Mark McNeill laughs when asked if he's trying to look like another big centre named Mark from Edmonton.
In a level of hockey where "sick flow" of hockey hair is a tonsorial treasure, the Chicago Blackhawks first-rounder and Prince Albert Raiders captain does the smooth-scalp thing. It's not an attempt to look like a 2012 junior hockey analog to Messier or the villain Tom Hardy played in The Dark Knight Rises, although that would fit with P.A.'s pirate crest. It was more of a case of taking what's there, which (excuse the straining of a sportswriting convention) fits in with how McNeill and the Raiders have become the early-season surprise in the Western Hockey League.
"I did all of last year," says McNeill, whose Raiders are a WHL-best 7-0-0-1 heading into a Friday night tilt vs. the Portland Winterhawks. "It's a good look for me, it goes with the shape of my head, There was a receding hairline starting, so I took the whole thing off and never looked back."
The Raiders are willing to look back on the long Saskatchewan winter they had in 2011-12, when they finished dead last in the WHL with 48 points. Their quick start isn't shocking so much as it stands out in contrast to their previous finish. Along with being a year older and wiser, they upgraded throughout the roster, whether it was taking German sensation Leon Draisaitl in the import draft, depending on projected NHL first-rounder Josh Morrissey to lead on the back end or committing to overage goalie Luke Siemens.
"We went into the off-season really hungry and came back this season wanting it that much more," says McNeill, who has 10 points through eight games, second on the Raiders to overage Anthony Bardaro's 11. "In close games, we were finding ways to lose. Now we're developing that hate to lose mentality. After going through what we did last year, I don't think anybody wanted to go through that again. That is sitting in the back of our heads any time we're in a close game."
McNeill had an uneven year after being taken No. 18 overall by the Blackhawks. His point total dipped from 81 to 71. The team's showing and the lack of a post-draft bounce in his numbers didn't disabuse anyone from concluding that he was prone to taking nights off.
"He's the leader of our team, he's a guy who has been through everything with us from age 16 to 19," Raiders coach Steve Young says. "The season he had last year, it wasn't a bad year, but it was a disappointing year for him. I think with going through the draft and signing [with Chicago], all that stuff, I think he put a lot on his shoulders. This year he's come in with less pressure on himself and an attitude that it's just time to play.
"He's got his path where's he headed. He's been drafted. He's been signed. Now it's just a matter of working hard toward it."
In other words, McNeill just had to learn to go with the flow. Keep the horse in front of the cart. Not surprisingly, he agrees with Young's reading.
"I'm a bit older and more mature now," the Edmonton native says. "This is my fourth season in the WHL and I've been through quite a bit. There's definitely been some high and lows with the Raiders. It's bit more relaxed and a bit more comfortable this year. That's what I have to bring to the table night in, night out.
"I just really want to emphasize dominating night in-night out on a consistent basis, trying not to take nights off. I know what I can do, bring all aspects of the game, whether it's offensively or defensively."
It helps that the Raiders are much more balanced than they were last season. They haven't been completely healthy during this roll; Dallas Stars second-rounder Mike Winther missed four games with a sore groin. But they have shared the wealth offensively, which has boosted morale. McNeill noted the entire room got a lift when 18-year-old centre Shane Danyluk, who battled injuries all last season, had a three-point night during a road win in Kootenay.
"That was really good to see," McNeill says. "It was great to see him bounce back."
Eight games is too small a sample to gauge whether the Raiders will play deep into the spring. These are heady days for the Raiders — witness Morrissey tweeting on Thursday that the reason Prince Albert hasn't seen as much snow as his native Calgary "must be because the Raids are so HOT!" — but the season is still young.
"It is different territory and we're excited about where we are, but as a group we know we have our work cut out for us," Young says. "We have to remain focused and grounded. I think we've gained some confidence and now it's a matter of getting our identity more solidified in these next few games. That will give us an idea of where we can end up in the standings at the end of the year."
Meantime, even though he's a signed draft pick affected by the NHL lockout, McNeill has a firm idea of where he fits in the grand scheme.
"I'm definitely here for the year to lead the Raiders," he says.
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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