On March 21, 2012, a 15-year-old kid from Newmarket, Ontario became the third-ever player to be granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada to begin playing major junior hockey in the Canadian Hockey League one year earlier than is standard.
A tall, lanky teenager, he hardly had the build or the strength necessary to become successful in the punishing sport of hockey, but it was his pure skill and smarts that had the hockey world standing on edge, calling him the next coming of Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, etc.
The pressure that came with being compared to the likes of such hockey legends could have broken the quiet, shy and sometimes awkward Connor McDavid, but it only seemed to make him stronger, bent on proving himself as an individual rather than a comparable.
And like Gretzky with the Oilers and Crosby on the Penguins, McDavid – albeit in junior hockey – led the miraculous movement to revive a struggling Erie Otters franchise.
An incredibly dismal 2011-12 Ontario Hockey League regular season was made up for big-time when the Otters secured the first overall pick in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection Draft, allowing them to select a generational talent who had just scored 209 points in 88 games during his final midget hockey season.
The Otters would go on to have another down year, this time earning the right to select another elite center in Dylan Strome, second overall at the 2013 draft. The duo would go on to become the most formidable one-two punch in OHL in the not-so-distant future.
The following season (2013-14), former general manager Sherry Bassin finally had himself a winning roster. Then-captain Connor Brown scored 128 points, Dane Fox wasn’t too far behind with 107, and McDavid tallied 99.
Erie’s 2013 CHL Import Draft selection Andre Burakovsky – now a Washington Capitals forward – was a big surprise, putting up 87 points, while trade deadline acquisition Brendan Gaunce provided a boost at the center position while rookie Strome was learning the ropes.
But the back end was incredibly strong, consisting of Adam Pelech, Spencer Abraham, Darren Raddysh, Troy Donnay and newcomer Travis Dermott, while highly-touted goaltender Oscar Dansk stood tall in net. And that made for what appeared to be a top contender in the small Pennsylvania town.
The Otters fell to the eventual OHL champions, the Guelph Storm, in the Western Conference Final, but it was looked back on as a major success. The only problem – they had to re-tool, and they had to do it fast, if they wanted to make it farther in 2014-15.
It was a storied year for the franchise, quite possibly their best ever, with Strome, McDavid and remarkable free agent find Alex DeBrincat scoring 100+ points in the regular season. They added the likes of Nick Baptiste from the Sudbury Wolves as well as Remi Elie and Jake Marchment from the Belleville Bulls to provide depth behind their top scorers, and it paid off in the playoffs.
McDavid, named captain of his OHL club at just 17, put up 49 points in 20 playoff games, causing the hockey world to go absolutely nuts over his incredible feat. But once again, the eventual OHL (and this time, Memorial Cup too) champion was too much for the Otters to handle. The Oshawa Generals advanced, leaving McDavid without a title in what was very clearly his last OHL season.
That marked the end of the Erie Otters as we knew them.
The team that went from last place to first in just a matter of a couple of years. The team that looked like it could maybe stand a chance competing against an NHL club. The team that had a player who left a legacy, and will most likely have no. 97 retired in Erie because of it.
Strome assumed the captaincy in 2015-16 and led his team to a first place finish alongside DeBrincat, Dermott and Taylor Raddysh. But that core was simply not good enough, and the London Knights made quick work of them in the 2016 Western Conference Final.
Sure, the Mitch Marner-led Knights were way more than anyone could handle, but the Otters were supposed to put up the biggest challenge; instead, they failed to win a single game in the series.
And for the third year in a row, they lost to the eventual OHL champion.
In 2016-17, things are going to be drastically different. Most of the players who have contributed to putting Erie back on the map will have departed, save for DeBrincat and Raddysh. Vanya Lodnia will certainly be counted on to play a bigger role, but things will certainly not be the same. The team’s depth has been decimated, as has its star power.
Gone are the days of McDavid making history, Strome winning the CHL scoring title, Connor Brown leading the OHL in points. Gone are the days of exciting trades, where the Otters loaded up in anticipation of a long playoff run.
And most disappointingly, gone are the days where almost 7,000 hockey-crazed fans packed the Erie Insurance Arena with the firm belief that their team had the best shot to win night in and night out.
They may have come up short of their ultimate goal, but it was a spectacular four years.