Jay McClement is the poster boy for Kingston’s NHLers.
The Limestone City is known for raising a decorated crop of hockey stars through the years — names like Gilmour, Muller, Linseman and the incomparable Don Cherry.
Lately, the city’s NHL players have been a grittier bunch: a dependable, if not flashy group of stay-at-home forwards, defencemen and goaltenders that return home each off-season.
McClement, a centre for the Toronto Maple Leafs, has skated alongside or against a number of his Kingston-bred peers from junior hockey onwards, including Phoenix Coyotes netminder Mike Smith, Anaheim Ducks defenceman Bryan Allen and Washington Capitals blueliner John Erskine.
“It’s fun seeing those guys — all of us are still really good friends,” McClement said. “A lot of us train together. It’s fun to see everyone put the work in together and then go off.”
That off-season work has paid off handsomely for McClement, who signed a two-year, $3 million contract with the Leafs last summer.
Recently anointed by The Hockey News as the NHL’s top penalty killer, McClement’s career began with more offensive flair. He finished second in scoring on the 1998-99 Kingston Voyageurs, facing players up to five years his senior as a 15-year-old.
Now, at 30, he’s an alternate captain for one of hockey’s oldest franchises, a three-hour westward drive from his old stomping grounds.
“[Kingston’s] our home base, what we call home,” he said. “Especially being in Toronto, it’s a little simpler playing so close to home. It’s been a nice change.”
Facing a longer off-season than usual in 2012 due to the NHL lockout, McClement leaned on his home-ice advantage.
He and Erskine spent the bulk of the fall practicing with Queen’s men’s hockey team, braving early-morning skates at the Memorial Centre before the labour impasse was resolved.
Accommodating the pair of homegrown pros was natural for Queen’s head coach Brett Gibson — a Gananoque native that grew up with McClement and played with Erskine on the 1999-2000 London Knights.
“By the end of [the fall], it was just fabulous to see John and Jay pulling some of my guys aside and teaching them places to put their stick, or how to angle,” said Gibson, who’s entering his eighth season as the Gaels’ bench boss.
“It was a great opportunity for not only them to stay in shape, but for us to have our guys really see what it’s like to be an NHL player.”
Before coming to Queen’s, Gibson enjoyed a productive junior career with three OHL teams, netting 88 points in 67 games one season with the North Bay Centennials.
He kickstarted his career in Kingston with the Junior A Voyageurs, finishing second in team scoring as a rookie, just like McClement would three years later.
“To give a 15-year-old kid the opportunity to play in his hometown … I developed a lot, and got friendships and coaching mentors from those guys,” Gibson said. “The Kingston Voyageurs mean everything to me.”
Gibson graduated from the Voyageurs in 1996, one year before the arrival of 15-year-old defenceman Brett Angel. After completing his season-long stint with the Vees, Angel followed Gibson to North Bay and London, and, in roundabout fashion, all the way back to Kingston.
Angel now owns FineLine Conditioning, a fitness and training service in Kingston that counts dozens of NHL, minor league and junior hockey players as clients. For these players, staying in game shape is a 12-month pursuit, and Angel has become their point man for out-of-season development.
“We’re continuing to grow as a community, and there’s an abundance of local talent that’s now trained the proper way,” Angel said.
Recently retired from a pro career that saw him play for nine minor-league teams, Angel has quickly adapted to a mentorship role.
In addition to the smattering of NHLers seeking summer guidance, FineLine trains more than 700 local players annually, according to Angel. Just like Gibson, cultivating young talent has become a focal point of his job.
“A kid like Scott Harrington, I worked with since he was about 10 years old,” Angel said, referring to the now 20-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins prospect.
“To see how successful he’s been in the last couple years — being drafted to Pittsburgh and playing in the World Juniors and things like that — that’s the most rewarding part for someone like myself.”
While Harrington and other players forge Kingston’s NHL future, one local historian is intent on celebrating the city’s hockey past.
Bill Fitsell, the former president of Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame (IHHOF) and an author of four hockey books, believes the city’s central location helped spread the game throughout Canada and the northern United States at the turn of the 20th century.
“When you look at it, Kingston has been involved in every aspect of the game: players, managers, coaches, referees, officials, administrators,” Fitsell said. “Kingston’s left its mark on the game.”
When the IHHOF asked Fitsell to research the original rules of hockey in the 1960s, his first stop was Douglas Library on campus. It’s one of innumerable contributions Queen’s has made to the game over the years.
Fitsell’s first hockey tome features a photo of the 1903 Queen’s hockey team playing in Pittsburgh in front of 4,500 fans. Seventeen years earlier, Queen’s and Royal Military College (RMC) had faced off for the first time, sparking hockey’s oldest rivalry.
Each year, the Gaels and RMC Paladins men’s hockey squads contend for the Carr-Harris Cup — an annual challenge Fitsell helped organize in 1986 to celebrate the rivalry’s centennial anniversary.
“Both institutions grabbed it along with the support of the Hall of Fame, and it’s been going ever since,” he said. “Even though it’s sort of a lopsided rivalry, that’s what makes it great. It’s almost David and Goliath, and RMC sticks in there.”
While Fitsell laments that Queen’s commitment to hockey has diminished in recent years — coinciding with the demolition of Jock Harty Arena in 2007 — he’s quick to correlate the Gaels’ early success with the development of Kingston’s fervent fan base.
Ever since Queen’s alum Marty Walsh scored 10 goals in a 1911 Stanley Cup game, the school, city and sport have been intertwined. From Gilmour to Gibson, Cherry to McClement, the passion has stayed the same.
“It raises our expectations,” Fitsell said. “We produce so many good players and officials, we set the bar pretty high.
“There’s hardly a season that goes by where there wasn’t a Kingston player at the forefront of the game.”