What are the two most important things in life? Family and hockey. At least that's the answer Phil McRae would give.
And to McRae, those two things coincide in more than just a couple of ways.
For as long as the 20-year-old center can remember, he has had just one dream: to play professional hockey. Although he shared that dream with hundreds of thousands of other youngsters at the time, McRae had an advantage.
“I pretty much grew up in the rink,” said McRae of his childhood.
The son of former St. Louis Blues’ enforcer Basil McRae, Phil had a unique connection to the game at a very young age.
“Growing up, it was always a huge advantage because I would get to hang out in NHL locker rooms and around NHL players and get to see what the lifestyle is like,” said McRae.
His father played in parts of 16 professional seasons including 576 NHL games, 112 of which were with St. Louis, and even two games with the Peoria Rivermen (IHL) during the 1994-95 season. Perhaps his “claim to fame” however comes from his cameo appearance with then-teammate Mike Modano in the 1992 release of “The Mighty Ducks.”
“It’s really cool,” said McRae on seeing his father in the film. “He always tells kids he not only played in the NHL, he’s a movie star too.”
Phil was born in Apple Valley, Minn. two years prior to film’s release, while his father played for the Minnesota North Stars. As Basil moved from team to team, Phil and the family stayed right alongside him until they settled in St. Louis where Basil all but finished his career.
The family found a home in Chesterfield, MO, about 25 miles west of St. Louis. At just three years old, Phil became immersed in Blues hockey and this is where his own career would begin.
“I started out playing for the [Chesterfield] Falcons, STL Elite, and then the Triple-A Blues, so I went through the whole St. Louis system,” said McRae. “The whole time, my dad was always there giving me hints and letting me know what I can do better.”
Aside from the family background, McRae had the talent and determination to advance to the next level. At just 16 years old, he joined the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) where he played four seasons with the Plymouth Whalers and the London Knights, a team in which his father is currently a part-owner.
During that span, McRae appeared in 283 games amassing 192 points (76g, 116a) and 242 penalty minutes while helping to capture the 2006-07 OHL regular season championship with London.
Perhaps McRae’s biggest “thrill” however would come during the 2008 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa, Ontario. The youngster from Chesterfield was drafted in the second round, 33rd overall by the team he grew up rooting for.
“I think any kid dreams of playing for their hometown team,” said McRae. “Just growing up in St. Louis, I was a Blues fan my entire life. If there was a team I could have been drafted to, I was definitely thrilled that the Blues picked me.”
Although McRae was ecstatic that he was selected by St. Louis while only a teenager, he calls the experience a “stepping stone”.
“The toughest days are still ahead in order to get to the next level."
Perhaps those days ahead were made a little easier this past summer however. McRae was fortunate enough to live with former Blues forward Keith Tkachuk and his family in preparation for his upcoming first professional hockey season.
“It was really neat to live with [Keith] and see how he prepared and how much he would do for games and stuff,” said McRae. “He would always give me advice and it was really cool to see what he had to say.”
Now, Phil is out to make a name for himself and jump to that next level.
He has not disappointed early in his rookie campaign either. After being assigned to AHL Peoria following Blues’ training camp, McRae leads the Rivermen in goals (11) and is third on the team in points (22) through 32 games.
And although he is happy about where he currently stands and where he came from, McRae is even more excited about the future.
“I like to be proud of the fact that I played in St. Louis,” said McRae reflecting on his younger days. “I went through the whole St. Louis system, but there’s still one step left.”
A step that teammate Ben Bishop, who also played through the entire St. Louis minor hockey system, took just over two years ago when making his NHL debut. A step that McRae may reach sooner rather than later in his promising young career.