Sitting in a conference room with a view of the Cataraqui River sparkling under a bright April sun, one could easily wonder why a teen hockey player would ever be reluctant to report to Kingston.
But upwardly mobile puck-chasers picturing themselves winning a MasterCard Memorial Cup before moving on to make NHL millions don’t base their preferred place to play on creature comforts or its ranking in MoneySense magazine’s ranking of best places to live in Canada. A franchise’s reputation and recent track record carries more weight. Those elements are the baggage the Kingston Frontenacs are trying to shed. The players drafted into the Ontario Hockey League in Saturday’s priority selection draft were toddlers in 1998, the last time franchise won a playoff round.
So for Roland McKeown — the defenceman whom the Frontenacs took No. 2 overall Saturday morning to begin a draft where they had four of the first 24 picks — it was vital to be really sure about his future team. The defender had known since the fall that he might go to Kingston, which began rebuilding from the outset of the season. But he wanted to make sure GM Doug Gilmour and coach Todd Gill’s rebuilding was in earnest.
Fortunately for McKeown, whom GM Doug Gilmour described as “a right-handed Scott Niedermayer,” he has the same adviser as a prominent former Frontenac. He and Boston Bruins prospect Ryan Spooner, the graduating centre who was traded to Sarnia in January for 17-year-old Ryan Kujawinski, are represented by Murray Kuntz.
“I met with Ryan [Spooner] and Doug [Gilmour] earlier in Kingston’s season when Ryan was around and I came down to visit the city,” the 6-foot-1, 180-pound McKeown said, sporting his new No. 20 jersey. “I knew right then that this was the place that I wanted to be and it was my goal to get to Kingston with the No. 2 pick.
“It’s pretty cool,” the Listowel, Ont., native added. “I’m new to all this in the OHL. Just moving in and trying to move forward with the Frontenacs is something special — just trying to rebuild with them.”
Payoff from Domi deal
Thanks to swapping Max Domi’s draft rights to London last summer and other trades, the Frontenacs had a once-a-generation opportunity to rebuild with four of the first 24 picks. After taking McKeown they chose his Toronto Marlboros teammate Sam Bennett No. 9. Gilmour added toolsy defenceman Dylan Di Perna from the OHL Cup champion Mississauga Rebels and high-scoring London Jr. Knights right wing Spencer Watson at Nos. 23 and 24.
It’s the kind of haul that could define a team for seasons to come, depending on how the four and others develop under coach Todd Gill. The early buzz was measurable. The Frontenacs expected 40-50 fans to turn out for a draft party at a downtown sports bar. Instead, 130 people showed up, on the Saturday morning of a holiday weekend, for a team whose season has been over for three weeks.
Gilmour said the draft could someday amount to having four first-round picks. McKeown is expected to be the rock, the foundation.
“He does everything,” Gilmour said. “He probably logs 25 minutes, he’s a horse out there, he can skate, he can move the puck. He’ll be leading the rush and then he’ll be the first guy back sometimes. He’s somewhat like a right-handed Scott Niedermayer.”
In other words, the day Domi never showed up in Kingston for training camp was a good day. Gilmour still ended up with a top-10 choice when he traded Spooner to Sarnia for Ryan Kujawinski, who put up 30 points in 30 games for the Frontenacs.
“Going into that last year, we did have a plan just in case he didn’t show up, so yeah, that worked out well,” Gilmour said. “Certain things have worked in our favour and we have a lot of things to do to continue this.”
Gilmour added his rebuilding his barely started. In the short run, he needs a starting goalie to replace Anaheim Ducks farmhand Igor Bobkov, who was a major reason that a young Frontenacs lineup managed 19 wins this season. He might use his team’s import pick on a netminder (“we do pick sixth in the import draft, so if that’s the case and that’s what we need, that’s where we’re going.”).
Leader; interest from Michigan
Getting back to McKeown, ability only reveals so much about a player. Sometimes a team with a high pick gets someone with every tool but a rickety toolbox. McKeown’s proud parents, father Neil and mother Maureen, noted their youngest son has always asked to be the focal point of his teams.
“He would like that kind of pressure in terms of being someone that they’re looking to,” said Neil McKeown, who grew in Belleville, Ont., where he played on minor hockey teams against Kingston squads with a tiny centre named, wait for it, Doug Gilmour. ” Roland’s been a captain or an assistant captain of every team he’s played on. The last couple years, his teammates voted him as that. In big games, in tournaments, he plays at another level even for himself. His main attribute is his consistency. In big games he definitely takes it. To me, that’s a signal that he wants it.”
For the Frontenacs, Saturday might have been a signal they want it. Like with anyone else, half the battle is realizing all that holds you back sometimes is yourself. Location, age of the arena and post-secondary education options are not drawbacks. Neil McKeown, whose eldest sons George and John study at McGill University and the University of Ottawa, noted Kingston’s prestigious university was a selling point for them.
“Queen’s is a big draw for coming to Kingston,” he said. “That was really important for us. The [his] other boys are going to great universities. Roland had an opportunity to go to the University of Michigan. Not only did the hockey have to be comparable, but so did the quality of the institution that he could go to.
“This is a real good opportunity for Sam [Bennett] and Roland,” Neil McKeown added. “They’re going to get an opportunity to be cornerstone players.”
Roland McKeown, as one would expect from a 16-year-old thrust into the spotlight, seemed a bit nervous in front of the media. He did come across as well-grounded, though, going out of his way to compliment No. 1 pick and teammate Connor McDavid (“I’m proud of Connor because he’s always played at the ’96 level and he deserves this honour.”)
McKeown also asserted himself by not playing along when asked if it’s true his nickname is “The General.” Not true, he said; a TV analyst pinned it on him but it never took within his social circle. Of course, a nickname doesn’t take if it’s forced. It has feel right. Which in a way was kind of the spirit of the thing for the Fronts on Saturday.