Nothing has come easy in the circuitous hockey career of Brett McLean.
Consider McLean was chosen 242nd in the 1997 Entry Draft out of 246 players. That he spent six seasons playing in such hockey outposts as Johnstown, Saint John, Houston, Cleveland, Norfolk and Cincinnati. That he once he played for five different minor league teams over the course of two seasons.
But when asked about those tough years just hours after being signed Sunday as an unrestricted free agent by the Panthers, McLean, sitting by a lake in Cologna, British Columbia, responded, “It was tough at times, but it’s all worth it because it leads to a day like this.”
McLean is exactly the kind of person GM and coach Jacques Martin has identified as fitting the mold of a Panther: a gritty player with a strong work ethic who has the character to push ahead no matter what the obstacles.
“He brings us some grittiness and he’s a responsible player,” Martin said. “And to me what’s interesting about Brett is he seems to be on an upside. He seems to be getting better. He played a key role with Colorado in the second half of the season.”
In fact, in his second season with the Avalanche, McLean scored a career-high 15 goals (20 assists) and was a Plus-8 while spending the final third of the season playing alongside Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny.
But McLean’s road to his 15-goal season and his three-year deal with the Panthers was a long time coming. Born in Comox, British Columbia, the home of Hall of Famer Cam Neely, McLean started playing organized hockey at the age of six. “I had two older brothers,” he recalled. “So it was sort of a rite of passage.”
McLean, 5-11 and 195 pounds, was playing for Kelowna of the Western Hockey League when the Stars drafted him as just six picks from the end of the draft. Over the next six years, McLean bounced around like a pinball, playing in the East Coast, American, Western and International leagues. From 1998-2000, McLean played in Kelowna, Brandon, Cincinnati, Johnstown and Saint John.
“There were some difficult moments,” admitted McLean of his early years. “It’s something while I was going through it was very tough. There were some difficult moments when you question your future in the hockey business.”
When asked if he considered preparing for another career, McLean replied; “No. It wasn’t like that. I knew I was always going to play hockey. My goal was always to play in the National Hockey League. I would never leave hockey. But maybe the NHL, that dream…it wasn’t as bright when I was in the minors because it didn’t seem like it was all that reasistic at the time.”
McLean said he was considering playing in Europe when he signed with the Blackhawks in July of 2002. “That’s when I played in the minors and had a really good year,” said McLean, referring to his 23 goals and 61 points playing for Norfolk of the American Hockey League.
“I had to work in junior and I had to work even harder in the minors to get contracts, just to get minor league contracts,” McLean said. “But I realized (after signing with Chicago) the dream was there and it was attainable again,”
After playing in two games with the Blackhawks in 2002-03, McLean played 76 games with the ‘Hawks the following year while scoring 11 goals. After playing in Sweden during the lockout season, McLean signed with the Avalanche and his career took off.
He didn’t miss a game for Colorado in 2005-06 and scored nine goals and added 31 assists. Despite not spending any time on the power play last season, McLean scored 15 goals and 35 points.
To McLean’s surprise, his play drew the interest of the Panthers as free agency approached.
“In the days leading up (to free agency), I was obviously focused more on Colorado and maybe resigning there,” McLean said. “I thought of other teams and other possibilities but, to be quite honest, Florida wasn’t one of them just due to the fact we don’t play against each other very much and, I thought from their end, they wouldn’t have followed me that closely and wouldn’t know what I was about. So I’m obviously very flattered they watched me.”
And wanted the kid from Comox.
“Our pro scouts were very high on this kid,” Martin said. “He’s a very smart player. He’s not fancy, but he gets the job done. And Brett didn’t get any power play time but scored 15 goals. I think there’s a good upside to this kid and we feel he’ll bring a physical dimension as well.”
McLean said the key to his game is fairly simple.
“The biggest thing for me is I have to play with energy every single shift,” he said. “I have to forecheck extremely hard. That’s where I create my offense. I’m obviously not a big guy, but I take pride in bring strong down low in the offensive zone on cycles.”
Married with a 3-month-old daughter, McLean says he’s excited about moving to South Florida and playing for the Panthers. As for the hard times?
“It all led to this,” McLean said. “It’s very gratifying because of all the hard work I had to go through. I’m looking forward to the next three years. I can bring my family to Florida, make a home here, and really develop with the organization.”