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McLean's Hockey Odyssey Makes Stop in Des Moines

Journeyman player will begin his coaching career as an assistant in Iowa this season

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Brett McLean was sitting around his home in Austria last winter, with a constant thought running through his mind. 

For nearly two decades, McLean had travelled North America -- then the globe -- playing professional hockey, but for the first time, thoughts of retiring and heading home started creeping in.

They occurred more and more often, until finally, he could no longer ignore it.

"It wasn't one big moment, but more like a bunch of little moments that added up to one big moment," McLean said. "It was January, February and it just got to the point of, I loved the game and loved everything about it, but it was just time. That kept going through my head, 'It's time.'"

So, at the end of the season, McLean decided he'd had enough of playing professional hockey, ending a career that began in 1999 with the now-defunct Cincinnati Mighty Ducks of the American Hockey League and spanned 19 seasons, 14 teams, seven leagues, five countries and two continents. 

The plan was to pack up his wife, their three young children and all of the belongings they had brought with them to Austria, where McLean played his final two seasons, and head home to Kelowna, British Columbia.

"That's always been our home base," McLean said. "I think it's important to have always had that rock and that place where our family knows we can go to, for, at the very least, a couple of months during the summer. It's a place where their cousins and friends are, so it makes it difficult to leave in August. But they know they'll always be back there in a few months' time."

Home has been a fleeting word to the McLeans during Brett's playing career.

His 10-year-old daughter, Darian, speaks fluent Italian from their time in Switzerland. Five-year-old son Nixon speaks German after spending the past couple of years in Austria. The couple's third child, Nash, was born in 2015 and turns two next month.

His wife, Brenna, has been with him every step of the way, from his time playing junior hockey with the Kelowna Rockets during the mid-1990s through the final decision to end the first chapter of his hockey career and return to North America in search of a second.

"It's not always easy to ask the kids and ask the family to move and set up new schools, new doctors and babysitters and friendships and everything like that," McLean said. "But one of the greatest gifts that I can pass on to my kids is that they've gotten to live in these different cultures. 

"Obviously, it's great that they've got second languages that they're fluent in, but when you only live in North America or you only live in Europe, you don't realize that there are so many different ways and views in the world and different ways to do things. I think that will be a great benefit to them. They've become so adaptive and so tough mentally that they can go into a situation that they're not familiar with and they'll be able to find a solution and find friendships. I really hope that that's one benefit to our life that we've led together as a family." 

That second chapter will begin this fall, as McLean and his family have moved to Des Moines and Brett will serve on Derek Lalonde's staff as an assistant coach. 

Throughout his time as a player, McLean said he never gave much thought to coaching. All he knew was, at the end, he wanted to stay in the game that had given him and his family so much. 

So once he got home, he put together a resume for the first time in his life and sent it out to a few close confidants he had around the NHL. A couple weeks later, he heard back. On the phone was Wild Assistant General Manager Andrew Brunette, a former teammate of McLean for two years with the Colorado Avalanche.

He didn't have a job offer, but he had a job opening, and a chance to interview with Lalonde.

"As I did my research, I got really excited about it," McLean said. "Just preparing for the interview, it lit a fire under me. I really, really wanted this job."

By the time McLean interviewed, Lalonde had already narrowed down his list of potential candidates. He met with McLean and was immediately impressed.

Iowa General Manager Brent Flahr said he "knocked [the interview] out of the park."

"He checked off everything," Lalonde said. "We wanted someone who had an extensive pro career, and someone who had earned their pro career and experienced the ups and downs. Then you meet him, and you see his knowledge of the game, his enthusiasm ... it was an absolute home run."

Few have worked harder to earn what they have than McLean, who spent nearly five full seasons in the minor leagues before playing in his first NHL game with the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 10, 2002.

Between Kelowna and Chicago were stops with Cincinnati, Saint John and Johnstown before he signed a two-year contract with the Wild, where he was assigned to the club's minor-league affiliate in Cleveland in 2000. After moving to Houston in 2001, he played for Norfolk in 2002 and was with the Admirals when he got the call.

To his credit, he only played 40 more games in the AHL over the rest of his career, with 36 of those coming in 2011-12.

In between, he played nearly five full seasons in the NHL with Chicago, Colorado and the Florida Panthers, with a trip to Sweden in between during the lockout in 2004-05.

"I'd like to think I've been through all the experiences these young men are going to go through," McLean said. "Hopefully with some of my experiences and my insight, I can help them deal with these situations and become better players and better people. Then when they do get their chance at the NHL level, they can help the Wild because that's the ultimate goal."

Following the 2008-09 season, where he played in 80 games with the Panthers, McLean decided to go overseas. It was a unique opportunity and one filled with many of the same pressures of playing in North America.

"I was just as excited about playing in Europe," McLean said. "For me, it wasn't necessarily a letdown that I wasn't in the NHL anymore. I knew how good those leagues in Europe were and I knew the opportunity that was there. It was a great life for me and my family for the last eight years.

"I'm very proud of the fact that I was able to play in the NHL as long as I did. But I'm just as proud of my career in Europe and the success I had in Europe. It was a great run."

During his first two seasons, where he played in 84 games for Bern SC in Switzerland, McLean established himself as a quality "import" player. Teams in Europe have limited spots set aside for imports, so the pressure to produce is immense.

"There's a lot of next-man-up mentality there," McLean said. 

He began 2011-12 back in the U.S. with the Rockford IceHogs before finishing the season with Lugano in Switzerland, where he would play the next three full seasons. Two years in Austria capped his long and winding hockey odyssey, which now sets sail for Des Moines.

"I knew it was time [to retire] but I knew I wanted to stay in the game, I just didn't know in what capacity," McLean said. "I don't know if I believe in the whole, 'Everything happens for a reason' thing, but with this opportunity in Iowa, maybe that was the reason."

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