It has been 91 days since hockey's most exciting young player suffered a serious injury, and elation will be tinged with fear when Connor McDavid returns on Tuesday night. Everyone, including the Edmonton Oilers' prized rookie, will be nervous the first time he takes a jarring hit.
His team has struggled badly in his absence – winning only 14 of 37 games without its No. 1 draft pick – but there was no way that would bring him back before the all-star break. Not at the risk of a surgically repaired collarbone, even if the likelihood of injuring it is no greater now than on that night in November when he crashed into the boards and fractured his left clavicle.
Such is the way with hockey's greatest young players, who come around so rarely that protecting them is paramount. The question now – starting with tonight's meeting with the Columbus Blue Jackets at Rexall Place – is what the Oilers will do when the line between hard play and poor sportsmanship is crossed, and McDavid ends up in someone's crosshairs.
Sidney Crosby was so badly beaten up during his rookie campaign that the Penguins acquired the hulking Georges Laraque as protection. And Wayne Gretzky may not have been as prolific if he had not had a couple of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots in Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley as bodyguards. The Oilers don't have a bodyguard of such pedigree, and are counting on taking a more subtle approach.
"I think the days of the shotgun rider who can barely execute are slipping away," Oilers coach Todd McLellan says. "You have to rely on team toughness. It's not about one guy; it's about the group."
The Canucks' Jake Virtanen rocked McDavid during an exhibition contest between rookies in September, and tempers flared for the rest of the night. And when Vancouver's ornery Alexandre Burrows took a swipe at McDavid in the sixth game of the season, it prompted a swift rebuke from one of the prospect's bulkier teammates. Eric Gryba, a towering defenceman with a bad guy's beard and surly disposition, got in Burrows's face and threatened to do something unneighbourly if it ever happened again.
"Our goal is for everyone to protect their teammates," Gryba said. "We have a locker room full of guys that want to stick up for one another."
McSorley, who amassed 3,381 penalty minutes in his 17-year career, would have opted for a different solution. "I would have skated over to the Canucks bench and told their coach, 'I don't want to do it, but if anyone touches McDavid again, I am going to get one of the Sedins,'" McSorley said. "If you do that, the coach and Daniel and Henrik Sedin would make sure it doesn't happen."
Semenko, regarded among the most fearsome players in NHL history, had 70 fights during his nine-year NHL career. He would have had more, but it was difficult to find takers.
"He was the ultimate deterrent," says Kevin Lowe, a teammate in all seven of Semenko's seasons in Edmonton, and now vice-chair of the Oilers Entertainment Group. "He was so tough nobody wanted to fight him. He did his job about as well as anyone could ever do."
Gretzky so appreciated Semenko's skill as a peacekeeper that he gave him a car once that he won as most valuable player at the all-star game.
"I might have been the best one known for it, but I honestly wasn't alone in protecting Wayne," says Semenko, 58. "If somebody hit him, they were not going to get away with it. There was a fair amount of toughness on that team."
Fondly dubbed Cement Head by Edmonton fans, Semenko joined the team in 1977 when it was still in the World Hockey Association. The WHA folded one year later, after which Edmonton was accepted as part of the merger with the NHL. At that point, the Oilers lost the rights to Semenko to the Minnesota North Stars, the NHL team by whom he was originally drafted, but quickly reacquired him and put him back to work protecting Gretzky.
"There is a common thread among teammates in hockey that is similar to any other walk of life," Semenko said. "If you see someone getting taken advantage of, you step in."
Semenko only recalls retaliating after opposing players took cheap shots at Gretzky a handful of times. He doesn't expect too many opponents to take a run at McDavid. "It might happen occasionally, but not as often as you think," he said.
When it occurs, the Oilers have resolved to share the responsibility of protecting their young gun.
"To a certain extent you have to accept the physical contact," says Andrew Ference, one of the Oilers' captains and a 16-year NHL veteran. "It is the extra stuff you want to dissuade people from doing. The best way to do it is with team toughness, not by having one pugilist. If everyone answers the bell immediately after something happens, that swift reprisal will make a difference."
McDavid shrugged off the hit by Virtanen at the rookie game in Penticton, B.C., on Sept. 11. Gerry Fleming, the head coach of Edmonton's American Hockey League affiliate in Bakersfield, Calif., said it is something McDavid will have to get used to.
"He is a good player, and there are going to be guys that come at him hard," said Fleming, who coached the Oilers' rookies at the Young Stars Classic. "I am not sure it is the first time it has happened, and I am sure it is not going to be the last."
An imposing 6-foot-4 left winger, Luke Gazdic is ready to answer the call when McDavid gets rough treatment.
"My job is to make sure Connor is comfortable on and off the ice," says Gazdic, who befriended the rookie as soon as he arrived for training camp. "It is not a matter of him being untouchable. It would be the same for a lot of good young players on this team. "When he does get hit, we have to let people know we are not going to let them push him around. If they do, there is going to be a price to pay."