A hockey player has to do more than rebuild confidence after sustaining a brain injury. Last spring, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds gifted centre Jared McCann had his first OHL post-season cut short after being injured in a collision.
The aftereffects from the layoff might have played into McCann becoming more of a support player rather than an on-ice leader in August at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament, where he helped Canada win the gold medal. Now the speedy centre is enjoying one of the fastest starts among the Ontario league's draft-eligible dandies, with nine points through four games for the 'Hounds. It's a small snapshot of why there's belief the 6-foot, 179-pound Stratford, Ont., native could be one of the first dozen players selected next summer.
"It was definitely a tough time," McCann recalls of his layoff after suffering the brain injury in March, when he was checked in open ice by Owen Sound's Cameron Brace. "The first couple weeks afterward were really painful. After I got through those, I got back on the ice as soon as I could and regained my stamina. It was more of a strength issue, I really focused on strengthening my neck and upper body and that really seemed to help."
McCann scored four goals in the Soo's season opener while helming a solid line with wings both old, overage Andrew Fritsch, and new, as in fellow 17-year-old Brandon Hughes. McCann reveals that he's trying to downplay any urgency to carry the Greyhounds, who have a young team that lost 103-point scorer Nick Cousins and top defencemen Colin Miller and Ryan Sproul to the pro game. That's helped him ward off any anxiety about needing to perform.
"In between periods, I take a deep breath and focus on what I can control," McCann says. "Not worry about the other aspects of the game.
"We have a really young team," the Stratford, Ont., native adds. "We're still learning the basics, we're just learning how to come together in those situations. But I feel like we're doing really well. Personally, I feel like I have started off really well. But I have to be more consistent."
By OHL standards, McCann has upper-echelon speed and vision, with a strong propensity for setting up teammates. That should override any quibbles about his showing at the Hlinka, which is a big start-of-the-year measuring stick for 17-year-olds.
"I went to the under-18 camp and Jared just seemed a little bit rusty there," says 'Hounds GM Kyle Dubas. "He still earned his way on to the team there. He got moved on to the wing. That team has to come together in a very short time [for a four-game tournament, as opposed to six or seven at the world junior].
"Once they set their lines, they're set. I know he got into the fourth-line situation there and didn't produce the numbers that he wanted. A lot of people said he played well defensively. Even through our exhibitions, you could still see some of the rust and that he wasn't sure of himself coming back from injury. As soon as the puck dropped on the regular season, he's been excellent for us and dominant in every regard that we measure."
McCann's 21-goal, 44-point rookie year was good for fourth in scoring among the OHL's true freshmen, counting Erie's Connor McDavid. While his start this fall has turned heads, the young pivot has also set himself apart with his anticipation on the other side of the puck.
"There are very few guys who are as good at backchecking as he is," Dubas adds. "A lot of people will equate that with effort and not skill. But the routes that he takes and the reads that he makes coming back and causing disruptions has been pretty fun to watch."
The Greyhounds, who have started 3-0-0-1, will need McCann's creativity to spark their attack. But the centre is also eager to work with second-year coach Sheldon Keefe and fine-tune his all-around game.
"He's really the type of guy who focuses on the small things in a game," McCann says. "For me, it's more positioning that I need to work on.
"I feel I can do whatever the top skill guys can do, but it's more about being at the right place at the right time."
1. Which NHL player(s) do you closely because his, or their, style of play is what you aspire to do at that level?
"In the NHL, I would say [the Boston Bruins'] Patrice Bergeron. He is two-way dominant player and what he's done in the playoffs shows what a competitor he is. I would say I want to be like him."
2. Apart from family, who is one person you have to thank for your success so far, i.e., "if not for him, I might not be here?"
"I'd have to go back to the beginning in minor hockey with a coach I had, Kelly Higgs. I played triple-A hockey my first year and I was an underage, so I was eight playing atom and everyone else was nine, 10. He really gave me a shot. I was a lot smaller than everyone else and he took a chance at me."
3. Which teammate has helped you out the most in the OHL?
"Definitely ['Hounds right wing] Andrew Fritsch. He's an OA but he works as hard as the younger guys. He helped me out a lot last year with becoming a better player."
4. What has been your favourite road rink in the OHL?
"I would probably say this one [Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa]. I've never been here before. This is a pretty nice rink. We were at U17s, some of us, last year when we made our Ottawa trip."
5. Who is the toughest defenceman you have faced in the league, and no nominating Darnell Nurse [the 'Hounds captain] since you face during practice?
"He's pretty tough, but [Pittsburgh Penguins] prospect Scott Harrington, last year when he was with London, is the one. It was unbelievable what could do to keep his feet moving and maintain good positioning."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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