(Photo: Alan Sullivan)
Becoming an NHL-caliber hockey player is not something that a player decides overnight. Reaching the best league in the world requires years of practice, commitment and desire. Every player in the National Hockey League has his own story of how he got there and how he was introduced to hockey. Many children each year, especially in Canada, will try hockey for the first time when the temperatures dip. For some it will become love at first sight, and for a select few that love will blossom into a career that takes them all the way to “The Show.”
Such is the path that Boston Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid has taken. Along the way it has required some hard decisions and has seen him face some difficult injuries. His introduction to the sport was like many—as a child—but perhaps for a different reason than many. In a blog he wrote for the NHL during the Boston Bruins’ run for the Cup in 2013, he described how he got into organized hockey.
“I started playing hockey when I was five. From what I am told, part of it is that I was a really shy kid and my parents wanted me to get into something that was team-orientated so I could be hanging out with other kids my age and try to come out of my shell a little bit,” he shared. “I think that was the main reason for it and, obviously, everyone played; so it was just something that caught on and I stuck with it.”
McQuaid is now 28 years old and has recently signed a four-year extension to continue playing with the Boston Bruins—perhaps confirmation that those decisions along the way were the best for him, even if it meant leaving home at a young age for the player who is extremely close to his family.
“I was pretty lucky. I think it was a 22-hour drive we did as a family and they were around for training camp. I needed to go and make the team, so going there was still probably a little bit of uncertainty as to whether I was even going to stay for sure. But we packed and went with the mentality that I was going to be there to stay and that I was going to do everything that I could to make the team,” McQuaid reminisced. “But probably it wasn’t until I [was] told to move in with the billet family that it kind of really sank home, sank in.”
McQuaid admits that he wasn’t ready to move away from home as an underage player, so he was 17 when he experienced his first year of major junior. Fortunately for him, his parents made sure one or the other of them, if not both, visited him once a month. That allowed him to break up his away time into much smaller increments than perhaps other players and perhaps made that first separation a little easier for him to handle.
McQuaid has admitted that when the Bruins go on road trips he’s one of those who can catch up on his sleep while in the air. Playing for the Sudbury Wolves, with whom he played four seasons, there were a lot of long drives on the bus. Filling the time can be difficult.
“It was a little different from my understanding of the way it is now. I think they have a pretty good set up there now. I had a Discman,” McQuaid laughed. “I’d burn some CDs and there were some different CDs that I’d listen to. I wasn’t much of a leader at the time so I would listen to music. Music still is a big thing that I like to do to pass time on road trips and stuff.”
All kids, as they play pond hockey after school, have their favorite NHL players that they pretend to be. It’s not unusual to see kids wearing the jerseys of their favorites. So, who would McQuaid have skated as if given the chance?
“That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that before. I probably, to be honest, I probably would have been happy if I could have been any player who played for the Maple Leafs,” he said after thinking hard. “I was a big Maple Leafs fan—Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Mats Sundin—those were some of the guys that I really liked growing up. But probably it could have been anybody that had a Leafs jersey; I probably would have been pretty excited.”
Off the ice, the 6’5” defenseman is reserved and still somewhat shy. On the ice, however, he becomes a fierce player. When Shawn Thornton was still on the team, many thought that going up against McQuaid would be less difficult, but those who drop the gloves against him or have battled with him in the corners know just what a competitor he can be.
“I guess it’s kind of a shift of mentality. I try and get myself in the right mind frame, knowing how I need to play,” he shared. “I enjoy the competitiveness and battles. I don’t think I have ever really been one to shy away from checking. The fighting came a little later, but I think it’s just more competitive nature.”
Since being traded to the Bruins organization during the off-season before the start of the 2007-08, he has experienced the good, the bad and the ugly that the sport has to offer. He has experience health issues that would try anyone, and has come out on top. He’s experienced the high of winning a Stanley Cup and been able to share it with his family and hometown. Two years later he experienced the lows of missing it by just a game and the disappointment that brings. Most recently he’s been confronted with the frustrations of not making the playoffs at all.
“It’s always a disappointment whether you don’t make the playoffs or if you get to the finals, but, you know, it is tough coming that close…,” he said trying to analyze the emotions. “It’s so difficult to get there and a lot of sacrifice on a lot of people’s part. It is definitely tough when you get that close and you can taste it and, you know, all the work that’s gone into getting to that point. Like I said they’re both equally disappointing. You can always take positives from getting that far, but it’s… I would say it’s probably pretty difficult to get that close and to lose.”
Serious Medical Issue
During the lock-out shortened 2012-13 season, McQuaid underwent two surgeries, the first to remove a blood clot under his clavicle and the second to address the more dangerous cause of that clot—thoracic outlet syndrome. After having the two surgeries in October, McQuaid found himself with more time on his hands than he has probably ever had before.
“Physically I was unable to do anything. It really slowed down the pace of life and game me chances to reflect on a lot of different things,” he said. “You know, I had to feel pretty fortunate that things didn’t play out worse than it did. I was fortunate that we were able to catch things when they did.”
McQuaid is often quick to point out positives or to look to the brighter side of things. Such an attitude is probably something that has allowed him to keep pushing even when going through such difficult times.
“It gave me a chance to maybe put some focus into other areas of my life that sometimes you neglect a little bit when you’re just in the busy every day life of playing hockey. I just tried to view it as a positive thing that I needed to do and that I would come back better from it.”
Of course, he’s a hockey player, so perhaps the lockout worked in his favor—allowing him to put aside the hockey completely and concentrate on healing and those other areas of his life.
“Probably would have been a little more difficult had the season actually been going on at that point,” he joked. “I really wasn’t missing anything.”
Looking Back and Forward
Looking back on what he has done and where he began, I couldn’t help asking him if he had an opportunity to talk to his 10-year-old self, what would he tell him?
“I think probably everybody questions different phases in their life and where they’re going and how they’re going to get there and all those things. I was a really shy and timid kid and I’ve obviously come a long ways since then,” he said. “I guess I’d probably just tell myself that you are who you are and be confident in that and don’t feel like you need to be like anyone else. Just stick to who you are. That’s the most important thing I guess.”
When asked about his future—say twenty years from now—perhaps it is his understanding of who he is that gave him a vision without hockey; though his thoughts on this were positive and not wistful.
“I can’t imagine myself playing hockey anymore. I obviously hope that I’ll have a family and probably the pace of life will slow down a little bit. I don’t know what my kids’ interests will be, but whatever they are, I’ll be able to go and support them in that. I think a lot of it will just revolved around family life.”
You can take the hockey player physically out of the family, but you can never take the family out of the hockey player. McQuaid has come a long way in his playing and in who he is. Through it all his family has been there for him and undoubtedly it is that closeness, along with his personal beliefs, that helps feed his positivity.