A door opened by mumps

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - SCOTT RADLEY

The last time a heart­warm­ing sports story be­gan with an out­break of mumps was, well, never.

Other than hav­ing a dis­ease that’s mildly fun to say, there’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly up­lift­ing or joyful about hav­ing puffy cheeks, a swollen jaw, headaches, fever and sore mus­cles.

Be­sides, why would it come up in con­ver­sa­tion — sports or oth­er­wise — when it has been erad­i­cated like small­pox, diph­the­ria and … wait, it has been erad­i­cated, right?

“I knew it was still out there,” in­ter­jects Evan McE­neny.

The Cais­tor Cen­tre na­tive is a hockey player, not a doc­tor. Yet, he’s cor­rect. Mumps do, in fact, still ex­ist. And while he isn’t wish­ing ill­ness on any­one, this virus weirdly helped give him the best night of his life.

A few years ago, the young man was a ris­ing star with the Kitch­ener Rangers and was be­ing touted as a first- or sec­ond-round draft pick. But just two games into his draft year he blew out his knee. The in­jury hap­pened so early that no­body could re­ally scout him. Be­cause of that, his stock plum­meted. When the of­fi­cial prospect list was re­leased he was buried in the ab­so­lute last spot. Then, he never got cho­sen.

When he re­turned the next year af­ter re­hab, he played well enough to get a try­out with the Van­cou­ver Canucks and the Dal­las Stars. The Canucks liked what they saw enough to sign him but the brass didn’t think he was ready to make the jump to the pros. So, he was sent back to ju­nior for that year and his over­age sea­son.

The fol­low­ing year he was as­signed to Kala­ma­zoo of the ECHL. Not only did it feel a long, long way from the NHL but two games into that cam­paign he took an awkward hit and shat­tered his el­bow. Doc­tors warned him it was so se­vere it could be ca­reer end­ing.

“That was pretty dev­as­tat­ing,” he says.

For the first time, he won­dered if hockey was re­ally go­ing to take him any­where.

Things were con­fus­ing enough that he even took a fire­fight­ing course last sum­mer so he’d have some­thing to fall back on if his luck didn’t turn soon. Still, he wasn’t ready to give up just yet.

This fall, he made Van­cou­ver’s main farm team in Utica. But hav­ing played spo­rad­i­cally and car­ry­ing no con­fi­dence, he sat five of the first six games. Then ev­ery other game. Then, fi­nally, reg­u­larly. The more he played, the more he pro­duced. A month ago, the de­fence­man got on a real roll. Six­teen of his 17 points have come since the cal­en­dar turned to the new year.

Which, for­tu­itously, was around the same time ru­mours be­gan to spread of some guys around the Amer­i­can Hockey League get­ting mumps. Which is why he knew it was still out there, as he ex­plained ear­lier. And why his en­tire team was in­oc­u­lated. “Good for me,” he says. No kid­ding. Be­cause when five guys on the Canucks sud­denly came down with the virus the other day the NHL squad needed some re­place­ments. Guys who were both play­ing well and were un­likely to get sick.

McE­neny was just tuck­ing him­self into bed for a pre-game nap on Fri­day when his phone rang. It was Comets’ head coach Travis Green. He earnestly told his de­fence­man he hadn’t been all that happy with his play lately so the lineup had been changed and the 22-year-old wouldn’t be play­ing that night.

“Then he laughed and said I was go­ing to Van­cou­ver,” McE­neny says.

With shak­ing hands — they re­ally were — a mas­sive smile and no words com­ing eas­ily to his lips, he di­aled his par­ents and gave

them the news the same jok­ing way Green had given it to him. Then jumped on a plane for the coast.

He got in late, didn’t sleep much and was ad­mit­tedly ner­vous all day. He was blown away when a gag­gle of re­porters and three or four TV cam­eras crowded around him to get his thoughts — “I’ve never had an in­ter­view like that be­fore” — and was stunned when he sat and chat­ted with Scott Oake from Hockey Night in Canada, who he’d watched ev­ery Satur­day night grow­ing up.

Pulling on his blue No. 61 and skat­ing onto the ice was all he needed to make the night per­fect. Af­ter the wrecked knee and the bashed el­bow and the dis­ap­point­ments and the de­mo­tions and the un­cer­tainty and ev­ery­thing else, McE­neny was an NHLer.

He played 15 min­utes in a 4-1 loss. Nearly scored on his first shift, too. With his par­ents in the stands and ev­ery­one he knew watch­ing on TV back home, he was in the big time at last.

“Look­ing around and see­ing the rink and how big it is,” he says, “that’s the mo­ment I re­al­ized I’d made it.”

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