After a sterling rookie regular season last year, you could forgive Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds forward Jared McCann for expecting more of the same as the playoffs began. But his very first playoff contest came to an abrupt end, knocked out of the playoffs due to a concussion suffered as a result of an open-ice hit by Owen Sound’s Cameron Brace.
And while he was able to get back on the ice fairly quickly, getting back to ‘normal’ took a little longer.
“It didn’t take me very long to start playing. I was really edgy to get back into things — I didn’t like laying around,” he said. “I got back out there as soon as I could. I got cleared, probably three or four weeks after, and I started training as soon as I was cleared.
“The toughest thing to get back is just your confidence. Once you get back out there, it just feels like you’ve lost a bit of edge. I didn’t feel any of that — I came back in my first game in the OHL and I felt pretty OK. Hopefully nothing comes back and I just keep carrying on.”
McCann returned in time to participate in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament during the summer, but his play was not up to its normal standards. He put in extra focused work to try to prevent the next concussion.
“There is definitely that fear about getting hit and getting another concussion,” he said. “But if you feel like you’re going to get another concussion, then you are. All you have to do is focus on getting hit, sucking it up, and it hurts a bit, but you keep playing.
“I really strengthened my neck a lot. A lot of people say it goes through the neck. I’ve done a lot of neck exercises and I feel that it’s helped a lot.”
It’s certainly helped hockey watchers take notice of the 6-foot, 175-pound center. So far this season, he’s been a dominant force on a strong Greyhounds squad, scoring 15 goals and adding 18 assists in 29 games. On a team that lost a lot of veteran leadership and scoring, McCann said he was making a concerted effort to pick up the slack.
“I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself to be better,” he said. “Last year, with [Nick] Cousins and a lot of those guys were able to take a lot of pressure off me. This year, I’ve been put into a bigger role and a bigger perspective. It’s definitely been a lot harder, but I welcome the challenge.”
McCann was rated as an A-level skater by NHL Central Scouting in its November rankings for the 2014 NHL Draft. He’s also been given a first-round draft grade by ISS Hockey. Not that the Stratford, ON native is paying any heed.
“I don’t really pay attention to the rankings too much,” he said. “Obviously it’s an honour to be thought of like that. But I’m going to take it the right way and just say that it’s something that’s going to push me to be better.
“There’s always a little bit of pressure with [the draft process] going on, but I just have to focus on what I can control. Play the game that they want me to play here in Sault Ste. Marie. All I can do is just work hard and everything else will fall into place.”
He’s also got an amazing resource upon whom he can draw experience — a resource that shares his room on the road.
“Yeah, Darnell [Nurse] is my roommate and he’s definitely told me there’s a lot of pressure that comes with being drafted,” McCann said. “He’s one of the hardest-working guys I know. I try to take after him, put my head down, and just keep working.”
As a Stratford native, McCann grew up following players from the London region — no matter how far away they played.
“I’ve always been an L.A. Kings fan. [Jeff] Carter and [Drew] Doughty — they’re pretty good guys to idolize,” he said, adding that the move from Stratford to Sault Ste. Marie wasn’t that challenging in the grand scheme of things.
“Small town/small town. The weather… the weather was a little bit different,” he added, laughing. “It’s a little bit colder and a little bit longer.
“I love the arena. I love the fans. Pretty much everybody comes out. We’ve been playing well, and so far they’ve been behind us, so it’s been great.”
And, of course, the bus rides are much longer.
“Yeah, you make a lot better friends on the bus, that’s for sure,” he added.
McCann repeats the mantra often about only focusing on what he can control. The presence of scouts and the draft pressures are something that he can’t control, so he chooses not to focus on it. In addition, he’s dealing with something else that he had little control over — a growth spurt.
“I really don’t want to focus too much on the draft. I just want to play my game and do what I can control,” he said. “I definitely need to work on the little things in the game, like everyone does. I need to get a lot bigger and stronger.
“I need to more physically grow into my body — I grew a couple of inches, so I need to fill out a little more.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard