(EDMONTON) Saturday night, Jake Evans was quietly doing his stretches during the warm-up period at Rogers Place. Quietly, until a voice comes out of his bubble.
“Hey! Big head ! I can’t believe your head is still that big compared to your body! ”
That voice was that of Connor McDavid. The two have known each other as rivals in Toronto minor hockey. McDavid was born in 1997, but due to his great talent he played with the 1996s, the year Evans was born.
“We have mutual friends, we saw each other a few times, but there it must have been six or seven years since I had not seen him and he talks to me about my big head!” Says an amused Evans, at the end some thread. At the time, he had heard that “Big Head ” was my nickname on the team and he always teased me with it. ”
We guess, however, that McDavid had less desire to laugh two hours later. It was his pass that Evans intercepted in the second period, during a power play from the Oilers. Evans then raced off and scored, grabbing his own return.
“When you’re up against Edmonton’s power play, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl… you’re not really trying to score. You just want to neutralize them. To have been so lucky was quite special. ”
It was one of Evans’ few appearances against McDavid on Saturday. Claude Julien mostly relied on Phillip Danault and Nick Suzuki to monitor the best player in the world, a somewhat heavy task for a rookie.
But in another era, skating in McDavid’s panties was precisely Evans’ role. The Canadian rookie believes he has faced McDavid “a good thirty times”. The most recent duel: in 2012 in the final of the OHL Cup, a tournament bringing together the best midget teams in Ontario and a few American clubs.
McDavid was a member of the Toronto Marlies, a team that had two other future NHL first-round picks, Sam Bennett and Josh Ho-Sang. According to data from Elite Prospects, the Oilers captain landed in the final with 18 points… in 6 games!
The Marlies were the big favorites for this final against the Mississauga Rebels. “They were winning 15-0 games, it was crazy,” Evans remembers. We had faced them about eight times during the season, and they had won at least six times, sometimes by five or six goals. ”
For the final, it was Evans who was responsible for watching McDavid.
“Even younger, he was so smart, responsible, and he didn’t cheat,” said Geoff Schomogyi, Mississauga’s head coach at the time. So it wasn’t like we took him aside to tell him he was going to confront McDavid. He just knew that was his role. He neutralized it and he was proud to do so. He’s not as fast as he is – no one is – but he stayed on the right side of the puck. ”
The Rebels ultimately caused the surprise, winning 2-1 in overtime. McDavid got an assist on his team’s lone goal. “One of the favorite games of my life,” Evans tells us.
“It was not an easy task. I know he’s amazing now, but tell yourself he was even better, even more dominant in minor hockey. He just kicked off with the puck and he was skating. I was just trying to make his life difficult. Even if he had a point, I think it was fairly well contained. ”
This is where the fates of Evans and McDavid fell apart.
In the fall of 2012, McDavid arrived in the Ontario Junior League at age 15, by virtue of his status as an exceptional player. After three years of turning water into wine, he was drafted by the Oilers first in 2015 and he already has 474 points in the NHL… at 24 years old.
“I’m still surprised to see him go,” Evans adds. He still does what he did to us when we were young. When he starts skating at full speed, it looks like minor hockey games because he’s so superior. ”
Evans, meanwhile, played the next two seasons in the Junior A league, OJHL, to preserve his NCAA eligibility. In 2014, he joined the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame University, where he spent four years, while obtaining his degree in management.
“Jake has a good hockey head,” describes Geoff Schomogyi. He can see the ice rink well. His weakness was his skating. He remedied it to reach the NHL, but he always had the intelligence. I’m happy for him because he seems to have found a good role in Montreal. ”
It is therefore thanks to this long-term work that, nine years later, Evans ended up playing again on the same ice, in the same league, as the McDavid phenomenon. He’s yet to reach the point where he’s faced regularly at No. 97, but if he continues to progress as a defensive center, who knows?
“At this point, I know a few bad games can get me in trouble. So I work hard and I want to play with the confidence that I am in my place, but without the arrogance of thinking my position is secure.
“We all knew Connor was going to surrender, but it wasn’t so safe for me. We took different paths, we didn’t have the same potential. But it’s pretty cool to be on the ice with the best player in the world. ”
We put it back on Monday evening.