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Ontario Hockey League Otters, McDavid helping to revive Erie hockey

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 9:54 p.m.

ERIE — Erie Otters majority owner and general manager Sherry Bassin, 74 years young, was outraged during a recent game, banging the glass behind his team's net while attempting to alert referees.

The clock still was running, despite a stoppage of play, and Bassin was incensed. After all, he doesn't want his fans robbed of a second of this season. Erie never has seen anything quite like this.

Led by the young player many in the hockey world are calling “the next Sidney Crosby,” the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League have helped revitalize downtown Erie and have big dreams entering the postseason. Erie begins its playoff run Friday night at home against the Saginaw Spirit.

“We've got a special group of kids here,” Bassin said. “And people have responded to them.”

Hot ticket

Playing in the newly renovated Erie Insurance Arena, the Otters have played before recent crowds nearing 7,000.

It wasn't always this way.

“I was kind of disappointed that there weren't more fans during my first season here,” said 17-year-old Connor McDavid, who likely will be the top pick of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and is the most hyped hockey player since Crosby.

“But I was told that, if we started winning, the crowds would come. And that's exactly what's happened. It's been very exciting around here.”

Starting in December, the Otters started playing before standing room-only sellouts.

They haven't stopped.

“The Otters have always been a source of pride for our city,” Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott told the Tribune-Review. “This year's success has taken that to a new level.”

Restaurants and hotels in Erie have experienced the benefits of the Otters success.

“It's tough to put a number on how much money we've made because of them,” said Kim Millimaci, the manager of The Brewery at Union Station. “But I can tell you that when they play at home, we are packed before games. All you can see is Otters jerseys.”

The mayor is delighted with what he has seen.

“When a team has a season like this,” Sinnott said, “it has an economic impact on the community.”

Star power

Fans attending Otters games haven't seen boring hockey. The Otters possess the OHL's leading scorer (Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Connor Brown, 128 points), its leading goal scorer (Vancouver Canucks prospect Dane Fox, 64 goals) and McDavid, who has 99 points in only 56 games.

“I'd be lying if I said it hasn't been a lot of fun,” Fox said. “I think people like watching us play, and we sure like playing in front of them.”

McDavid is the center of Erie's success. Crosby told the Tribune-Review in 2012 that McDavid “reminds me a lot of myself,” and his performance backs up Crosby's observation. Bassin believes McDavid's behavior off the ice is a key component to Erie's love affair with this team.

“He's great,” Bassin said. “And he's also like other superstars in our game. Mario Lemieux? Great human being. Sidney Crosby? Great human being. And Connor is just like them. He was signing autographs once and the session was over, but he saw a girl in a wheelchair and went out of his way to spend some time with her. That's just who he is.”

The old guard

Bassin, the only general manager the Otters have known, long possessed a vision of this team. His Otters scored an eye-popping 4.7 goals per game this season.

Bassin is good friends with former Penguins coach and general manager Eddie Johnston, who infamously made sure the Penguins were in good shape to draft Mario Lemieux in 1984. He didn't tank games a few seasons back to earn the top pick, but Bassin knew McDavid could change everything.

“I remember when I first saw him play,” Bassin said. “It took about two shifts, and I knew.”

Bassin is a beloved OHL figure. His players make it clear they are playing hard for their suddenly rabid fan base.

They're playing for Bassin, too.

“He's a great person, a great owner,” McDavid said. “Everything this season has been pretty special.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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