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An Unlikely Road To The NHL

by Staff Writer / New York Islanders

By Jason Lockhart

 
Kurtis McLean
When you think of college hockey powerhouses—schools like Minnesota, Boston University, North Dakota, Boston College and Maine come to mind. Many players have made successful transitions from the college ranks to the NHL. One thing all of the previous schools have in common is that they are Division I––the most competitive of the NCAA divisions.
 
Islanders forward Kurtis McLean also played at a national collegiate powerhouse––Norwich University. However, most hockey fans would have trouble finding McLean’s Alma Mater on a map, let alone know that it’s nestled in central Vermont.
 
Unlike its collegiate counterparts, Norwich sports a Division III hockey team. Its rivals aren’t the University of Vermont or the University of New Hampshire, but schools as in-state rival Middlebury College and Plattsburgh State University.
 
While Norwich can boast two national titles in the past nine seasons, it’s almost impossible to compare it to Division I schools of larger size because the two divisions hardly ever play one another.
 
Few Division III college hockey players have ever gone on to play in the NHL. Guy Hebert may be the most notable, having backstopped the Anaheim Ducks for eight of his 10 seasons in the NHL, after attending Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.
 
Fellow Norwich Cadet Keith Aucoin has spent some time in the NHL the past couple of seasons with Carolina and Washington.
 
But after this week, one more Division III player can be added to that list. McLean was called up from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers to join the Islanders for his first NHL game on January 19 against the Washington Capitals.
 
McLean’s journey from collegiate hockey to the NHL took time––nearly four years. Following the conclusion of his final year at Norwich, McLean played with Richmond of the United Hockey League (UHL), where he recorded three points in four games.
 
“I didn’t really have a clue where I was going to go after college,” said McLean. “I enrolled in the science program thinking that maybe I’d become a chiropractor or a teacher but around my sophomore year I started to feel that I had the chance play semi-pro. Playing hockey in Vermont is very competitive. I was fortunate from my freshman year on, to play a lot of minutes, which is something that I may not have been able to do at the Division I level.”

Following the 2004-05 season, McLean split time between the ECHL and AHL in Pittsburgh’s minor league system. Each year he added to his totals in the AHL, culminating with a 19-point performance in 23 playoffs games in 2007-08.
 
Signed by the Islanders during the summer of 2008, McLean found his niche on the top line in Bridgeport with Trevor Smith and Mike Iggulden. The tandem has been the driving force behind Bridgeport being at or near the top of their division all season long. Through 41 games, McLean was second on the team in scoring with 40 points, earning him his first shot in the NHL.
 
In his first NHL game, McLean played well and generated a number of scoring chances. He totaled 9:13 of ice time and recorded two shots.
 
In his second game, two days later against Anaheim, he improved his performance got his name onto the scoresheet. Busting down the right wing in the first period, McLean received a pass from Nielsen, and proceeded blast a slapshot past goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere for his first NHL goal. He was subsequently named the game’s Second Star.
 
"What a feeling to get the game winner in my second game, with my first goal,” said McLean. “All the guys have been congratulating me and I'm sure my phone's going to be ringing off the hook."
 
All the hard work at Norwich, where he was named National Player of the Year in 2005 to his time in the ECHL and AHL, all finally paid off in the blink of an eye.
 
“I take pride in the fact that I’ve worked my way up to this level,” McLean said. “With my background, I understand that a spot will not just be given to me so I have to work my way up and be ready to take advantage of the opportunities when they come up.”
 
The pride of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, proved through his dedication that even the most unlikely of hockey players can make it to the NHL.
 
“I kind of felt it was going to be my last kick at it before possibly going to Europe,” said McLean. “I went to college late––when I was 20 or 21. At 28, I obviously wish I was a few years younger, so I might have been able to get the call sooner. Now that I'm here, I'm happy I can do what I did tonight, and the last two games. Hopefully there are more games to come.”

Additional reporting by Kimber Auerbach and Tom Liodice

Click here to watch IslandersTV post-game from the Islanders’ win over Anaheim.



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