When a youngster laces up the blades in the Western Hockey League, it can be easy for those not familiar with the game to assume a future as a professional hockey player is immediately around the corner.
The reality is really far from that assumption.
Research suggests perhaps four- or five-percent of players in junior hockey might eventually get drafted or play in a National Hockey League game. That’s not a huge number.
But that doesn’t mean hard work cannot pay off. Rather, the skill and personal development associated with playing in the WHL can certainly load the springboard.
Nick McCarry of the Medicine Hat Tigers is one such player. The 19-year-old forward is approaching a nifty personal milestone. McCarry, who was not selected in either the WHL Bantam Draft or the NHL Draft, is four starts away from playing his 100th game in the Dub.
“It’ll be really satisfying to get to that 100th game,” McCarry said during a Zoom media availability with DUBNetwork. “I’m not saying that not many people get there, but there’s quite a few people that aren’t drafted and come in and have good careers.
“I’m hoping to have one of those and I’ll do whatever I can.”
When McCarry was a member of the Calgary North Stars, it was his teammates Eric Van Impe (Spokane), Brayden Tracy (Moose Jaw), Blake Stevenson (Tri City) and Ethan Rowland (Red Deer) selected at the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.
Tracey, now with the Victoria Royals, has signed an entry-level contract with the Anaheim Ducks. Stevenson is now in Saskatoon, Rowland continues to toil for the Rebels and Van Impe landed in Medicine Hat when the Tigers and Chiefs made a deal early in the 2017-18 season.
Being passed over on draft day can be a tough pill to swallow for any player. That DUB-snub in 2016 did not sit well with McCarry, who at the time was considered an undersized forward.
“I was playing Bantam AA at that time and I didn’t make the Alberta Cup or anything like that,” McCarry said. “Yeh, no offers or anything.
“But that summer, I just had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to prove people wrong, that hopefully, hard work would pay off. It did, which is really nice.”
There is a saying in sports when an athlete feels they have been overlooked, then perseverance creates an opportunity down the road. For McCarry, he didn’t dodge the query about whether he arrived in Medicine Hat with a ‘chip on his shoulder’.
“Yeh, for sure,” McCarry said. “I just always found that I had to prove people wrong, just trying to make myself better every day. But yeah, there’s always been a bit of chip on my shoulder.”
Undrafted, McCarry was eventually listed by the Tigers.
“I was playing in the Sutter Cup in minor midget AAA,” McCarry said. “We were about to go into the semi-finals when I got a call from Darren Krueger. He told me they were going to list me.”
Tigers assistant coach Joe Frazer likes what he sees in McCarry.
“If you look back to last year, the last month, the last two months, it really started to click for him,” Frazer said. “He was always a great player growing up, just a little bit on the smaller side.
“I think it took him a little bit to get used to the league, the speed, and physicality, but I think once he got used to it, you could kind of see the switch flip at the end of the year.”
When the switch flipped for McCarry, his skill set began to emerge and he became a versatile depth and energy forward. This season, he’s become an even more valuable interchangeable piece of the puzzle in Medicine Hat.
“He’s gotten stronger and quicker,” Frazer said. “He’s one of the fastest guys out there and he’s been really good on the power play. He’s been a huge contributor this season.”
McCarry has been playing alongside Corson Hopwo and Brett Kemp, a trio that has been reliable for the Tigers at both ends of the ice. McCarry is enjoying every minute and knows he has to continue to develop to remain a big part of the forward group.
“I’m playing with great players, which makes it a lot easier out there,” McCarry said. “They’re just two unbelievable players.
“But yeah, every off-season and during the season, I try and work on my skill as much as I can and I just have to get stronger.”
Frazer is also keen on the McCarry, Kemp, Hopwo combination.
“They were really good ever since they were put together,” he said. “All three are veteran guys who know how we want to play. All three have upgrade skill and speed, so it’s a tough line to defend and they’ve been really good for us. Hopefully, they can keep it going.”
For his part, Kemp also likes the line combo – the chemistry. The 21-year-old forward is part of the Tigers overage group and has been a consistent offensive producer in the WHL.
“We all complement each other well,” Kemp said. “I think we all play three different styles of games. I mean, we just go out there and have fun and work hard and hard work can beat skill. We’ve been trying to use our speed a lot, we’re all three quick pretty quick guys. So, our speed is definitely catching teams attention.”
McCarry, it would seem, is content to continue working and playing hard in the WHL. He’s in a good place with the Tigers and has earned his opportunity to play a key role.
Only time will tell where the chips fall.
(Glen Erickson is a long-time freelance writer with ties to the WHL over the past 35 years. He covered the WHL extensively in Kelowna between 2005 and 2019, in addition to four CHL Top Prospects Games and a pair of IIHF World Junior Championships. Erickson provided coverage of Rockets home games for the Kelowna Daily Courier during the 2018-19 season, before relocating to Medicine Hat.)