Hockey Moms: The Heart of the Game features untold stories about the ups and downs of the women who raised hockey players, including Kelly McDavid, mother of NHL superstar Connor McDavid. This excerpt is taken from the chapter “Raising the Best”.
When Connor turned six, his parents asked that he join a competitive team for children one year older. Hockey organizations everywhere face this dilemma with dread. Often the request comes from parents who mistakenly believe that their child is special. Anyone who saw a young Connor McDavid could see that he was different from all the other kids, but that didn’t matter. The answer came back no; the rules are the rules. The McDavids were told that if Connor joined competitive hockey a year early, a seven-year-old would lose his chance to play top-level hockey.
“We get it. But how do you keep developing them when they’re so good?” was Kelly’s concern. The McDavids reached a compromise in a neighboring league. Connor would still play in the house league, but with nine-year-olds. He was so good.
For Kelly and Brian, it was a tough decision. How do you give Connor the best opportunity to develop his obvious gifts without putting him in a situation that could hurt him in other areas? His hockey skills were definitely there. He was still the best player on the ice. When his team needed a goal, he was called upon to score it. It put a lot of pressure on a young boy who was trying to fit in with boys three years his senior. Connor felt the pressure.
“It’s been a tough year,” Kelly says matter-of-factly. Kelly did her best to keep the big picture in view. What she saw in Connor was a young boy capable of so much and wanting so much, who needed a reset. He had talent. He had passion. But dominating against older kids who just didn’t have his talent or motivation wasn’t the best fit.
“What do you want from that?” Kelly asked Connor one day as her son sat on the living room floor, brimming with frustration. For Connor, it was an easy question to answer. Despite his young age, he had already set ambitious goals. He wanted to play in the OHL when he was 15. He wanted to win a Memorial Cup and then become a No. 1 NHL Draft pick. He wanted to win a Stanley Cup and then be named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. To achieve these goals, Connor knew he had to play against better players. He wanted to play competitive hockey whenever humanly possible.
Kelly has spent her life in HR and understood how to motivate people. She could see that Connor served specific purposes well. To get Connor out of his funk that season, Kelly and Connor sat down and charted a path to help him get to where he wanted to be. The two used a piece of paper and created a staircase with Connor’s game dates for the rest of the season on each step. At the top of the stairs was the ultimate goal of the year: to join a competitive AAA hockey team. This piece of paper, with the stairs carefully drawn, was taped to the inside of a closet door where Connor could follow his progress. He would come back from games and cross out a date on one of his stairs, climbing a little closer to where he wanted to be in his hockey career.
Many children would balk at this kind of structure. Kelly says that was exactly what Connor needed. And it worked. “That’s when I realized he needed things broken down. He has set himself colossal goals. He wanted to play representative hockey. He wanted to play in the OHL when he was 15. He wanted to be drafted into the NHL. He had all these grand dreams.
After the end of his last year of hockey in the house league, Connor McDavid tried out for a AAA team. He was seven years old and still a year younger than everyone else in the league. He made the team.
Brian McDavid knew hockey. He already saw something that Kelly still refused to acknowledge: that their young son was special. She never wanted to become one of those parents who believe their child is the next big thing. “Let’s not get excited,” she told her husband. “I’ve seen all these kids everyone talks about all the time. Where did they go? Nowhere. I’ve always been in the spirit, let’s do this for fun. Let’s not get too excited on this subject.
As Connor progressed to competitive hockey, other parents could see how good he was. He could fly on skates. He had a quick and powerful shot. He saw the game differently from other children. The puck always seemed to find him, as he anticipated where it would be. Wayne Gretzky was like that, and Brian McDavid saw that same talent in his son. Along with his skills, there was a supernatural drive that was part of Connor from an early age. He never stopped working on his game. Being good was never going to cut it; Connor McDavid wanted greatness.
“He always wanted to go,” Kelly says. “That was his goal. He was very determined and he was going to get there no matter what.
Kelly had spent much of her time tending to Cameron’s hockey needs while Brian looked after Connor. Often they were at different rinks on the same night. Brian was clearly excited about Connor’s rare abilities. On a night off for Cameron, Kelly sat down and watched Connor play and saw him – her son was really special. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, has everyone seen this?’ I kind of had one of those ‘aha’ moments, like, he’s really good. He was 12. Kelly knew then that Connor had a real shot at living his dreams and succeeding in hockey.
While Brian watched Connor’s hockey development, Kelly was there for the rest of his life. She knew car rides were her best chance to make sure her son stayed grounded. “How did I help him?” I just support it. That’s it. I am there for them. I support them. I talk to him constantly. That’s all we did as we went to and from games and practices. We just talked. It’s just spending time with them and supporting them.
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