Roland McKeown (right) with fellow rookie Sam Bennett (Ian MacAlpine, Kingston Whig-Standard, courtesy Kingston …
Roland McKeown recently got a sneak peek at what could be out there for him in hockey, at least in good time.
Already seeming mature beyond his years, the Kingston Frontenacs defenceman got a jolt of confidence last month when he attended a prospect camp in Los Angeles held by CAA, whose young hockey clients include top 2013 NHL draft prospects Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones. It was a jump up from what McKeown, who was the No. 2 selection in the Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft after his minor-hockey teammate Connor McDavid, was used to from minor hockey.
"My speed matched up well and it wasn't a big problem," says McKeown, who got thrill out facing the Halifax Mooseheads' MacKinnon in a 3-in-3 game. "It was good to get some exposure to guys who play in that league. It gives you a lot of incentive to get going and know you can be that high. If you work hard, maybe you get an opportunity, because they didn't get it all from natural ability."
The Listowel, Ont., native emulates the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty. Frontenacs GM Doug Gilmour, who was a teammate of Scott Niedermayer during his Hockey Hall of Fame playing career, has also likened McKeown to a right-handed version of the legendary defenceman. McKeown's offensive awareness is complemented by decent size at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds.
McKeown is at the head of a Frontenacs rookie class which could be the foundation for a turnaround. Drafting current London Knights star Max Domi in 2011 and dealing his playing rights and also going through a 19-win rebuilding season led to Kingston having four of the first 24 picks in April's OHL priority selection draft. Gilmour's choices included McKeown's Toronto Marlboros midget teammate Sam Bennett and toolsy defenceman Dylan DiPerna.
There is that saying the future never comes for franchises which always talk about building for the future. McKeown knows the Fronts will be young during Year 2 of head coach Todd Gill's tenure, but believes standards have to be set to turn around the longest-running OHL franchise which has yet to reach the league final.
"There is no denying that we're young but you can't always rely on saying, 'oh, we're going to have time to build because we're young,' " he says. "You have to make immediate impacts. It's not going to be a rush, but you can't always rely on patience and 'oh, it will happen someday.' I'm expecting us to be good this year."
McKeown noted that turning around a franchise would be more satisfying than helping keep a traditional power at the top of the OHL.
"Going to a big powerhouse, to me you don't have a lot to gain. They've been there and done that. Going to a place like Kingston and building it sounds like a lot more fun. There's always great potential in an organization.
"Windsor is considered a powerhouse now, but that wasn't the case 5-6 years ago."
The Frontenacs had a No. 20 jersey ready for McKeown on draft day. It's easy to assume that represents his Jan. 20 birthday. It turns out it actually goes back to his minor hockey days, before he and his parents Maureen and Neil decamped to Toronto to help his playing prospects.
"In minor atom I going for 14 and a I lost a coin flip," McKeown says. "Then I lost a coin toss for 16 and another for 19 and it was the last number, so I was stuck with it. It is my birthday, so it fits me."
1. How are you approaching this first season in Kingston?
"I'm going to try to bring confidence and bring what my specialty is to the team, play offence and chip in on the power play and work my way into the OHL. Know the defensive aspects of the game and learn as much as they can. I don't expect to go in being a know-it-all about the next level. You have to earn it. Nothing should be given to you.
" ... It comes down to working hard in practice and believing you have the right to be there. Confidence isn't impossible to get. It takes about 10 games to get it. I don't expect it to be easy, playing against 20-year-olds, but I'm looking forward to the challenge."
2. When you are 16 there probably isn't any skill you should neglect, but aside from improving your skating and strength, what is a specific part of your game which needs to improve?
"I can't stress confidence enough because it's such a big part of my game... Game by game, shift by shift, you expect to gain a sense of comfort. That really helps me personally because it gives me a sense of when to jump up offensively, when to get back on defence, do my thing that has made me successful over the years."
3. How did moving from Listowel, i.e. small-town Ontario, to Toronto when you were a young teen help you mature?'
"Going to the city from a small town such as Listowel was different, but I was lucky to live in a nice neighbourhood. It helped me mature because you grow up that much more quickly. You're in a big city and there's not that many people watching you to know what you're doing, so you have to be responsible. You're also dealing with being away from home, so it's good that way for [preparing for] going to the OHL.
"The exposure was great. I can't thank the Marlie organization enough and Huron-Perth was so good to me as well. Growing up and having good minor hockey teams is something you have to cherish and can't take for granted. The Marlies and the Lakers really showed me that."
4. Outside of family, who has had the greatest effect on you in hockey?
"My coach, Ken Strong, this year was great. He taught me a lot about the game. Brian McDavid [father of the Erie Otters' No. 1 overall pick, Connor McDavid] was a great teacher of the game. I've had a lot of support over the years, coaches and teachers like Ray Petrie in Listowel [his Grade 8 teacher], people whom you know there are there for and want to see you succeed. I think it's a major part of being a hockey player, having good relationships with people on many different levels in the game."
5. If there was no hockey at all, like it was never invented, what sport would you like to play?
"I'd say basketball. I've never taken it up, but if there was no hockey, it seems like it would be a fun sport to play. It takes so much athleticism. Seeing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, how they can dominate on the court, I think it's pretty special."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet .
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