed as far as media and social media and that type of stuff,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. “This is a new adventure for everybody involved. I know that Connor has the tools to handle the pressure, and we’ll do everything we can to help him.”

The Newmarket, Ont., native starts his new adventure with Taylor Hall and fellow rookie Anton Slepyshev as his linemates. Hall has been impressed by McDavid’s defensive play so far but cautioned not to make too much of how he comes out of the gate.

“It’s important to remember he’s 18,” Hall said. “I’m 23 and I still have bad games, Sidney Crosby’s the best player in the world, he still has bad games. There’s going to be some trials and some errors, but I think that he’s in a position to succeed, and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow.”

McDavid is almost timidly bashful about the significance of his NHL debut. He might be the only one.

“He’s humble like Gretz,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He’s sincere, very complimentary to existing veteran players in the league and has a healthy respect for the history of the game.”

There’s already respect for McDavid from players who haven’t yet been on the ice against him and just watched his highlights. Blues defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk said he wanted to “make sure that you’re not the first guy getting danced by the young guy.”

Shattenkirk isn’t the only elite defenceman thinking about that.

“When you see highlights, you kind of wonder, ‘What’s this guy going to be like to play against?'” Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks said. “He’s pretty shifty for a young guy, and you just don’t want to get embarrassed by him.”

New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider expects McDavid to be “the real deal” and says he “seems to be that Sidney Crosby-type player.” Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty wants to see for himself.

“I’m excited to play against him,” Doughty said. “I think it’s pretty obvious that no one can take him lightly, so he’s going to come into the league with a big target on his back right off the bat.”

That target is already there. St. Louis captain David Backes talked up his team’s in-your-face, hard-nosed style and assured that whenever McDavid is an opponent, “he’s going to experience that and let’s see how he responds to it.”

McLellan conceded he’s as curious as everyone else to see how McDavid does on a new-look Oilers team that features plenty of fresh faces. McDavid’s baby face is the one everyone will be watching closely not only early on but potentially for the next 15 years.

“He’s one of the most talented guys I’ve ever seen,” centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “In here, we’re not going to put too much pressure on him. He’s 18. He’s going to go out and be a great player, but we’re not expecting him to score a hat trick every night or anything like that.

“We just want him to go play, have fun, and no matter what he does, he’s going to help the team.”

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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press