One’s a little bigger and has a bit more physicality to his game, while the other is slightly smaller, but has a little more offensive flair. One’s more serious and business-like in his approach; the other’s a little more jovial and laissez-faire. The question of which one preferred country and which preferred rock ‘n roll wasn't asked.
While the Chicago Blackhawks' two first-round selections in the 2011 NHL Draft, former Prince Albert Raider Mark McNeill and former Victoriaville Tigre Phillip Danault, may have some differences, they’re intertwined as vital parts of a promising future for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
McNeill was chosen 18th overall with the Blackhawks’ own selection. Danault was selected with the Washington Capitals’ 26th overall selection, which they obtained by dealing Troy Brouwer. And even though the two played on opposite ends of Canada, they’ve grown quite familiar with — and fond of — each other.
“You know, we’re pretty good buddies. We’ve had the chance to room with each other, whether it’s in Rockford or at certain camps — even at Hockey Canada we got a chance to meet each other and get to know each other a little bit,” McNeill explained. “I think that’s important. [Phillip] and some of the other guys at this tournament may be guys that we’re going to be playing with for years down the road, so it’s good to build friendships and get close to your teammates.”
At the 2013 Rookie Tournament, the two have been paired on a line with either Maxim Shalunov or Joakim Nordstrom on the wing. Danault, the line’s centre, and McNeill also have been matched on the Blackhawks penalty kill during so far in the tournament. The native of Victoriaville, QC added that he expects that pair to continue their partnership, at least off the ice, this year.
“We were roomed together last year and for the prospect camps. We were split up for this one, probably for chemistry, you know?” he said. “We are good buddies now; we’re probably going to move in together when we have a chance in Rockford or Chicago, we’ll see.”
And the duo refuses to let friendship get in the way of competing for a job — or vice versa.
“It’s hard, for sure, but we’re not the first to do it,” Danault said. “There’s always a good way to do it — it’s not like we’re bitching at each other or at each other’s backs.
“We are a team, eh? We got drafted by the same team and we’re going to play one day for the same team, so we want to be the best as possible as we can for Chicago.”
McNeill holds a more pragmatic approach.
“At the end of the day, we are competing for jobs,” he said. “ When we’re on the ice, we’re all business and we’re all professional. But once you get off the ice, we’re good buddies and I think that’s the way it should be.”
Both players appeared in a handful of games with Chicago’s AHL farm club in Rockford, IL last season. McNeill said tournaments like this rookie camp, along with the experience the duo had last year following the conclusion of their respective CHL seasons, helps long term.
“You get to meet a lot of the new personnel. You get a chance to go to the AHL and meet a lot of the guys there,” he said. “You get to get familiar with some faces and get familiar with some surroundings.”
That familiarity, McNeill said, is of particular importance to him.
“Technically, this would be my third time going through this, with last year being the lockout and all,” he said. “So to get a chance to play in the AHL, this helps make it a little more comfortable and a little more relaxed. When I am like that, that’s when I’m playing my best.
“It’s just a men’s game. It’s not junior hockey. You’re not playing against teenagers anymore. That’s the main thing. Everyone’s bigger, stronger, and faster.”
Danault said he wasn’t surprised by how the game has been raised, first in Rockford, now at the rookie camp.
“Every time you play in a new league it changes: you play AAA and you make the jump to junior, it’s faster. I played in Rockford a bit last year and it was faster than what I had seen in junior all last year,” he said. “It’s all different: the speed, the execution, it’s all better. Power-play, penalty killing, everybody’s faster and better. I mean [in Rockford] there’s a couple of 40-year-old's playing — they’re men.”
Two years ago, Danault took home the Guy Carbonneau Trophy representing the QMJHL’s top defensive forward. He said while he appreciates the honour, he knows it means nothing now — and to improve his defensive game, he wants to learn from one of the NHL’s best.
“I won in junior, but I haven’t won anything in the NHL yet. [My defensive game] can help me to play in the NHL, for sure,” he said. “Like Jonathan Toews, he’s a defensive player — I want to be that type of player. He’s strong at that type of game and it will be an honour for me to learn from him.”
Both players look at this rookie tournament as an opportunity to show their employer that they’re ready for the next jump. While the players haven’t really been together long enough to have full-scale systems in place, McNeill said there are ample opportunities for players to stand out and benefit from this pre-camp camp.
“It’s trying to get your game going. It’s an opportunity right before camp to play a full-contact game and get some of the rust out because you haven’t played in a game for such a long time,” he said. “It’s also a good opportunity to show some of the staff that you’ve improved over the summer.
“There are some systems in place, but at the end of the day they’re really just looking for hockey sense, how we think the game, and how we position ourselves on the ice.
Danault is much more direct in his goals.
“I want to show Chicago that I’m ready to play in the NHL,” he said. “It will be an honour for me to play for the Stanley Cup champions and I want to win another one with these guys.”
He said he embraces the pressure of being obtained with a pick that was traded for a fan favourite. It’s something he’s used to.
“It’s more an honour than it is pressure. And I live with the pressure,” he said. “I played most of my junior in front of my hometown [in Victoriaville].”
Danault laughed when asked if he was a hometown hero, but quickly embraced the term. And in appreciation for who helped support him on his way to the Blackhawks, he already has plans to give back.
“Yeah, I was a little bit [of a hometown hero]. I played in front of my friends and family,” he said. “Everybody in Victoriaville was on my side there, they wanted the best for me.
“I want to one day, for sure, bring back the Stanley Cup to them — give them a gift.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard