MacIntyre on 1st NHL start: ‘I can help the team’

Drew MacIntyre (AP)

SUNRISE, Fla. – There is a simple phrase written on the side of Drew MacIntyre’s goal stick: “Why not?”

The story behind it is of particular importance with MacIntyre expected to make his first career NHL start for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night. About eight years ago, he reached a career crossroads while playing for the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose. He was struggling and needed to dig deep to find the will to continue chasing his NHL dream.

“If I kept it up, I was going to be in the East Coast league,” MacIntyre told Sportsnet after practice on Wednesday. “I had just gotten traded there so the pressure was on to kind of establish myself and I started writing that on my stick.

“It’s kind of biblical, but it’s also just `Why can’t I succeed at this level?”’

MacIntyre is now 30 years old and has worn the sweaters of 13 different professional teams. He’s appeared in five NHL games, all in relief, but no NHL coach has yet had the confidence to pencil him into the starter’s role. Unless something unexpected happens, Randy Carlyle will be the first.

So while Thursday’s game between the Leafs and Florida Panthers will be dismissed as meaningless by some, there is plenty of meaning in it for No. 35 in white.

“I’ve had lots of practice with being patient, but I’ve definitely been wanting that start,” said MacIntyre. “I’m in a situation where I can help the team. That’s always the knock on me – that I don’t have NHL experience – so I hope I can get it so I can at least say it in the summertime when I’m looking for a job.

“That at least I have something, some kind of NHL experience.”

There were good vibes for MacIntyre when he walked into the BB&T Center on Wednesday afternoon. The last time he had stepped foot in this building was nearly 13 years ago for his draft day. The Detroit Red Wings selected him in the fourth round.

Back then, there was no way for MacIntyre to understand how many hurdles there would be to clear as his career unfolded. He has only spent two consecutive years in the same city once since turning pro. The places he has called home are: Grand Rapids, Mich.; Toledo, Ohio; Winnipeg; Milwaukee; Chicago; Hamilton; Rochester, N.Y.; Prague; Reading, Pa.; and Toronto.

There were brief stops in the NHL, too – with Vancouver in 2007-08 and Buffalo in 2011 – and MacIntyre had nearly exhausted all of his options when he signed in the KHL in 2012. However, he had a relationship with Leafs goalie coach Rick St. Croix from their days with the Moose and received a call late last season about joining the Marlies as an injury fill-in.

When Jonathan Bernier went down with a groin strain last month, he joined the big team and stopped all 14 shots he faced after James Reimer was pulled in New Jersey. That was in the middle of the eight-game losing streak that doomed this team and some felt at the time that Carlyle might turn to MacIntyre to try and get out of it.

Instead, he was returned to the Marlies as Bernier hurried back. He rejoined the Leafs last week when a knee injury ended Bernier’s season.

That has fuelled a lot of hope back home in Prince Edward Island, where friends and family have been eagerly awaiting the chance to see MacIntyre start a game. A lot of people there will be glued to a Leafs-Panthers matchup that has absolutely no impact on the playoff races.

“My phone this whole time up with the Leafs has been crazy,” said MacIntyre. “I come from a very special place and it’s awesome to see all of the people (excited). The support – it’s awesome.”

MacIntyre is the kind of person that is impossible to root against. Reimer calls him “one of the best guys I’ve ever met” and his list of fans inside the Leafs dressing room runs much longer than that.

At a time of great disappointment for the players on this team, and with so much uncertainty and speculation swirling around them, he is also a reminder of why they play the game.

“He’s worked his butt off and he’s had a couple tough breaks, but he always has a smile on his face when he comes to work,” said Reimer. “He’s really deserving of a start and when he gets in there he’s going to be top notch.”

Why not?