For Drew MacIntyre, who recently became just the 12th goalie in league history to win 200 games, the feelings are nothing but positive.
“I’m very honored,” he said. “The league has been around for 79 years and sometimes when I think about it, it’s pretty hard to believe.”
MacIntyre, whose 12th professional season is also his first with the Checkers, appreciates the highs because he’s experienced the lows.
There was the time he suffered a season-ending injury 11 games into his rookie season in the Detroit Red Wings system. After recovering, he was firmly near the bottom of the depth chart and faced an uncertain future after the emergence of another young goalie named Jimmy Howard.
“After my first three years, if you had told me I’d be playing 12 years I’d be very thankful,” he said.
There was the time that, after a poor season with Rochester in 2011-12, he decided to give Europe a try after years of turning down offers. He broke his ankle after two games with Prague of the KHL. When he recovered, the team promptly released him and he returned to his native Prince Edward Island.
“I was home for a month and a half and couldn’t get a job,” he said. “It was very humbling. Central League, East Coast teams. No one was calling me back. I pretty much wanted to play for nothing. I couldn’t have cared less about the money, I just wanted to re-establish myself.”
There’s the frustration of still having to fight for jobs, even after fighting his way back to become an everyday AHL goaltender. With two young daughters, one of whom is now of school age, the moves get harder each time.
“Every year teams have a new young goalie they think could be the next big thing and they want the playing time,” he said. “In too many places that I’ve played, that’s been the situation. I’ve had a really good year and they like me, but they don’t like me enough to give me a backup job or an NHL job, and they have a young kid coming that they want to play a lot.
“I feel like I’m a better goalie now than when I was a so-called prospect, yet now I get labeled as a minor-league guy. In hockey these days, there’s not enough emphasis on experience. That can get frustrating because you learn so much. You learn so much. They give you a little chance and you’re written off, but even though in that chance I failed, that’s going to make me stronger.”
The Checkers are the 14th team that MacIntyre, now 31, has played for since turning pro in 2003.
“I would love to stay in one place,” he said. “I’ve been trying. I’ve really been trying. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
Throughout it all, MacIntyre has never complained. To find some of the things that have driven him through the tougher times, one has to look no further than his equipment.
First, there’s the crosses that adorn the lower portion of his mask and the knobs of his sticks.
“Number one in my life is my faith,” he said. “It’s what I’m about. Hockey is not everything. For my family and I, hockey has taught us a lot of lessons and I believe that God has taught me a lot of lessons through hockey too. I’m not thankful for my wins, but I’m thankful that He’s given me a chance to still play professionally.”
Another, partially related to the first, is the phrase, “Why not?” that can also be found on his sticks and on the back of his mask.
“It’s partly biblical,” he said. “I have a tattoo from the bible which is related to that. It’s also from the year that I went to Manitoba (in 2006). When I got there, I was very average to start the year and the goalie got hurt so I had a huge opportunity to prove myself. I had to or I was going to be sent down.
“Rick St. Croix, the goalie coach, and I were putting a lot of work into my game and one day I just thought of it. Why not? Why can’t I have success in this league? Then I started writing it on my sticks, and now it’s kind of my slogan I guess.”
That’s more or less the time when he first made a name for himself in the professional ranks, going 24-12-2 with a 2.17 goals-against average and .922 save percentage that season. He would go on to become an AHL Second Team All-Star in 2008 and 2009. To go along with his 200 wins, he has a cumulative 2.45 GAA and .936 SV% in 371 games played.
Now one of the more experienced players on a young Checkers team (“I don’t even think I’ve heard of a team being this young,” he said), MacIntyre is trying to share those lessons he’s learned along the way. Although his history with the team is brief, his passion and his professionalism are evident in the way he handles himself on the ice and analyzes the team’s performances afterward.
“You watch him in practice, and he’s a worker,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “He doesn’t take a day off.”
“He’s definitely not shy to let you know what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right,” said rookie defenseman Trevor Carrick. “He’s one of the most caring guys on the team. When we’re losing games, he’s the most pissed off guy in the room.”
MacIntyre also tries to be vocal during games, though perhaps not too vocal.
“One of my weaknesses is that I focus too much on the team and trying to get our team to have success that it can kind of distract me from stopping the puck,” he said. “That’s the best way I’m going to help the team.”
Leadership is something MacIntyre knows he has to contribute on a team that has 10 players with under 100 games of professional experience.
“They have so much to learn,” he said. “When I was 20 – the things that I think about that I’ve learned and how long it took me to learn them – I’m still learning. I’m 12 years in and I’m still learning stuff all the time.”
In communicating with his teammates, most of whom live a radically different lifestyle than he does away from the rink, MacIntyre said he’s trying to make the kind of impression that others have left on him.
“When I was in Manitoba I played with Mike Keane for two years. He won the Stanley Cup three times but he was down in Manitoba at 40 years old and he wanted to win more than anybody. He didn’t accept anything else. It’s funny – Jason Jaffray and Max Fortunus (now captains in AHL St. John’s and Texas, respectively) were two of my best friends on that team. We’re older guys in the league now and there’s not many of us, so we always get together and when stuff happens with our teams, we think, ‘What would Keaner do?’”
Why continue to be one of the few “older guys,” as MacIntyre put it, in a league dominated by entry-level players? It’s because he still thinks he can play in the NHL, even though he no longer loses sleep over it the way he used to or the way many of his teammates, even those in their first or second year pro, do now.
“I’ve learned that if I don’t play in the NHL I’m going to be OK,” said MacIntyre. “I like to tell young guys that. Your life is going to go on if you don’t make the NHL. You’re not going to be a failure for the rest of your life because you didn’t make the NHL. You get to play pro hockey. When I was young I put so much pressure on myself that I had to make the NHL and I just couldn’t think of not playing in the NHL. Now, I’ve definitely realized that I’m going to be OK.
“All I do is focus on being here. I don’t have my head in the NHL because in 12 years I have six games and one start. You just can’t think about it. In my faith, it’s whatever is meant to happen. It’s not my plan. I’m not too worried about what happens and I keep my head in the present. I’ve learned so much from the past that I’m not going to worry about the future.”
That’s what allows him to sit back and enjoy milestones like that 200th win. Now 12th on the all-time list, he could be in 10th by the end of the week and he’s only 32 away from being in fifth.
After all the hard work and stops along the way, that’s something he and his family can be proud of. It may not have come in the NHL as he would have liked, but at the end of the day, he has all the recognition he needs.
“I got home from the plane and my daughter had drawn me a little picture with 200 on it,” he said. “It was cool.”