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Making His Pitch

Thrown a couple of curves early in his career, defenseman Jared McIsaac wants to show that he can compete at the next level.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Penalty boxes or pitching mounds could have been in young Jared McIsaac’s future.

Encouraged by family, the boy from the Maritimes seemed destined to pursue athletics of some shape or form. It was just a matter of deciding which option best suited his interests.

Like many Canadian youths, McIsaac had an ice rink in his backyard, a place to polish his skating skills while growing up. But the empty lot next to the family home in Truro, Nova Scotia, also had a baseball mound courtesy of his grandfather, Bill McIsaac, a promising pitcher who had once had a tryout with the Boston Red Sox.

“I wish I could have kept playing baseball,” McIsaac said. “It was great to play – I played every summer – but when hockey started to become serious, I had to quit so I could keep training for hockey.”

Jared’s father and his uncle also played baseball but both were better known for what they did on skates, not cleats. His dad, Jamie, was a well-traveled referee who worked junior and college hockey games in the Maritimes, while his dad’s younger brother, Jon McIsaac, became an NHL referee after working his way up from the minor leagues.

“I grew up watching my dad reffing Junior A and college hockey,” McIsaac said. “My mom [Sandra] was always carting me around, watching my dad work as a referee. I’ve been around the rink ever since I was a little guy, so I started skating at an early age.”

Being able to watch a lot of good hockey gave McIsaac a leg up in his development as he was sharpening his skating skills. “Just being around the rink as a young kid, watching my dad, made me want to play even more, which was awesome,” he said.

“I was on a travel team that played in a small rink in Salmon River [Nova Scotia] that might have sat only a couple of hundred people, but it was always packed whenever we played, which was pretty cool to a little kid. You felt like you were playing in front of 10,000 fans.”

McIsaac continued to hone his skills whenever and wherever possible. “Our basement walls took a beating,” he recalled. “I was always down there, shooting pucks. My mom has pictures of the basement, which had a couple of holes by the stairwell going downstairs that I fired pucks through.

“I loved it. Still love it, obviously.”

Eventually, his parents decided to move the family from Truro to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia (roughly 10 minutes from Halifax), to allow him to play on a bigger stage. It was a momentous move, not only for his parents, who now faced an hour-long commute from Truro, where both worked as correctional officers, but also for his sister Jordan, who was six years his junior.

“My parents thought it would be a good idea to uproot the family so I could be on the ice full time,” he said. “My whole family was very supportive, even my younger sister. She was really young, so it was a big sacrifice for her to leave her friends. Making new friends all over again at a young age is not easy.”

In his new town, McIsaac spent two years at the private Maritime Varsity Academy, where he received hockey instruction as well as access to a one-on-one skating instructor. “The schooling was pretty strict,” he said. “In the classroom, there was no messing around and we had a lot of homework because of the schedule.”

Gym class meant three days on the ice at the academy in addition to two days of practice with his major bantam team. “Both of my parents were great,” he said. “My dad always had my best interests in mind, but he pushed me pretty hard until he saw that I had the drive and really wanted it.”

McIsaac played two years of major midgets in Cole Harbour, the hometown of his childhood hero, Sidney Crosby. “That’s when my play started taking big leaps,” he said. “I jumped up a year as a 13-year-old, and while there was an adjustment period, I think I was ready for the jump. Playing against older kids helped me, for sure, and I think I ended up putting up some pretty good numbers.”

His numbers were impressive enough to attract the attention of the Halifax Mooseheads, who selected McIsaac with the second-overall pick in the 2016 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft.

To this day, McIsaac raves about his time in Halifax. “They have a world-class organization, which they run like an AHL or NHL club,” he said. “They do everything right and set up the players for success. I can’t say enough about what it was like to play there.”’

McIsaac tips his cap to everyone from Halifax Mooseheads majority owner Bobby Smith, who played 15 NHL seasons with the Minnesota North Stars and Montreal Canadiens, to general manager Cam Russell, the former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman who finished his playing career with the Colorado Avalanche in 1998-99. “I owe them a lot of credit,” he said.

His coach during his first year in Halifax was Andre Tourigny, now head coach of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes. Nico Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, was a teammate during his first year with the Mooseheads, and Red Wings draft pick Filip Zadina was a teammate during his second year.

“I was more of an offensive defenseman at the time, but they ingrained in me that you have to play a two-way game,” he said. “They would harp on the little things, but I think I took huge steps. I played a ton, which definitely helped my development.”

McIsaac, who was chosen by the Red Wings in the second round (36th overall pick) in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, had a breakout year during 2018-19, his third season in Halifax, when he tallied 16 goals and 46 assists for 62 points in 53 regular season contests. He added 16 more points in 22 playoff games.

“I really enjoyed playing at home,” he said. “My parents came to all of the games and I always had family there. It was awesome. You couldn’t put a team in a better spot with the fan base and the city. It was a lot of fun to play in the Maritimes.”

It was almost too good to be true. Following his fantastic season in Halifax, McIsaac had surgery to repair his right shoulder. After missing half of the 2019-20 season due to rehab, he injured his other shoulder on the first shift of his professional debut in Finland, which kept him off the ice for an additional six months.

“When it happened the second time in Finland, I was like, ‘This can’t be real.’ It was like I had just finished rehabbing the first one and now I had dislocated the other one,” he recalled. “I think I handled the second a little better because I knew what was coming.”

Having played a total of 39 games between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, McIsaac was eager to experience an injury-free campaign. Last year, he ended up appearing in 70 games with the Griffins, the most action he has seen in any single season in his career.

“It was great to play a full season and regain my confidence,” he said. “I think playing that many games helped put my mind at ease. It was nice not to have to worry about the shoulders. I could just go out and play and have fun. I got to play a lot and I felt like I played pretty well all year.”

Although he had seen action in 10 AHL games with the Griffins at the end of 2020-21, he feels like last season was his first true test at playing at the professional level.

“It was a fairly big adjustment for me,” he said.

“I needed to tighten my overall defensive game, not give as much time and space to guys. After the first 15 games, I felt like I was settling in and I started getting rewarded for my play, which was huge for my confidence.”

Indeed, the stats support his assessment of his first full pro season, which saw some measure of fatigue late in the season.

After registering three assists in the first 15 games, he tallied five goals and 12 assists over the next 36 games before finishing with four assists in the last 19 games.

“I thought my game took a huge step forward during the middle part of the season,” he said. “My skating is one of my biggest assets. When I use it the right way, skating efficiently, it shows in my play, which builds my confidence and earns the trust of my coaches who put me in a position to succeed.”

McIsaac found it gratifying that the Griffins’ coaching staff gave him the chance to play in all situations, including both the power play and penalty kill. He finished tied for ninth in rookie scoring among AHL defensemen, but he took greater pride in his growth as a defender. “It’s great when you get your name on the scoresheet, but the less you notice me, the better,” he said. “I want to be known as a defensive guy first; the offense will come later.”

Although injuries may have delayed his development, McIsaac remains optimistic about his chances.

“I think I took huge steps last year as far as playing with confidence and using my skating ability to my advantage,” he said. “I wish there was just one thing that I could pick and focus on, but there are all kinds of things that I can do to get better and make the next jump to the big club.

“I just hope to start where I left off. I want to keep developing and continue to make progress in my game.”

McIsaac knows it will be a big thrill should he get the opportunity to play in the NHL this season. “It would be nice to get that first one under my belt, more for my family to be able to see it,” he said. The only thing better would be if he could play in a game where his uncle was a referee.

“It would be cool to share the ice with my uncle,” McIsaac said. “I would love to throw a few digs at him on the way to the penalty box.”

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