Canes find unexpected star
Mike McKegg had the travel plans all arranged. First a drive to Belleville, Ontario, for two hockey games, then a loop back to Toronto for a third.
That’s a lot of miles but as McKegg said Saturday, “We’re used to that kind of stuff.” The miles and the hours add up quickly when your son plays hockey.
Everything changed late Thursday night when Greg McKegg called his parents. Instead of them going to Belleville for the Charlotte Checkers games, the forward was headed to Raleigh on Friday, an emergency recall by the Carolina Hurricanes from the AHL team and needed in the lineup against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The McKeggs stayed put at home in St. Thomas, Ont., streaming the Canes game, watching as Greg had a goal and assist in a 4-2 win. And beaming when Greg McKegg, in his first NHL game with the Hurricanes, was named the game’s first star.
“We’re really proud of Greg,” Mike McKegg said. “In his five, or six or seven years now he’s been up and down, and he grinds away and he plays hard.”
The word “grind” is one Greg McKegg uses often. Not every player can be a flashy scorer or swift skater. There’s a value in being the kind who does the hard, gritty work, who does his part in helping a team win.
McKegg, 26, was once a big point producer in junior, in the Ontario Hockey League. Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third round in 2010, he had 48 goals and 92 points in 66 games with the Erie Otters in the 2010-11 season. That changed when he began to play professionally, against bigger, stronger players in the American Hockey League, first with the Toronto Marlies.
“There are not too many guys who can step in right away and score at this level or in pro, regardless,” McKegg said. “I think you’ve got to find a way to earn ice time when you’re young. If that’s taking more draws in the D-zone or things like that, you’ve got to find a niche for a team and try to keep doing that each day.”
For the Canes, McKegg’s niche was to provide some high-octane play on a line with Saku Maenalanen and Warren Foegele. Be disruptive, make the Blue Jackets work. The typical fourth-line stuff.
“We just tried to focus on getting pucks deep and grind them down low,” McKegg said. “We were able to wear them down a little and any time we can contribute offensively is obviously key.”
McKegg’s goal came when he hopped over the boards in the second period in a change with Sebastian Aho. Skating to the net, he caught the eye of defenseman Brett Pesce, who gave McKegg a lead pass from the point. McKegg redirected the puck past goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for a 3-0 Canes lead.
Just like that, he had his first NHL goal since scoring for the Pittsburgh Penguins against Vancouver on Nov. 4, 2017. It also was the game-winner.
Soon, the game was over, the Canes had won and McKegg, as the first star, was sitting at the bench for an interview, his voice being heard around the arena.
Things were hopping in St. Thomas.
“Greg’s got a lot of fans around our area here, so there were a lot of texts and good-luck wishes and what-not,” Mike McKegg said. “We were all pretty happy.”
Mike McKegg, 58, once played college hockey at the University of Windsor -- earning the nickname “Kegger” -- and Greg’s older sister, Brittany, played at Plattsburgh (N.Y.) State. “She was called ‘Kegger,’ too,” Mike said. And, of course, Greg.
Greg McKegg made his NHL debut with the Maple Leafs on Feb. 1, 2014. He played four games in all for Toronto, then 46 in two seasons with the Florida Panthers, 15 for the Tampa Bay Lightning and 26 for the Penguins before being traded to the Canes in February 2018 for forward Josh Jooris.
Mike McKegg said his son’s time with the Panthers was invaluable in that then-team captain Derek MacKenzie made an impression on him.
“He told Greg, ‘Listen, if you want to play in the league you have to find a way to contribute,’” he said. “Sometimes you come out of junior hockey and you’ve been doing a lot offensively but now you’re got to find another role. I think that’s what Greg tries to do, just kind of be a versatile type of player.”
It’s not easy staying patient. McKegg had a solid preseason training camp with the Canes but lost out in the numbers game among the forwards. Sent to Charlotte, he saw others get callups -- Maenalanen, Janne Kuokkanen, Clark Bishop -- before a lower-body injury to Bishop on Thursday in Philadelphia left the Canes in need of a fourth-line center. Next man up.
“It’s tough not knowing if the opportunity is ever going to come again,” McKegg said. “At the same time you just try to take it day by day and learn from your past experience and keep grinding it out and keep sticking with it.”
As for his parents, they’ve now made other travel plans. They’re driving to Ottawa, where the Canes face the Senators on Sunday, hoping Greg gets another game.
That’s about 400 miles, each way, from St. Thomas. But they’re used to that stuff.