It’s just over two months into the hockey season, but it’s been a busy nine weeks so far for Manitoba Moose defenseman Nathan McIver.
“It’s been up and down – big time,” he said of his season so far. Last month, the 22-year-old played in his first NHL game, but the high of his career was sandwiched between two separate injuries that he’s had to battle back from.
“I thought I had a good camp in Vancouver and got to play a few exhibition games, and then I came back here to Manitoba and was excited to get going,” he said in recalling the journey that has been his 2006-07 season. “Then my first shift of the year, I got a concussion and I missed the next five games. When I came back, I wasn’t playing as well as I would have liked, but then I got a big boost when I got called up to Vancouver and it was great getting to play my first NHL game.
“But then as soon as I got back I got another injury. I had an infection in my foot, so I missed the last five games with that. It was good to get back, though, and now the team looks like they’re starting to turn it around, so things are starting to look better.”
McIver’s injury-riddled campaign serves as a microcosm of the season thus far for the entire Vancouver organization. The injury bug bit the Canucks last month, as half the team’s defense corps went down all at once. Sami Salo, Willie Mitchell, and Rory Fitzpatrick all suffered injuries that knocked them out of the lineup.
It was Fitzpatrick’s hairline ankle fracture that gave McIver his first taste of the NHL. With Yannick Tremblay and Joe Rullier out of the Moose lineup nursing injuries of their own, McIver received word that he would be suiting up for the Canucks.
“Actually, the night before, we had a game against Grand Rapids at home, and I was on my way to the rink,” he said. “Coach [Scott] Arniel called me when I was about halfway to the rink and told me I wasn’t playing that night because I had a flight to Vancouver to catch and I was playing the next night, so it was pretty exciting.”
The Kinkora, Prince Edward Island native made his NHL debut on Nov. 9 against one of the NHL’s premier teams.
“I was pretty nervous. I was really excited too, but I was pretty nervous,” he said. “It was against Anaheim, one of the best teams in the league, so I was a little bit nervous on my first shift. I just wanted to get out there and get that under my belt and take it from there.”
Easing his nerves a bit was the fact that two other rookies were making the jump with him. Fellow rookie Patrick Coulombe had gotten his call-up the day before McIver. Canucks prospect Alex Edler had also been recalled to man the Vancouver blue line with the pair, and with three games of NHL experience behind him, he was the veteran of the trio.
“Me and Patty Coulombe both went up together and got to play our first game,” he said. “Plus, I had played with a lot of those guys last year, with [Kevin] Bieska, [Josh] Green, and [Alex] Burrows, so they helped me out a lot. It was a pretty easy transition.”
The Ducks defeated the Canucks convincingly that night by a final of 6-0. Despite the lopsided score, McIver tried to leave his mark on the game and with his teammates, dropping the gloves with Anaheim’s Travis Moen in the first period.
“We got down 2-0 early, so I wanted to show my presence and show what I could do and try to get the team back into it,” he said. “I knew Travis Moen fought a little bit, so I went over to him and asked him if he wanted to go, and he said yes.”
McIver was returned to Manitoba following the game and will now focus on helping the Moose stay competitive in the Western Conference’s North Division. The team currently resides in third place behind the league-leading Rochester Americans, and the Hamilton Bulldogs. They have managed to hold their own despite the numerous shake-ups to their lineup, something McIver credits to locker room leadership.
“We have good older guys here and we have some good leadership in guys like Mike Keane who’s been around a lot, and Lee Goren and Yannick Tremblay, so they keep things together and we have good chemistry in the room,” he said. “I mean, we’re losing guys all the time, so it’s tough, but we have guys who step up, and guys who fill those holes, and that’s what a good team does.”
Now that he’s back and healthy, the stay-at-home defenseman will look to build off a solid rookie season last year. Not one for putting up big offensive numbers, the 6’2, 200-pound backliner looks to contribute to the team with solid defensive positioning, physical play and a willingness to stand up for any one of his teammates.
“I try to maybe model off a guy like Adam Foote,” he said. “He’s a solid defensive defenseman who plays tough all the time, so I try to play like that. I don’t chip into the offense a whole lot, so I just try to play good in my own end, and play tough against the other team’s players.”
With all of the injuries to the defense this season, McIver is yet to find time with a steady partner. He was slated to play with Yannick Tremblay upon his return last weekend, but with Tremblay currently on call to Vancouver, McIver has been paired with 21-year-old Shaun Heshka. Still, he hopes that he and Tremblay will have the chance to play together at some point, as he knows he could learn a lot from the NHL veteran.
“We had played together for a little bit in training camp for a couple games, so it’d be great to play with that guy,” he said. “He’s played in close to 400 NHL games. He’s always calm on the back end and he can take control and he’s always very confident, so I think it’ll help me out a lot.”
For now, though, McIver will concentrate on improving his overall game in Manitoba.
“I just want to have a good season,” he said. “I want to play well here and see what happens from there. Maybe I’ll get another chance in Vancouver, but if not we have a great team here and I think we have a chance to do something special with this group of guys.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.