‘Keg­ger’ fills Canes’ need, changes par­ents’ week­end travel plans

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY CHIP ALEXAN­DER calexan­[email protected]­sob­server.com Chip Alexan­der: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip

Mike McKegg had the travel plans all ar­ranged. First a drive to Belleville, On­tario, for two hockey games, then a loop back to Toronto for a third.

That’s a lot of miles but as McKegg said Sat­ur­day, “We’re used to that kind of stuff.” The miles and the hours add up quickly when your son plays hockey.

Ev­ery­thing changed late Thurs­day night when Greg McKegg called his par­ents. In­stead of them go­ing to Belleville for the Char­lotte Check­ers games, the for­ward was headed to Raleigh on Fri­day, an emer­gency re­call by the Car­olina Hur­ri­canes from the AHL team and needed in the lineup against the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets.

The McKeggs stayed put at home in St. Thomas, Ont., stream­ing the Canes game, watch­ing as Greg had a goal and as­sist in a 4-2 win. And beam­ing when Greg McKegg, in his first NHL game with the Hur­ri­canes, was named the game’s first star.

“We’re re­ally proud of Greg,” Mike McKegg said. “In his five, or six or seven years now he’s been up and down, and he grinds away and he plays hard.”

The word “grind” is one Greg McKegg uses of­ten. Not ev­ery player can be a flashy scorer or swift skater. There’s a value in be­ing the kind who does the hard, gritty work, who does his part in help­ing a team win.

McKegg, 26, was once a big point pro­ducer in ju­nior, in the On­tario Hockey League. Drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third round in 2010, he had 48 goals and 92 points in 66 games with the Erie Ot­ters in the 2010-11 sea­son. That changed when he be­gan to play pro­fes­sion­ally, against big­ger, stronger play­ers in the Amer­i­can Hockey League, first with the Toronto Mar­lies.

“There are not too many guys who can step in right away and score at this level or in pro, re­gard­less,” McKegg said. “I think you’ve got to find a way to earn ice time when you’re young. If that’s tak­ing more draws in the D-zone or things like that, you’ve got to find a niche for a team and try to keep do­ing that each day.”

For the Canes, McKegg’s niche was to pro­vide some high-oc­tane play on a line with Saku Mae­nala­nen and War­ren Foegele. Be dis­rup­tive, make the Blue Jack­ets work. The typ­i­cal fourth­line stuff.

“We just tried to fo­cus on get­ting pucks deep and grind them down low,” McKegg said. “We were able to wear them down a lit­tle and any time we can con­trib­ute of­fen­sively is ob­vi­ously key.”

McKegg’s goal came when he hopped over the boards in the sec­ond pe­riod in a change with Se­bas­tian Aho. Skat­ing to the net, he caught the eye of de­fense­man Brett Pesce, who gave McKegg a lead pass from the point. McKegg redi­rected the puck past goalie Sergei Bo­brovsky for a 3-0 Canes lead.

Just like that, he had his first NHL goal since scor­ing for the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins against Van­cou­ver on Nov. 4, 2017. It also was the game-win­ner.

Soon, the game was over, the Canes had won and McKegg, as the first star, was sit­ting at the bench for an in­ter­view, his voice be­ing heard around the arena.

Things were hop­ping in St. Thomas.

“Greg’s got a lot of fans around our area here, so there were a lot of texts and good-luck wishes and what-not,” Mike McKegg said. “We were all pretty happy.”

Mike McKegg, 58, once played col­lege hockey at the Univer­sity of Wind­sor – earn­ing the nick­name “Keg­ger” – and Greg’s older sis­ter, Brit­tany, played at Platts­burgh (N.Y.) State. “She was called ‘Keg­ger,’ too,” Mike said. And, of course, Greg.

Greg McKegg made his NHL de­but with the Maple Leafs on Feb. 1, 2014. He played four games in all for Toronto, then 46 in two sea­sons with the Florida Pan­thers, 15 for the Tampa Bay Light­ning and 26 for the Pen­guins be­fore be­ing traded to the Canes in Fe­bru­ary 2018 for for­ward Josh Jooris.

Mike McKegg said his son’s time with the Pan­thers was in­valu­able in that then-team cap­tain Derek MacKen­zie made an im­pres­sion on him.

“He told Greg, ‘Lis­ten, if you want to play in the league you have to find a way to con­trib­ute,’ ” he said. “Some­times you come out of ju­nior hockey and you’ve been do­ing a lot of­fen­sively but now you’re got to find an­other role. I think that’s what Greg tries to do, just kind of be a ver­sa­tile type of player.”

It’s not easy stay­ing pa­tient. McKegg had a solid pre­sea­son train­ing camp with the Canes but lost out in the num­bers game among the for­wards. Sent to Char­lotte, he saw oth­ers get callups – Mae­nala­nen, Janne Kuokka­nen, Clark Bishop – be­fore a lower-body in­jury to Bishop on Thurs­day in Philadel­phia left the Canes in need of a fourth­line cen­ter. Next man up.

“It’s tough not know­ing if the op­por­tu­nity is ever go­ing to come again,” McKegg said. “At the same time you just try to take it day by day and learn from your past ex­pe­ri­ence and keep grind­ing it out and keep stick­ing with it.”

As for his par­ents, they’ve now made other travel plans. They’re driv­ing to Ot­tawa, where the Canes face the Sen­a­tors on Sun­day, hop­ing Greg gets an­other game.

That’s more than 600 miles, each way, from St. Thomas. But they’re used to that stuff.

THERE ARE NOT TOO MANY GUYS WHO CAN STEP IN RIGHT AWAY AND SCORE AT THIS LEVEL OR IN PRO, RE­GARD­LESS.

Greg McKegg

GERRY BROOME AP

Car­olina Hur­ri­canes’ Greg McKegg, right, cel­e­brates his goal against the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets with Brett Pesce (22) dur­ing the sec­ond pe­riod in Raleigh on Fri­day.

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