By Bob Crawford | AHL On The Beat
At 26 years old and in his seventh year of pro hockey, the Hartford Wolf Pack’s Philip McRae isn’t exactly a grizzled veteran, but it’s fair to say that the son of former long-time NHL forward Basil McRae has seen quite a bit since coming out of the Ontario Hockey League in 2010.
The Apple Valley, Minnesota-native has already been over to Europe, seen some NHL time with St. Louis, the team that drafted him in the second round in 2008, and played over 260 games in the AHL. That AHL time included a season last year with the Bakersfield Condors that was truncated to 35 games by a bout with Valley Fever, a fungal infection common to the San Joaquin Valley, in which Bakersfield is located.
McRae reflected back on his travels after a recent Wolf Pack practice, saying, “I started my pro career in Peoria (with the AHL Rivermen), was there for three years, and that was a really good experience, had a lot of veteran guys there that were a great help to me and a lot of other younger guys that we had. Then I did a year in Finland, which was a really cool experience, then I was in Chicago (with the Wolves), which was an amazing city, and Bakersfield was totally different as well, playing on the West Coast. Obviously it didn’t go the way I wanted, I got that crazy illness there, but it’s been fun to play in different cities and to see different parts of the world.”
And even after all of those different experiences, McRae is, again, tasting of something rather new this year, in that he has never before played in the Eastern Conference of the AHL.
“It should be fun, a change of scenery, seeing some new rinks I haven’t played in, playing a lot of guys I haven’t played against before,” McRae said of the move east. “So it should be a good experience this year and I’m excited for the opportunity.”
In the small sample size of Eastern Conference action he has seen so far, McRae has not noticed any difference in the play between the two AHL conferences, but one off-ice element has already made an impression.
“The one thing I’ve noticed,” he said, “maybe the travel’s not quite as far. The bus rides are a little shorter than it was when we were doing the 12-hour buses from Peoria up to Toronto.”
And in the “hockey is a small world” department, McRae has a familiar face in the Wolf Pack locker room, going back to his Junior days, in the person of Pack defenseman Tommy Hughes. McRae and Hughes were teammates for McRae’s last of his four seasons with the OHL’s London Knights.
“We talked about London just the other day, actually,” McRae said. “He played for the Knights and he’s from London, so we were just talking about what a fun city it is and some of the funny stories that we had from playing there.
“It was real nice playing in London because my dad played for the Knights as well and my mom is actually from London, that’s where they met. So a lot of family there, aunts, uncles, grandparents, in the city, it was very nice being able to play there.”
In addition to helping pave the way for McRae to London, his strong hockey bloodlines have served him well during the entire time he has played.
“I’m very fortunate that my dad, and my uncle Chris, both played professional hockey for a long time,” McRae said. “It’s neat to be able to play professionally myself, and I’m also very grateful to get lots of advice from them.”
And now that McRae is a well-established pro, he feels that he can get even more out of his hockey conversations with his dad, who is now Director of Player Personnel for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I think maybe I take them a little better now than maybe I did when I was a kid,” a chuckling McRae said of Basil’s thoughts on his game and his career. “Sometimes he could be brutally honest, but sometimes you need that. It’s good to have a dad that played the game and be able to get some advice from him. He’s pretty busy with his own stuff going on, but whenever he’s able to watch a game and give me some pointers, I’m all ears. I’m just grateful to be able to have that.”
Having had his dad and uncle as mentors on his way up the hockey ladder, McRae finds himself at a point in his career where it is important for him to set an example for younger guys.
“We have a pretty young team, too, so I’m just trying to be a leader by example and come to work hard every day, and help the team out however I can,” he said. “Every year you play, I think you learn things throughout the season. I feel like I’m a veteran player that can help younger guys if they need it, and still I’m only 26, so I also look up to some of the older guys on our team, that have been to the NHL level, and try to learn from them. I guess it’s a balance of both. I’m an older guy now, I guess, but I’m also still trying to learn a lot myself.
“We have a lot of great veteran leaders, we’re fortunate to have guys that have played a lot of time in the NHL, with Glasser (Tanner Glass) and now the new addition, with (Justin) Fontaine. Having those two guys is great for our group, and then we also have a lot of veteran guys. Chris Summers has been playing a long time, and a lot of other guys too. I think we have a good mix of young guys and veteran leadership in the room.”
McRae’s debut with the Wolf Pack could not have gone much better, as he turned in a First-Star performance in Hartford’s opener at home October 14, with a goal and two assists in a 6-3 win over the St. John’s IceCaps. The Wolf Pack had a collective letdown the next night in their first road game, a 6-2 loss at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander and his staff kept McRae together with his opening-night linemates, fellow veteran forward Chris Brown and second-year winger Adam Tambellini. That is a combination that McRae feels already has good chemistry.
“Obviously we had a good first game,” he said. “It didn’t go quite the way we wanted the second game, but I think we enjoy playing together. Those two guys, Brownie and Tambo, are great players, and I just try to get them the puck and go to the net. We’re all three pretty big bodies, so we like to try and get it (the puck) low and cycle them and just play a simple, hard game.”
That type of play has led McRae to some solid offensive success throughout his career, most notably in a 23-goal AHL season with Peoria in 2011-12. And while his explosive first game in a Wolf Pack uniform has him feeling good offensively, that is only part of the equation.
“I just feel really good in general right now,” McRae said. “I had an unfortunate illness last year, and I had to have a big summer of training, get my weight back and my strength back. And I just feel healthy right now and excited for the season and grateful for the opportunity I have here. I feel as healthy as I have since that season in Peoria. I had a lot of different injuries and didn’t play a lot of hockey for a couple years. So it’s just nice to be healthy, and looking forward to the season.”