Facing a Phenom: What It Was Like Trying to Stop Connor McDavid in Junior

We spoke to three former OHL goalies about the challenges they faced trying to keep a generational talent like McDavid off the scoresheet.
January 11, 2017, 8:57pm
Photo by Terry Wilson/OHL Images.

Within seconds of the first glimpse of NHL superstar Connor McDavid in action, it's obvious he's incredibly special. For those who have been granted the responsibility of trying to stop the best young player in the world, his abilities are just plain frightening.

The youngest captain in NHL history possesses skating abilities that rank up there (already) with the all-time greats, and his skill with the puck is light years ahead of his peers. As tantalizing as his talent appears on screens and from rink seats afar, the true depth and spectrum of McDavid's genius is most appreciated by those who have competed against him. With 285 points, including 97 goals, in three Ontario Hockey League seasons, McDavid consistently lit up the scoresheet throughout his great junior career, victimizing his fair share of goalies along the way while blossoming into a household name across Canada during his high school years.


Goaltenders—those unfortunate souls often seen picking the puck out of the back of the net at the end of one of McDavid's many viral goal videos—have the best (and worst) view in the building of the superstar. They can offer a perspective to his greatness that many fans or casual observers don't necessarily see, and often neglect to truly appreciate.

Taylor Dupuis, a goalie for Ryerson University and one of three netminders we spoke to for this story, experienced firsthand the hype and circus-like atmosphere surrounding the Oilers' captain prior to a game against the Erie Otters during McDavid's second OHL season.

"I remember one time in Sarnia they showed up and he had a bodyguard, actually a couple of them, just because the attention was so focused on him. Kids would try to break into [Erie's] locker room area just to see him," said Dupuis, a former OHL goalie for the Sudbury Wolves and Sarnia Sting.

McDavid has always possessed game-changing skating ability. Photo by Terry Wilson/OHL Images.

Rolling through small-town Ontario with double bodyguards while doing his best to escape from rabid, burglarizing children may not have been the norm for McDavid throughout his entire three-year OHL career, but the Newmarket, Ontario, native had to deal with the public hype and attention of being the face of junior hockey (and the expectations of leading an NHL franchise in the future) during his teenage years. Funny enough, and what's often hard to remember, is that the soon-to-be 20-year-old has been challenging for best-player-on-the-planet status as a teenager.

A budding star in hockey-mad Canada, McDavid was the third of a special group of players granted exceptional player status before being drafted first overall to Erie in 2012. The designation, formerly granted to NHL All-Stars John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad, allows a 15-year-old player to enter the Canadian Hockey League a year earlier than the standard rookie age of 16. His elite level of play, especially relative to his young age, made facing McDavid in his early OHL years a bittersweet experience.

"I remember thinking, 'Fuck, I just got scored on by a 15-year-old,'" Dupuis said of the first time McDavid buried one past him. "There's obviously a reason he could and did score on me. At the time, though, guys were joking that I just got beat by a bantam-aged hockey player."

For Brodie Barrick, another OHL veteran and current goalie partner of Dupuis' at Ryerson University, it was a little hard not to get caught up in the excitement and hype every time No. 97 stepped on the ice. Trying not to relegate yourself to spectator status, it seems, is one of the most daunting challenges when trying to shut down a talent like McDavid.

"It was exciting, you knew that any time he was on the ice you had to be aware that he was out there because he's very dangerous," Barrick said. "But at the same time, every time he's on the ice you get a little excited to see what kind of things he's going to do out there. Obviously you don't want him to do too much damage against your team, but it's still exciting watching what he's going to do at the same time. He's scary good."

The Oilers' first overall pick in 2015 has some noticeable attributes that make him an absolute nightmare for defenders and goaltenders to deal with. An elite skater both long distances and in tight spaces, McDavid's agility, quickness and break-away speed are his most obvious skill sets. As he moves and shifts so gracefully around the ice, it's easy to become mesmerized and overlook some of his other world-class traits.

For those who saw it firsthand, like former Windsor Spitfire and Barrie Colt goaltender Alex Fotinos, McDavid's patience, vision and hockey sense are all elite facets of his game that allow him to be one of best players in the world, even at such a ridiculously young age.

If McDavid isn't already the world's best player, he's close. Photo by Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

"His speed is obvious, but I would say his patience is the big one that people might not notice so much. Specifically, his patience with the puck—it's scary," Fotinos said.

"When he has the puck on the boards, he could easily use his speed to blow by half the league and take it to the net, which he often did. But a lot of the time, he would just wait, and wait, find where his teammates were, and then make the perfect play, and [the puck] would generally end up in the net. It seemed like he just had a 360 vision of the whole entire ice, and could just stop and slow everything down."


For all the just praise and recognition McDavid gets, there's one area of his game, particularly on the offensive side of the puck, that often gets overlooked by many. McDavid's shooting ability is one of his best and most underrated weapons, and for goalies, it's yet another anxiety-inducing aspect of his game to worry about.

"He actually has a much better shot than he ever gets credit for. He doesn't use [his shot] that much in the NHL or in any of the highlights and stuff, it's usually moreso his speed and his dangles and stuff like that, but it's tough," Barrick said.

"He's got an incredibly quick release, combine his hockey sense and ability to get into scoring areas with a release like that and it makes him a pretty lethal goal scorer."

Scoring and consistently putting up points may be the hardest aspects of the sport to master, but the mark of the truly generational superstars—Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby—is their unique and rare ability to make the players around them better while elevating the play of their entire team on a nightly basis. McDavid has already shown signs of that throughout his young NHL career, and, in junior, he had that same reputation as a dynamic threat who elevated the play of his teammates.

McDavid has somehow lived up to the insane hype, if not exceeded it. Photo by Photo by Terry Wilson/OHL Images

"The offence [ran] through him 100 percent," Dupuis recalled of McDavid's time with Erie. "When he's not scoring, he's setting everybody else up for easy tap-in goals, giving players that are playing with him the chance to get on the score sheet and put up [big] numbers."

For Fotinos, the way in which McDavid operates as a magnet—bringing opponents to him while attracting most of the defensive attention—is the most prominent way he makes life easier for his teammates.


"The way he draws so much attention to himself, it's easy for opponents to forget who else is trailing behind him, and that's where the patience and the skill comes in," he said.

"The fact that he can just outwait people and then make the perfect saucer pass or behind-the-back play or just drop the puck to somebody, resulting in an easy backdoor play or tap-in, it just makes the jobs of those playing with him incredibly simple."

All grateful for the opportunity to face a budding superstar in the early stages of his career, Dupuis, Barrick and Fotinos share another common sentiment—McDavid made them all look foolish. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, they'll never be allowed to forget the role they played in building McDavid's highlight reel.

"I'm sure it's on his highlights all over YouTube. I was with Windsor [Spitfires] and he was in his draft year and I think it was the first game of the season, if I'm not mistaken. He got the puck in the slot and he just made me look so silly—like I was a fish out of water," Fotinos said.

Dupuis is still feeling the sting from the first time McDavid undressed him, but the former Sarnia goaltender prefers to focus on the positives he gained while having the rare opportunity to compete against a player this special.

"It's all over YouTube of course and it was on the TSN top ten for way longer than I would've liked," Dupuis recalled. "He comes down and just makes our D look stupid, put it through our guy's legs, went right around him. It started out as a 1-on-3 and he somehow got a breakaway out of it. Of course, he went back to the side he came from and buried it on me.

"I have also stopped him before, though. Best one, probably a simple poke check on a breakaway, but I'll take it. To be completely honest, that might be the only one, too. Fuck."

That four-letter word just about perfectly sums up what it's like trying to shut down a phenom.