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Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters skates with the puck in an OHL game against the London Knights on October 19, 2012 at the Budweiser Gardens in London, Canada. / Claus Andersen, Getty Images

ERIE, Pa. -- The hockey gods have bestowed upon Connor McDavid the sport's daunting "Next Big Thing" label, whether the 16-year-old desires such heavenly recognition or not.

While the sensational Ontario Hockey League 10th-grader is not eligible for the NHL Entry Draft until 2015, the kid with the dimples and mop of light-brown hair has the cognoscenti drooling over an on-ice portfolio that includes skating wizardry, deft passing and a keen eye for the game's finer offensive points.

McDavid's slick skills include what scouts call good old-fashioned "hockey sense" - or when "Wayne Gretzky said the game would slow down for him so he could (anticipate) and see a couple steps ahead," says the teen phenom. "It comes naturally to some people."

And, of course, there are the inevitable comparisons. In this instance, "The Kid" met "El Sid."

"He reminds me of me," the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby tells USA TODAY Sports.

"When you have the best player in the world saying that," McDavid says, "that's just unbelievable."

McDavid has been dubbed the "LeBron James of hockey" for his precocious play. Bobby Orr knows a little something about prodigies. He used to be one. At 14, he became property of the Boston Bruins in 1962. Orr's agency represents McDavid.

"I can remember the first time I saw him," the Hall of Fame defenseman tells USA TODAY Sports. "I walked into a practice at one of our camps and I'm watching this fella with unbelievable skills. I'm thinking, 'Holy crap - who is that?' He was 13."

McDavid wears No. 97 for the Erie Otters - the year he was born. Sound familiar? Crosby wears No. 87 to represent his birth year. His bedroom back home in Newmarket, Ontario, is plastered with Crosby posters. But it is a room the teen rarely has seen since relocating last fall to this blue-collar city where he lives with his billet family near the icy shores of Lake Erie and collects a weekly $50 OHL stipend.

Typically, the 5-11, 175-pound McDavid works out for six hours daily beginning at 9:30 a.m. at Erie Insurance Arena. When not at the rink, or traveling, the teenager takes online high school courses so he can graduate on time in Canada.

Naturally, parents Brian and Kelly McDavid fret about their son and remain in constant contact as he makes an already-difficult transition through adolescence. The OHL's 5½-month regular season ends in mid-March. Teammates, who call him "Dav-o," describe him as determined but polite, quiet and humble - an "incredible guy," says Otters winger Hayden Hodgson.

One who, thus far, eschews the klieg lights. During one drive home back to Ontario, Connor looked at his father and exclaimed, "Dad, do you know what it's like to have four microphones stuck in your face all the time?"

"It's pretty special what he has done so far," says teammate androommate Stephen Harper. "He's going to be a helluva player in two years."

Connor admits, "It was pretty hard in the beginning.

"Hard living away from your family and meeting new people,'' he says. "But it's been a lot of fun at the same time. I wouldn't say I'm alone. (As family), we talk every day. There's texting and Skype. And I have some great friends and teammates."

Past, present, future

To their utter surprise and delight last Sunday, McDavid and two fellow Otters enjoyed a main-course NHL game, sitting alongside Penguins owner Mario Lemieux. Then it was downstairs for hockey dessert.

" There was Crosby sitting in his stall," McDavid dreamily recalls. " It was a little awkward but we both have a passion that brings us together so we found things to talk about."

Afterward, Lemieux, Crosby and McDavid were photographed together.

"They called it the past, the present and the future," says Otters managing partner/general manager Sherry Bassin.

McDavid has big skates to fill in that regard but already he has made quick strides on a single blade. As a 15-year-old, McDavid was granted exceptional-player status by Hockey Canada last year, enabling the Otters to draft him No. 1 overall in April. Only two other players ever have received such permission, including John Tavares of the New York Islanders.

McDavid also considered playing NCAA hockey, possibly at Boston University, but decided his developing skills would be stunted while waiting to attend college.

Instead, he is a leading candidate for OHL Rookie of the Year despite nighly battles against opponents who are mostly 19- or 20-years old. McDavid paces all first-year OHL players in scoring with 54 points in 52 games, including 24 goals. He is also under consideration for selection to Canada's under-18 team in April.

"First guy on the ice for practice, last guy off," Bassin says. "He just loves it. He's like those doctors who can't leave the hospital for 18 hours. He is honing his skills like a top surgeon."

McDavid's father laced skates on him at 2, which is not unusual in Canada.

Brian McDavid claims his son demonstrated hockey acumen at 4 when he began competitive play. "Nine kids would be around the puck and Connor would stand outside the pack as they were whacking away at it, waiting for it to pop out," he says. "And off he would go. That's instinct, right?"

The father realizes what some assume - that he was a hockey dad who relentlessly pushed Connor and older brother Cameron to excel. Sitting next to his son, he relates a story Connor never has heard.

"Just the other day his mum ran into a lady neighbor who had read that Connor said he put pressure on himself (to succeed)," Brian says. "(The neighbor) made the comment that she always thought it was us (as parents) - probably mostly me - putting pressure on Connor."

At one time, the father admits, his wife did admonish her husband: "Brian, get Connor to stop skating on the driveway all the time - he is missing his childhood."

Connor, intently listening to his father, looks unhappy.

"It's a little frustrating to hear," about the neighbor, he says. "My dad would get home from work and say, 'Hey, did you guys shoot pucks today?' If the answer was no, he would be like, 'It's your goal to play (professionally). If you guys don't want to put in the work, then it's not going to happen.' He would always let us choose."

'Is this Connor?'

Practice made perfect puck handling: Hockey scouts say if McDavid was eligible this year, he might challenge two junior stars, defenseman Seth Jones and center Nathan McKinnon, as the NHL's No. 1 overall pick.

"There's only one Sidney Crosby," says Dan Marr, director of Central Scouting for the NHL. "It's an unfair pressure cooker. But Connor is on a path to establish himself as one of the future stars of the National Hockey League. Just how elite a star he will become, time will tell."

Crosby and McDavid share something else. In December, the young player's representatives were negotiating a potential deal with Reebok for a major apparel and equipment endorsement contract, confirmed Brian McDavid. At 17, Crosby signed a similar lucrative contract with the company.

"Some players bring you out of your seat," says Bassin, 73. "When I saw Connor, I jumped out of mine. They just don't come around that often."

The Edmonton Oilers' Sam Gagner, 23, recalls the days of playing junior hockey with Tavares, 22, and sees favorable comparisons beyond sheer skill.

As pre-teen teammates, Gagner remembers Tavares wearing the can't-miss-kid label with aplomb. Last summer, the two buddies had the opportunity to coach McDavid on a bantam-age team. They couldn't help but notice the teenager's equilibrium in dealing with others' expectations.

"I see a lot of similarities in how they handled it - they don't worry about it," Gagner says. "Their focus is on each game; they just want to win. I know first-hand from playing with John that every game there were people in the stands worrying about him becoming the 'Next Big Thing.' He never cared about. I see a lot of that in Connor."

To be sure, many more long bus rides remain in the next two years, along with countless crushing body checks and homesick days. During a recent rough stretch as losses mounted, he says Orr called him.

"He said, 'You know there's another kid who went through (losing a lot), too. You know who that was?'" McDavid says. "I'm thinking, 'Jeez, I have no idea.' He says, 'It was me.' He said it gets better.''

But McDavid has cooled on the ice, his frustration mounting as the Otters languish in last place in the OHL's 10-team Western Conference. He has five goals and one assist in the past 13 games . In that stretch, his plus-minus goal differential is minus-9.

"I don't think he's physically hit a wall, but it's definitely been a taxing year for him," says his father. "He is used to playing a lot. This is a different caliber, the games are longer. The travel is extensive. And the team hasn't had the best year. Connor is very used to winning."

While McDavid is more than competitive skating against older players because of his sheer speed and quickness, he is at a noticeable disadvantage in relative strength.

"I think it's tough for him," says Otters coach Kris Knoblauch. "Connor is a competitor; that's what makes him so special."

If sometimes limited in every-day teenage pursuits. While McDavid can steer the puck better than most, he still cannot legally drive. He recently received his Canadian learner's permit. Last week, he asked a friend if he could drive his car.

"He wasn't too comfortable with that," McDavid says.

"Well, you've never really driven - I wouldn't be comfortable either," says his father.

McDavid, looking glum, says: "It's going to be pretty tough. Dad's driving a Caddy he is proud of. Mom's driving an Audi company car."

"I was chirping my brother for his car, but he says after I talked mean about what I call the 'Silver Bullet,' I can't drive it anymore. It's an old (Volkswagen) Jetta that's falling apart."

In the meantime, he will settle for more pleasant surprises, a la Crosby.

Three weeks ago, McDavid was en route to the movies with a couple of teammates when his cell phone went off with an unfamiliar area code.

"We had the music turned up all the way and I hear (a voice) say, 'Hey, is this Connor?'" McDavid recalls. "I'm like, 'Yeah.' He says, "It's Wayne Gretzky.'"

Later, McDavid tweeted: "Pretty average day until you get a random call and it's Wayne Gretzky on the phone #stunned#WayToCool."

Contributing: Brandon Boyd



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Connor McDavid, 'the LeBron James of Hockey,' is next

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