By Charles Dart | AHL On The Beat Archive
St. John’s IceCaps forward and Montréal Canadiens first-round draft pick Michael McCarron is proving himself a top prospect in his first AHL campaign, playing in his first NHL game in December and being named an AHL All-Star in January.
But the story of success for the 6’6, 230-pound center doesn’t begin with an All-Star selection or an NHL debut; it goes back to his development as a teenager in the U.S. National Development Program (USNTDP) and the Ontario Hockey League. Also critical was the support of a close-knit family from Grosse Point, Michigan.
As McCarron began his play with the USNTDP for the 2011-12 season in Ann Arbor, Michigan, less than an hour away from his hometown, his older brother John enrolled in collegiate hockey at Cornell University.
“I always wanted to be like [John] and he was a great role model growing up,” said McCarron. “I think that is what has made me successful in my hockey career thus far – my brother.”
John played four years with Cornell University in NCAA hockey, and just like Michael, he made his professional hockey debut this season albeit in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers. John has also skated in two games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
“He works super hard and I’m just trying to follow in his footsteps,” McCarron said of his older brother. “Now he’s a first year pro too. I think he’s a great player, and someday he could play in the NHL as well.”
McCarron understands and appreciates the commitment and sacrifice that his parents Dave and Nancy have made over the years to get the boys where they are today.
“They left everything to try and help us get through hockey and I know how expensive that is,” said McCarron. “They worked extra jobs to get us through it and I definitely owe them so much gratitude. They’re simply amazing.”
Even though McCarron was able to be close to home and his parents while playing in Ann Arbor, the lifestyle of an emerging hockey player is not the same as any regularly developing teenager.
“The U.S. program really helps guys off the ice grow into adults, and become real human beings.,” said McCarron. “They also focus a lot on working out, skating, and getting you better at your game.
“They don’t necessarily care about production your first year, so you’re working really hard at your body and trying to get it in super shape.”
McCarron joined the U.S. National Team Development Program after his final year of youth hockey with Honeybaked Hockey, where he played as a 15 year old on an U-18 team. In two years with the program, he notched 64 points and 310 penalty minutes in 112 USDP games. In addition to the program he played in the World U-17 and World U-18 Hockey Championships representing Team USA.
“In your second year it’s more about production, and I think that in my first year with the U-17’s I took a huge leap that really helped me prepare for the OHL physically,” said McCarron.
When McCarron transitioned to the OHL with the London Knights under head coach Dale Hunter in 2013, he recorded 14 goals and 20 assists along with a +11 rating through 66 games. Not shying away from his physical side, he accumulated 120 penalty minutes. Although he said he had a hard year, McCarron always thought positively.
“Then again,” said McCarron, “my first year in the OHL was a tough year for me, but you know what? Everything is a learning experience, and I certainly learned from it. The Hunters’ [Head Coach Dale and Assistant Coach Dylan] took me by my hand and really helped me learn the OHL game and to become a pro.”
Playing alongside some of the youngest and brightest players in the game today in Bo Horvat, Max Domi, and Chris Tierney—among others, McCarron’s game advanced.
“I also played with Mitch Marner when he was 16-years-old in London and he was still one of our better players,” said McCarron. “It was awesome to play with those guys because I learned so much from them, and I think that’s what set me up for my successful second year in the OHL.”
And things did play out well for McCarron in his second year of junior.
An assistant captain with London, he stood out among all junior players, posting 22 goals and 19 assists in 25 games before he was traded to the Oshawa Generals in exchange for two players and three draft picks.
Under new head coach DJ Smith, McCarron’s game evolved, making him a more complete player.
“He helped me tremendously in my defensive zone, and I really prided in that,” said McCarron.
McCarron posted a career best +17 rating in 31 games, and the Generals finished the season by winning the J. Ross Robertson Cup by notching 18 points in 21 playoff matches.
But the top prize for McCarron was winning the Memorial Cup and being named to the Memorial Cup All-Star team.
“It was pretty amazing hoisting that trophy,” said McCarron. “There is such a relief when you win that Memorial Cup at the end of the year.”
And among his top-two favorite careers moments, winning the Memorial Cup and his first NHL game in December are neck-and-neck.
“Playing in an NHL game was my dream ever since I was a little kid, but the Memorial Cup was also something really special.”
After thinking for a while, McCarron commented on his NHL experience.
“It was crazy,” said McCarron. “Everyone made me feel great in the locker room and everyone was pumping me up before the game.
“I got the goose bumps during the national anthems. It was just a great experience and I’ll never forget it.”
And now, as a 20 year-old in the top-10 in AHL rookie scoring (13 goals and 28 points in 40 games) and leading the St. John’s IceCaps in goals, McCarron has something else to look forward to: this weekend’s All-Star game.
“I’d love to do accuracy shooting,” McCarron said with a laugh.
“I’ve never been a part of something like this, and to be recognized around the league is an added bonus. I’m just super excited to go there and try not to do anything too fancy, and maybe, just chip the puck in and get a hit.”