Greg McKegg attributes early season success in OHL to NHL training camp

By Jason Menard

A little home cooking appears to agree with St. Thomas-born Greg McKegg. Playing in front of friends and family in nearby London, the John Labatt Centre is quickly becoming a place where, despite the increased spotlight of playing at home, the Leafs’ prospect continues to shine.

McKegg starred in the Erie Otters’ recent 5-3 loss to the Knights, being involved in all three goals and continuing his march towards the OHL scoring crown. Ten games into the season, McKegg leads the league with eight goals and 11 assists. Yet this performance is just another in a series of impressive moments of late for the 62nd overall pick in the 2009 NHL entry draft.

The six-foot-tall winger impressed at the Leafs-hosted rookie camp held in September in London. He followed that up by scoring a goal in an NHL preseason game between the Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers on Sept. 23, 2010, also hosted at the John Labatt Centre.

“Any time you get to be on the ice with the caliber of guys that I was on with, it’s an awesome experience and I learned a lot,” McKegg said. “It was just a lot of fun to out out there with those guys, meet new people, and get to learn from that coaching staff.”

The rookie tournament and camp enabled the organization to put in place the foundations of the Leafs’ style and McKegg said he was a rapt student throughout the whole process.

“We learned a few of their systems. I was just trying to soak everything in,” he said. “It’s nice to come back and a lot of our systems are similar, but it’s nice to learn all parts of the game and it was just a great experience.

“Obviously up there it’s a lot faster, a lot stronger, and there’s a lot less time and space. You learn from it. The OHL is still a fast and strong-paced game, so it’s nice to get up there and see what that game level is like.

“I had a good time when I was up there. I got to play alongside a guy like Wayne Primeau. He is such a hard-working guy and such a veteran guy. He talked to me a lot about work ethic and what you have to do. He was just a great guy to learn from.”

Upon his return to Erie, McKegg was named the club’s captain. Head coach Robbie Ftorek said he’s seen an increased level of confidence in his young forward since his return from the NHL camp.

“He’s more vocal. He’s not a real vocal person to begin with, but he’s more vocal right now,” he said. “He’s taking responsibility and he’s also, on the ice, stepping it up so when we need something he’s going to deliver.”

McKegg explained that in addition to applying the education he received at the NHL level, he’s hoping to impart that same knowledge to his teammates.

“You try to bring down some things that you learn up there, like how hard they guys work, how dedicated they are — it’s all about a team up there,” he said. “You know what, I think for me being a leader on this team — it’s my third year with this team — and I’ve been to the NHL camp and I’ve got to show the guys what it’s like up there. I have to show the guys a good example and I think that’s what I’ve got to do this year.

“I think some people think they’re working hard and then they go to that next level and it’s like, ‘Wow, these guy really are monsters up there.’ Everyone on our team is a hard-working guy and I think they’re all dedicated, but when you see something like [the NHL camp], it’s a real eye-opener. You do have to let the guys know what it’s like up there.”

If that refrain sounds familiar, it should. Most players who come back to junior from the NHL camps sing the same tune about now understanding what it takes to compete at the next level. One would think that with the number of players over the years that have returned to junior, the message would already be in place, but Ftorek explained that it’s an unfortunate part of dealing with youth.

“I think they live in a make-believe world, you know? They listen to their parents, they listen to their agents, they listen to the press, they listen to everybody, but until you’ve been there you don’t understand it,” Ftorek added. “Until they experience it, they’re not going to get it and they’re going to make mistakes along the way. If they don’t do their homework, then they’re going to get in trouble at school, right? And then they get in trouble at home when they see their parents. Well, it’s the same thing here. If you don’t prepare off the ice, then when you get on the ice you’re going to get in trouble because you’re not going to be the player that you should be, then you’re going to get reprimanded, then you work harder. Or you go to the next step and you find out, ‘Oh, geez, I didn’t do that — and you do it. And then it all works.

“But you have to be proactive for this stuff and you have to listen to what people are telling you so that you can not have those setbacks.”

McKegg added that he’s appreciative of the situation he’s in playing for Erie. Not only does he have a former NHL player and coach in Robbie Ftorek, but also former NHL netminder Peter Sidorkiewicz is an assistant coach. In looking to avoid the setbacks to which Ftorek referred, he said he realizes he’s lucky to have a pair of mentors like his coaches.

“They’ve been there, they know what it’s like and they know what it takes — they know how to win,” McKegg said. “So it’s definitely a big benefit for us to have two coaches that have been there before and have been through it. It’s just awesome to play for people like that.”

Ftorek added that he’s seen that McKegg has taken those lessons to heart and it’s parlayed into the young forward’s demeanour in all parts of the game.

“It’s a confidence builder for him. I think last year was a great confidence boost for Greg. I think that he saw some of the things that he might have to work on both on-ice and off-ice, how to handle himself both on-ice and off-ice,” Ftorek said. “You don’t know until you get up into the big camp and get into the big dressing room and you rub elbows with the big players and they come up to you and say, ‘No,’ ‘Yes,’ you know. So I think his eyes were opened to a lot of things.

“I know that he’s confident in a lot of areas and not as confident in other ones so I think it was a great experience for him.”

After beginning his OHL career as a second-overall selection in the priority draft, McKegg had a challenge in living up to those lofty expectations. In 64 games in his rookie year, he only accounted for eight goals and 10 assists. Last year, as Ftorek alluded to, McKegg enjoyed a breakthrough campaign. He finished the year with 37 goals and 85 points in 67 games.

And even though his offensive improvement has been substantial, it’s almost paled in comparison to his commitment to the defensive game. In his rookie year, McKegg finished the season minus-13 — third-worst on the club; in his sophomore campaign he improved his plus/minus to plus-18 — third-best on the club, behind Mike Cazzola and Zach Torquato.

This year, the 18-year-old McKegg leads the club in scoring and plus/minus — already reaching a plus-eight level in just 10 games. And that’s a result of an increased focus on two-way play.

“You always set goals for yourself at the start of the season and I want to work on becoming an all-around two-way player has been one of my goals for a while now and I’m working towards developing that,” McKegg said. “The biggest thing right now is just getting faster and getting stronger. You go to the next level and speed is a huge thing, and there are some big guys up there and there’s a lot less time to react, so I think getting stronger and faster will help me.”

Ftorek said he agrees with that assessment, adding that by keeping it simple and playing his game, McKegg has all the tools to find himself in the blue and white in the not-too-distant future.

“He just has to keep getting better in all areas,” Ftorek explained. “And in this upcoming summertime he’s got to have a great training session, and when he gets into camp he has to skate in straight lines instead of skating from side to side.

“If he does that, then he’ll be there.”