A door opened by mumps
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.”