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McNeill determined to make the jump

by Kelsey Peters / Chicago Blackhawks
First-round draft pick Mark McNeill runs a drill during Prospect Camp at Johnny's West on Friday.

Don’t bother asking Blackhawks first round draft pick Mark McNeill about his junior team, the Prince Albert Raiders. He’s not going back there. He’s staying right here in Chicago. Or at least that’s his ambitious plan.

A fresh face from last month’s NHL Entry Draft, McNeill is striving to be a stand-out among the 46 players at Blackhawks Prospect Camp this week. The center is out to prove he’s NHL-ready and hopes to make Chicago his home come fall, ahead of many of his draft classmates.

“Obviously, I want to come here and try to learn and take in as much as possible,” said McNeill. “There are a lot of players out here competing for spots, and I’m here with one mindset: I’m trying to make the Chicago Blackhawks.”

It’s certainly a lofty goal to make it to the NHL at just 18 years old. But that’s not to say it can’t be done. Patrick Kane immediately joined the Blackhawks after being selected first overall in 2007, and defenseman Nick Leddy came into Prospect Camp and Training Camp as a 19-year-old last year and impressed coaches enough to earn a spot on Chicago’s opening night roster.

“That’s what I want to do with my life, I want to be a hockey player,” said McNeill. “I want to play in the NHL. And I want to win the Stanley Cup. This is one more stop along the journey.”

The Edmonton native is a life-long Blackhawks fan, and just 13 days after being drafted by his favorite team with the 18th overall pick, he stepped out onto the ice wearing an Indian Head sweater with his name on the back for the very first time. 

“It’s just the passion the city brings and the way the team plays that made me a Blackhawks fan. Plus, it’s an Original Six team,” said McNeill. “I’ve always been a fan of the logo on the jerseys, and the style of play is something I’m really keen on for sure.”

Everyone here is on the same level. It’s a clean slate. The real work starts now; it has nothing to do with where you were drafted. - Mark McNeill
McNeill is confident, but not cocky, about being able to mesh his style with the current Blackhawks lineup.

“I’m a guy that can fit in a lot of different places,” said McNeill. “I can play top six, I can play bottom six, I can kill penalties, I can play on the power play. I bring that physical presence also that a lot of teams need on their fourth or third line.”

The scouting reports concur with McNeill's personal assessment. The kid can almost do it all: score, fight, play a responsible defensive game, plus bring leadership and character. McNeill led Prince Albert with a career-high 49 assists and ranked second on the team with a career-best 32 goals during the 2010-11 campaign.

But at 6-2 and over 200 pounds, it’s his NHL-ready physique that has created a buzz.

“McNeill is 210 pounds right now, and when you talk to him, he’s determined to make the Blackhawks next year, which is a good attitude to have,” VP/GM Stan Bowman says. “I don’t know that it matters that it’s (the prospects’) first exposure to us; we’re looking at them with a fresh set of eyes. They’re younger, but they may not be that far behind.”

McNeill has been logging major hours in the gym this summer to keep his hefty size in line with his hefty goal, but even he admits there’s room to mature.

“I really want to keep working on my explosiveness, my first three steps, and just all aspects of my game – just keep pushing the limits. That’s what’s going to help me not only make this team, but excel at the next level.”
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