Connor McDavid embraces the physical play in pro debut

 

 
 
 
 
Connor McDavid  of the Edmonton Oilers is shadowed by Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton on Sept. 11, 2015.
 

Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers is shadowed by Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton on Sept. 11, 2015.

Photograph by: Shaughn Butts, Edmonton Journal

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Penticton, B.C. — We learned plenty about Connor McDavid in his first game as a pro on Friday during the Young Stars tournament opener for the Oilers.

He’ll go to places where he knows he’s going to get hit. He recognizes them as dangerous areas, and he’s prepared to take some punishment.

It happened Friday night when Vancouver’s 2014 first-round pick Jake Virtanen, who plays like a young Shane Doan, plastered McDavid along the boards early in the first period. Virtanen then spent much of the night looking over his shoulder as the Oilers sought their pound of flesh in retribution.

McDavid doesn’t appear to have the innate sense to avoid getting caught in the train tracks like, say, Wayne Gretzky; or the inclination to shy away from contact. He likes it just fine. However, McDavid was playing against kids pretty much his own age, and the story might be different when the bigger and older NHLers are next on the menu.

“It’s a hockey game. That stuff’s going to happen,” McDavid said of the Virtanen wallop.

The robust 205-pound Virtanen, who plays junior for the Calgary Hitmen and will be on Canada’s world junior team this Christmas if he doesn’t make the Canucks, gave McDavid a stick tap on the kid’s pants after the belt. It was a “sorry you were in my gunsights and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hit you” gesture. They chatted later as they skated up the ice.

“Just hockey talk. We’re playing in a competitive environment,” said McDavid. “I’m OK. No problem. It’s not a big deal.”

Josh Winquist rushed to his defence in the seconds after the Virtanen hit.

“I appreciate that a lot,” said McDavid, who may not play Saturday night against the Calgary Flames. He’s not hurt, but management may just give him a night off and he’ll be back Monday afternoon against the Winnipeg Jets’ prospects.

McDavid had a welt under his left eye after the game, but it had nothing to do with Virtanen’s hit.

“Just a glove in the face on a play in the first period,” said McDavid.

Gerry Fleming, the Oilers’ American Hockey League farm team’s head coach, shrugged off the McDavid mayhem.

“He’s going to have to get used to this. I’m sure this is not going to be the only time it happens and it’s not the first time it’s happened. He’s a good player and guys are going to come after him hard,” said Fleming.

“The kid who hit him, I remember him from the playoffs last spring when he played a couple of games for Utica (Vancouver’s AHL farm team) and he’s a big body. He skates well and the hitting is a big part of his game,” said Fleming. “Whether it was Connor or somebody else, that’s the way Virtanen plays, all the time.”

How will the Oilers balance looking after McDavid, their meal ticket, and not losing their mind and being in the penalty box because they may get carried away with getting even. Big Luke Gazdic, one of the NHL’s best protectors, will ride the range once the real NHL games start, just as Dave Semenko did with Gretzky.

“If people take runs at Connor, he’s going to draw some penalties. The way you make teams pay is on the power play by having a good one, but you also fight fire with fire. You go after the other team’s good guys. It’s the ebb and flow of a game and raises the energy of both teams,” said Fleming, who was a heavyweight fighter as a pro himself.

“It’s a man’s game. It’s going to happen to Connor.”

Mitch Moroz and Darnell Nurse spent a good part of the night in Virtanen’s face.

“Tournaments like this (Young Stars), it gets heated. Everybody’s been holding it in over the summer,” said Nurse, who may see a lot of Virtanen over the next decade in an Edmonton-Vancouver rivalry.

“I thought it necessary to go after him (Virtanen). You don’t like to see any teammate take shots. You try and calm down the situation. That was my goal. You stick up for teammates,” said Nurse.

McDavid, who had a goal and an assist, didn’t think much of his first game, but he’s a hard marker.

“It was alright. I could played better personally,” he said.

Fleming thought he was fine.

“Everybody looks at how dynamic Connor is with the puck, but when you see how away from the puck, he’s sound positionally. He does a lot of good things,” said Fleming.

 
 
 
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Connor McDavid  of the Edmonton Oilers is shadowed by Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton on Sept. 11, 2015.
 

Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers is shadowed by Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton on Sept. 11, 2015.

Photograph by: Shaughn Butts, Edmonton Journal

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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