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'Loves the game': McDavid, Oilers ready for Stanley Cup final after long journey

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Sherry Bassin headed into the frigid arena alongside his dog, Newman, with one purpose.

The chatter around Connor McDavid — a prodigy making waves across the Greater Toronto Area — was already building.

A longtime Ontario Hockey League executive, Bassin and his four-legged scouting companion had to get an up-close look.

After two shifts, Newman tugged on the leash.

"He was telling me, 'Let's get out of here, we've seen enough," Bassin joked in an interview this week.

They stuck around for all three periods to watch the ultra-talented, baby-faced McDavid's magical feet and hands dazzle onlookers. The Newmarket, Ont., product had demonstrated long before the final buzzer there was something special happening.

And it wasn't just between the whistles.

"His will to prepare, his commitment to be as good as he can possibly be, has always been there," Bassin added. "He won't accept anything else."

McDavid went on to star in the OHL with Bassin's Erie Otters after he was granted exceptional status at age 15 before being made the slam-dunk No. 1 pick at the 2015 NHL draft by the Edmonton Oilers.

After nine roller-coaster professional seasons, the 27-year-old superstar now sits four wins from the sport's ultimate goal with his team set to open the Stanley Cup final Saturday against the Florida Panthers.

McDavid's path has been both straightforward and winding, especially since arriving in Alberta. Personal success — five scoring titles and three MVP nods top a long list of accolades — hasn't always matched team success.

The current campaign was no different. The Oilers, who made the Western Conference final in 2022 and the second round last spring, were a well-documented 3-9-1 in November when Kris Knoblauch took over as head coach.

Edmonton started its slow climb from 31st in the standings and then shot up the ledger thanks to a 16-game winning streak. The Oilers made the playoffs as the Pacific Division's No. 2 seed before besting the Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars.

McDavid set the tone through it all.

"Bit of a bumpy road," Edmonton's captain, who leads the post-season with an outrageous 31 points in 18 games, said after scoring the opener in Sunday's series-clinching win over Dallas. "The group has always stuck with it, and we've always believed in ourselves."

Despite the ugly record back in the fall, Bassin felt the same.

"No question it was going to turn around — the issue was how much," said the 84-year-old, who was GM and part-owner in Erie. "(McDavid) wasn't gonna allow it as a leader. There's a difference between loving to play and loving the game.

"He loves the game."

Bassin, whose hockey career started in the 1970s, credits McDavid's upbringing coupled with incredible baseline talent.

"A product of an environment that was goal-oriented," Bassin said. "He's his harshest critic."

Bassin remembers monitoring study hall with the Otters' high-school-aged players. There were always a few teenagers chatting when their noses should have been in the books.

Not McDavid.

"Very mature," Bassin said. "He'd be over in the corner getting his lessons done. Had that inner drive, no matter what he did."

The on-ice ability, meanwhile, was obvious. The work got McDavid where he expected to be.

"He didn't do it just by hope," Bassin added. "He wasn't hoping to be the best."

Bassin recalled swinging by the centre's house a season or two after he turned pro. McDavid had already gone through a gruelling workout and was now on Rollerblades hours later — again drenched in sweat.

"Perspiring like crazy," Bassin said. "He goes, 'Bass, my shot's gotta get better.'"

Already a lightning-quick setup man, McDavid went on to win the Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal-scorer a few years later.

"Everybody's got a will to win," Bassin said. "It's the will to prepare to win. He's all-in."

McDavid, who never misses Bassin's charity golf tournament, and his former GM remain close. Bassin fired off a message in the aftermath of Edmonton securing its place in the final.

"Sent me a lovely note back," he said. "He's family."

Bassin has found himself pacing these last few months whenever the Oilers are on TV — much like the steps he wore into the floor watching McDavid in junior.

"I live and die every moment," Bassin said. "Sometimes when I'm over on one edge of the room and they score, I think I should never leave that area."

McDavid seems to have added a superstition of his own after appearing to wear the same suit ahead of Games 4, 5 and 6 — all victories — against Dallas.

Bassin, however, knows better than to believe the jaw-dropping exploits of the kid who first wowed him all those years ago have anything to do with luck.

"I don't know how often I've heard people go to me, 'Did you see that?'" he said.

"My reply's always the same: 'I've seen it many times.'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2024.