Twenty-nine players pulled on a Kingston Frontenacs jersey at some point during the 1996-97 Ontario Hockey League season. The Frontenacs were not a great team by any means; they finished with a 25-35-6 record and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Ten of those 29 players were chosen in the NHL’s Entry Draft, including winger Justin Davis and goaltender Curtis Cruickshank, both of whom were Washington Capitals draft choices. Three of the 29 went on to realize their dream of playing in the NHL, but only winger Matt Bradley – now with the Capitals – played more than 30 games in “The Show.”
When that ’96-97 Frontenacs club broke up and went its separate ways, virtually all of the fresh-faced players harbored NHL dreams of varying degrees. Twenty-five of the 29 went on to play professionally either in North America or Europe.
Although some of the Frontenacs from that team have yet to celebrate their 30th birthdays, most have given up the dream of playing in the NHL, or even playing hockey professionally. They’ve started families, taken “real jobs” and put the hockey-playing part of their lives behind them.
Most, but not all. Three of them are still plugging away on this side of the pond. Bradley remains the most notable member of the team. The 29-year-old right wing has played 334 NHL games and is preparing for his seventh season in the league. Defenseman Marc Moro played 30 games in the NHL, but none since 2001-02. He has spent the last five seasons toiling in the AHL.
Then there’s Cail MacLean – the second oldest member of the 1996-97 Kingston club – who’s getting ready for his 11th pro season. MacLean recently signed on for his third consecutive campaign with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays. For a guy who has played in 15 different cities as a pro, being able to call the same town “home” for three straight seasons is quite a luxury. MacLean is a thoughtful and cerebral sort, and he is also one who is very appreciative of the rarity of his situation.
“It’s pretty interesting,” he admits when asked about settling in with the Stingrays. “I like it. We came here because we heard great things about the organization, the coaching staff and Charleston in general. We were not disappointed. Everything has been just like everyone said. It has been great. To be able to spend the summer and sign early and come back this year has been a nice luxury that I haven’t experienced in my ten years for sure.”
A few months younger than Caps captain Chris Clark, MacLean will celebrate his 31st birthday just before the start of the 2007-08 season. The Stingrays’ captain and leader on and off the ice, MacLean is still effective as a player. He totaled 25 goals and 58 points in 60 games with South Carolina last season. But there is more to MacLean than meets the stats. He is a positive influence on the South Carolina roster, most of which is comprised of players much younger than himself.
“I think with my experience that needs to be a given,” states MacLean matter-of-factly. “When you’ve played for a while you need to be a leader and you need to pass on the knowledge that you have accumulated and the experience that you have accumulated. What drives the young players in this league is the goal of making the NHL and reaching the highest level that you can. Eventually I had to admit that to myself when I turned 28 and I was in Hershey sort of on and off during the strike year and then I didn’t get a contract the next year. I realized then that my dream of playing in the NHL wasn’t going to come to fruition. So I reset my goal and thought, ‘While I finish my career and keep playing, what can I do to better myself for when I hang up my skates?’”
You feel for a guy who has worked so hard to attain his dream, only to fall just short. All those nightlong bus rides. All that packing and moving from one city to another. All those nights dressing in cramped locker rooms and playing in dingy arenas. All that perseverance without a sniff of the NHL. But Cail MacLean doesn’t feel sorry for himself and he’s not looking for anyone else’s sympathy, either.
“I really enjoy playing hockey,” he says. “I love the game. Having the opportunity to do that I think is pretty precious, whether you’re making a million dollars a year or $20,000 a year. I always wanted to make the NHL, so that kept me going for a long time. Now I realize that I am winding down. As I look to what I can do after hockey, I’m just going to enjoy this ride and know that this will probably be the best job I ever have.”
While he is enjoying the ride and helping others to enjoy their own rides, MacLean admits that it was difficult for him to come to grips with his NHL dream slipping through his fingers.
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