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Wide support, contact in practice have Connor McDavid excited to end long absence

Edmonton Oilers rookie phenom Connor McDavid can finally see the light at the end of what at times has been a tunnel, a trying, three-month injury absence soon to be replaced by the joy of playing NHL hockey.

It's now about counting down the days, if not hours, instead of the long weeks that seemed interminable at times while he recovered from a broken collarbone.

"Definitely a lot closer. I'm feeling good," McDavid said over the phone from Bakersfield, California, on Wednesday. "Nothing is set in stone but obviously I'll be back sometime after the all-star break."

Now cleared for contact, the first overall pick in last June's NHL draft is even taking some bumps in practice with Bakersfield, the Edmonton Oilers' AHL farm team, as he readies to clear an important hurdle in his bid to return.

"The whole point of this was kind of to take some contact, I was cleared for contact right before the All-Star break, I didn't have a chance to that with the guys (in Edmonton) so it's a good chance down here to take some bumps and really battle hard and test it out and see how it feels," the teenage phenom said of trip down to Bakersfield during the Oilers' weeklong break.

"I've already taken a few [bumps] down here and I feel pretty good," McDavid added.

Whether he's back for Edmonton's first game after the break, Tuesday versus the Columbus Blue Jackets, or a bit after that, still remains to be seen.

"There's still a process to go through to be cleared to play and I'm going through that now," said McDavid, who turned 19 two weeks ago. "Whether it's Feb. 2 or not, I'm not too sure right now, but obviously it's sometime not too long after the All-Star break."

As the hockey world descends on Nashville this weekend for All-Star festivities, it's the latest reminder for McDavid of what was potentially stolen from him when he suffered a broken collarbone during an awkward end-boards collision against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 3.

He missed a hometown game in Toronto against the Maple Leafs; he missed a game against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins; he missed facing off with fellow rookie star Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres; and, yes, perhaps an All-Star invite after showing the potential for a special season early on with 12 points in 13 games before the injury.

"Obviously that's something that would have been nice but at the end of the day, it's not meant to be this year," said McDavid. "Something to look forward to another year, I guess."

Oh, there should be many All-Star games for this young man.

Part of what McDavid needed to focus on as he patiently waited for his collarbone to heal is that this is just an early blip in what should be a long and fun career. But difficult? Yeah, it's been trying.

"It's been really hard," he said. "But at same time you understand it's a process. It's not the end of the world. There's hopefully a number of years left to play. You just got to look at it that way. It's not the rookie year you dreamed of, but it is what it is."

From having the legendary Bobby Orr in his corner as the head of the agency representing him and providing sound counsel; to his agent Jeff Jackson; to others in his life including his Oilers teammates; to people reaching out from around the hockey world, McDavid has got through it with lots of wonderful support.

"It's been amazing. I'm very lucky to have the people around that I do," McDavid said. "When you get hurt, it's sometimes tough to feel part of the team and all that but the guys in Edmonton have done such a great job of including me and making me feel just as if I was playing. I'm very lucky to have the teammates that I do. And also other people like Bobby and other people that reached out, it's been overwhelming and I'm very lucky."

McDavid also feels the whole Oilers fan base behind him, and that's helped, too. "The Oilers' fans are so passionate. I think everyone knows that. Just from walking down the street and talking to people I know there, they're excited to have me back. It's obviously a great feeling when the fans are behind you and supporting you," McDavid said.

He will return to a last-place team, but McDavid feels the season is not lost yet.

"Yes, we're in last place, but you look at our division, the Pacific, you're never really out of it right now," he said. "Is it an ideal position? No. Is it the end of the world? No. I don't think anyone in our room and our organization feels that it's out of the question. We'll see what happens after the break."

As for his own goals, he's cognizant that returning to game action might not be like hopping back onto a bicycle.

"There's definitely going to be a growth period just like there was at the beginning of the year," McDavid said. "That just comes with getting your timing back and your wind back. I know it's pretty cliché, but all that stuff is a factor."

Oh, but the long wait is almost over. No. 97 is ready to resume his NHL apprenticeship. For the rest of us, that might be just as fun to watch as the playoff races over the second half of the season.