For Greg McKegg, nothing has necessarily come easy in his hockey career. Â A slow start to his rookie campaign in Erie, followed by a knee injury which threatened the start of his season this past year, McKegg began the year as a winger for the Erie Otters that ISS ranked in the 90’s.
It was something that McKegg couldn’t not think about, no matter how much he tried.
“It’s something you try not to think about too much really, but you can’t help but look. Â It was disappointing to see that for sure, but I think it gives you that edge to work harder and show people that you deserve to be higher up on the list.”
And that is exactly what he did.
Being described by some in the hockey circles as a perennial underdog, McKegg did the only thing he knew how to do. Â Work hard.
And the hard work paid off when Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs selected McKegg 62nd overall in last weekends National Hockey League draft in Los Angeles.
“You know, hearing your name called is a relief, but it’s also a huge thrill.” McKegg said Wednesday night when we spoke by phone. Â “It was a dream come true putting on a Leafs jersey and getting to meet guys like Ron Wilson and Brian Burke was very cool. Â Their whole staff was awesome.”
For McKegg, the draft was special for a number of reasons. Â Obviously there is something to be said for being drafted into the NHL. Â Hearing any team call your name on draft day is a special moment that young players dream about from a very early age. The hope is that the team who calls your name becomes a perfect fit, and with the Toronto Maple Leafs, McKegg thinks he has found just that.
“I really couldn’t ask for anything more. Â I mean it’s an arena that is two hours from my house.” McKegg said, referring to his hometown of St. Thomas, home of NHL’er Joe Thornton (who’s brother actually represents McKegg.) Â “Brian Burke talked to me on the day of the draft, and it sounds like an unbelievable place to play for and I couldn’t have been more happy.”
The draft was a new beginning for McKegg. Â The entrance into the elite fraternity that he had been so driven to accomplish throughout his life in the game of hockey. Â In fact, through many of those times when McKegg was honing his craft and making himself into the player he was today, there were those around him making sacrifices. Â Fathers working overtime. Â Mothers working as a seamstress of sorts, stitching and reworking jerseys that fit just a little too big.
Not to mention the numerous family vacations that were cast aside. Â Free time spent together not on tropical islands or touring big city landmarks. Â Rather, spent in cold arenas with little to no heat, and unforgiving wooden seats.
For McKegg, the draft was a beginning into his future. Â And even though he was the one who’s name was called, and the one who got to don the blue and white jersey, the fact that there are several people around him who deserve a lot of the credit isn’t lost on the humble Erie Otters forward.
When asked what it was like to spend some time before the draft with his family seeing the sights in Los Angeles, as well as having them by his side during the draft itself, McKegg could not hide his enthusiasm.
“Well yeah, they were a big part of me getting drafted. Â It was awesome to be able to share it with my family. Â They were my biggest supporters, so it was really cool to have them there with me.”
The journey to get to Los Angeles, and the Toronto Maple Leafs draft table where he shook hands with his new boss, Brian Burke, wasn’t always an easy one. Â But it was one where McKegg worked as hard as he possibly could to be a better player on the ice, something that was evident to those who had the chance to watch him in Erie.
McKegg was drafted second overall in the OHL draft, behind the future NHL number one pick Taylor Hall. Â And while his first year with the Otters didn’t exactly go as planned-he scored only eight goals and 18 points in 64 games-he was determined to work harder than ever and prove he belonged in the Ontario Hockey League, and to mentioned among those in the draft eligible players.
This past year McKegg racked up the points, and continued his development upwards in terms of his physical play, and also his play without the puck. Â McKegg put up 37 goals and 85 points in 67 games while riding shotgun alongside OHL veterans Zack Torquato and Mike Cazzola to complete what was one of the more effective forward units in the league.
He grew leaps and bounds as a player this past season in Erie. Â And to ask McKegg, he’ll tell you he hasn’t even scraped the surface on the type of player he can become, admitting that there is still plenty of room to grow and improve.
“Yeah you know, I didn’t have the greatest first year, but I really felt I had it in me to put up some numbers in my second year and I really do think I am just getting started.” McKegg said. Â A humble, honest player off the ice, McKegg shows that his confidence on the ice is growing by the year.
“Even when you look at this current year that just ended, I had a bit of a slow start before I picked it up, so I definitely think I have even more to offer in my third year here coming up.”
For McKegg, what he needs to do in order to continue that develop is simple.
“I think basically getting faster and stronger” McKegg said, citing the usual knocks that young prospects get. Â “I’d really like to get my first two steps to be much more explosive, and of course I think you can always work on the defensive side of the game as well.”
Victor Fernandes, writer for the Erie-Times news and GoErie.com has had the chance to watch McKegg closely over the last two seasons, and he likes what he sees.
“What makes him a special player is his work on the defensive end. Even while he struggled as a rookie, he developed into one of the Otters’ top defenders” Fernandes said of the Otters forward. Â “By the end of that season, he was on the ice in key even strength and penalty kill situations. He was reliable, so coaches relied on him.”
McKegg will get ample opportunity to work on those self professed flaws in his game. Â He will likely play a vital role for the Otters next year, under head coach Robbie Ftorek. Â Ftorek, a former NHL bench boss, gets a lot of praise from the young goal scorer.
“I can’t say enough about Robbie” said McKegg of his coach in Erie, an individual who has coached the Bruins, Kings and Devils at the NHL level. Â Ftorek also has several years of experience coaching at the minor league level, which pairs nicely with his pro playing career.
“He has taught me a lot, even in my first year” McKegg continued. Â “He really thinks the defensive side of the game well, being a defensive guy. Â He has also been there, so he knows what it is like up there, and it’s very nice to have someone like that learn from.”
McKegg also credits his peers, teammates and opponents, for making him a better player, saying the Ontario Hockey League is among the best developmental league in the world. Â “You know, you see a lot more guys coming out of the OHL these days.”
“I think it’s an awesome league, and I am really glad I chose that route.” McKegg stated of choosing the Ontario Hockey League as the platform to start his career. Â “I think you see guys really pushing each other to get better. Â The competition in the OHL is so strong, and I think that really helps all of us out.”
Despite only turning 18 earlier this month, McKegg is a player who comes into his third year with the Erie Otters brimming with confidence. Â He can officially call himself an NHL prospect, he can build upon a solid sophomore campaign with the Otters, and he can take the experiences that he has learned in his first two years and apply them to make himself a better player going forward.
Some of those experiences were a little more of an education than others.
McKegg was among the players chosen to represent Canada at the under 18 championship in Belarus this past April, a tournament which saw Canada shellshocked en route to a seventh place finish. Â Although many scouts praised him as one of few Canadian players who “showed up” in the tournament, it was still a bitter, eye opening moment for McKegg.
“Well you know we had a really short time to gel as a group, and we didn’t do it very well. Â It was definitely an experience I learned from that’s for sure” McKegg said, reliving what was one of the lower points of his career. Â “You can’t take any nights off, and we did, and we paid for it in the end.”
For McKegg, the summer will be quite short. Â After a whirlwind week at the NHL draft, McKegg has already began off season workouts, and of course the beginning of the OHL regular season which will run very close to the Maple Leafs prospects camp, as well as the rookie tournament.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
McKegg, for his part, is excited to get on the ice with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and thinks he will be a good fit with the Maple Leafs under systems being implemented by Dallas Eakins, Ron Wilson, and company.
“Yeah you know I have watched a lot of Leafs games, and I think I will fit well into their system as a guy who plays a two-way role, which is so important these days to play well on both sides of the puck.”
McKegg is as versatile as they come. Â He possesses great hands and scoring touch, while at the same time proving to have a keen eye for the defensive aspect of the game. Â He even took spins playing both centre and wing in Erie, something he says wouldn’t be a problem in Toronto either.
“No they (Leafs management) haven’t really talked about it yet” said McKegg, waxing poetic on doing whatever it takes to make the Maple Leafs lineup and have a positive impact when that time comes. Â “I think I have become a real versatile guy through having to play both centre and the wing, and I don’t think it would be a problem if I had to do it in Toronto.”
When I broached the subject of which current NHL player McKegg modeled his game after-a fan submitted question-he took what could be considered a long pause. Â It wasn’t because he wasn’t sure. Â It was the pure humility of McKegg shining through, a down to earth guy who was having problems mentioning his name in the same breath as those who play the game at the highest level.
“I would have to say I model my game after Jonathan Toews” McKegg then said. Â “He is good offensively, which I think is my biggest asset, but a good two way player as well.”
For the Maple Leafs, they feel they have a player who has a chance to be an impact player on the roster a few years down the road. Â McKegg is drawing comparisons to former Erie teammate Ryan O’Reilly, who flew under the radar a bit in his draft year, only to break through in a big way with the Colorado Avalanche this past season.
The Maple Leafs feel they have every reason to believe they have a player who can contribute at the NHL level. Â And with his emphasis on solid, two-way play, combined with his offensive touch, there is no reason to believe that isn’t going to be the case.
And if we have learned anything from Greg McKegg to this point, it is the fact that he seems to be a kid who can do just about anything he sets his mind to.
And when the time is right, the Maple Leafs appear ready to reap the benefits.