South Carolina Stingrays forward Cail MacLean spent more than half of his 20s trying to land a job in the American Hockey League.
In 2002, he finally got there, receiving a full-time gig with the Hershey Bears, appearing in 74 games. In 2003-04, he moved on to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, where he made 61 appearances.
The following season, the NHL went dark because of the lockout, so some of the younger players in the NHL were looking for work. Consequently, MacLean was out of a job. He appeared in just 14 games for Hershey in 2004-05 and spent the rest of that season with the Reading Royals. And he’s been in the ECHL ever since.
“That hurt me quite a bit,” MacLean said of the lockout. “I was kind of a fringe player in the AHL and I had to claw my way to get there. There’s such a logjam of players that I think my chances of ever getting back there are pretty slim. I’m a veteran and the weekend call-ups are not really for me. They’re more for the younger guys. But I’m in a great situation here.”
MacLean is now in his second season in South Carolina, although this year is going much better than last. The Stingrays’ captain appeared in just 46 games in 2005-06 after what was thought to be your average charley horse injury – suffered on opening night -- turned into emergency surgery to repair a deep thigh bruise.
But the 30-year-old forward has completely recovered and is paying dividends for the Stingrays with 40 points (15 goals, 25 assists) in 42 games. His tremendous leadership qualities have helped South Carolina get back into the thick of the South Division race, as the Stingrays have won seven of their last 10 games to pull within six points of first-place Gwinnett.
“I feel pretty good,” MacLean said. “It’s been a nice turnaround from last year. It was a tough injury to go through, but I worked hard over the summer and I felt good about coming back.”
Stingrays head coach Jason Fitzsimmons is more than happy to have him. In 2001, Fitzsimmons was the assistant coach of the South Carolina squad that won a Kelly Cup championship by defeating MacLean’s Trenton Titans in the finals. Six years later, Fitzsimmons is now determined to help MacLean get back there, only with different results this time around.
“When we won the finals in ‘01, he was on the opposite side,” Fitzsimmons said. “He knows what it takes to get there and he can use that experience to help the younger guys. I’d sure like to see him raise that Kelly Cup.”