Macklin Celebrini, top 2024 draft prospects get first glimpse of life in NHL at Stanley Cup Final

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When Connor McDavid encountered a group of the NHL’s top prospects in a hallway outside the Edmonton Oilers dressing room on Monday, the first thing he wanted to know was how many teams interviewed them during last week’s draft combine and what they thought of the experience.

He could do nothing but chuckle when he heard their response.

“They seem like some great kids,” McDavid said. “They said they had fun at the combine, which we were surprised at.”

With the combine testing and interview period now in the rear-view mirror, this business trip was all about pleasure for Macklin Celebrini, Zeev Buium, Artyom Levshunov and Cayden Lindstrom.

In continuing with an annual tradition that started more than three decades ago, the top prospects in this month’s draft attended Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Oilers and Florida Panthers.

That meant taking in Edmonton’s morning skate at Amerant Bank Arena, shaking hands with several players and touring the visiting locker room. On the way out, the prospects stopped for a long look at the stick rack and were blown away by Leon Draisaitl’s unique blade.

“That was something I wanted to look at,” Buium said. “That was pretty wild. It’s I think the longest blade I’ve ever seen. I have no idea how he uses it, but obviously it works.”

One of the highlights was the five or so minutes McDavid and teammate Evander Kane took to get to know them. They asked where each player was from and is currently playing, and McDavid shared an anecdote from his experience at the 2015 draft combine about the Buffalo Sabres canceling a planned interview with him at the last second.

“It was awesome to talk to him, especially on a big game day,” Celebrini said. “We all really appreciated it.”

“It was really cool,” Buium said. “I didn’t want to seem too weird staring at him for too long. It was very, very special. I’ll remember that for a long time.”

It was, in many ways, a full-circle moment.

McDavid is one of 10 players in this Oilers-Panthers series who once attended the Stanley Cup Final as part of the NHL’s top prospect tour, having shaken hands with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago during their matchup against Tampa Bay in 2015.

For Celebrini, the top-ranked North American skater in the final rankings by NHL Central Scouting, it wasn’t his first time meeting the Oilers superstar. They both attended the BioSteel Camp in Halifax last summer, where the 17-year-old Boston University forward got a taste of what hockey’s highest level feels like.

“I was trying to keep up with those guys,” Celebrini said. “Even in a summer skate, the attention to detail they have and the approach that they have toward getting better was impressive.”

Celebrini is widely expected to be selected No. 1 by the San Jose Sharks at the Las Vegas Sphere on June 28, something the Vancouver-born Celebrini says would be a “dream come true” for a kid who spent part of his childhood in San Francisco because his dad, Rick, works for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

“Of course I’m nervous,” he said. “I’m excited. I have different emotions about it. I’m looking forward to it, though. Like people say, ‘Enjoy it,’ and, ‘It only happens once in your life,’ so I’m really going to try to.”

It’s safe to assume that none of the prospects will ever forget the time they got the chance to go behind the scenes as VIPs at the Stanley Cup Final.

They clowned around like you might expect any teenager to — with Celebrini at one point jumping on stage and sitting behind the microphone used for press conferences and urging Buium, Levshunov and Lindstrom to ask him questions.

Before meeting McDavid, they stopped at his dressing room stall and took a close look at what gear was hanging there. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Stuart Skinner and Connor Brown were among the other Oilers who made a point of introducing themselves.

For young kids with big hockey dreams, it amounted to a surreal whirlwind.

“It’s pretty hard to wrap your head around it,” Buium said. “I think all of us just feel super fortunate to be here and to watch these guys play. When Leon and McDavid stepped on the ice, I was like, ‘I’m going to take a minute.’ It’s pretty special. Just seeing how they prepare.

“This is the Stanley Cup. This is crazy.”

It’s an experience they’ll now work to pay forward somewhere down the line.

“Hopefully in the future I’m playing in the Stanley Cup Final,” Celebrini said. “I really hope so.”

(Photo of Macklin Celebrini: Dave Sandford / Getty Images)

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