March 28, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

A Long Road Home

Minnesota State's McInnis Comfortable Playing in Mass.

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer

WORCESTER, Mass. — The DCU Center, host of the Northeast Regional, is a shade fewer than 1,400 miles from the Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato, Minn., home of Minnesota State.

For Johnny McInnis, MSU's captain and leading goal-scorer, and his teammates, their appearance in the 2014 NCAA tournament meant flights and bus rides. Hotel stays, suitcases and lugging hockey equipment from one place to another. It's been quite the trip thus far.

But, for McInnis, leaving Mankato on Thursday just meant going from one home to another.

"It's kind of come full circle for me," McInnis said. "It's been a long road to Minnesota and the last four years, but I wouldn't change a thing about it. I've developed quite a lifestyle (in Mankato). People out there have become my family. It's my community now. I may've been forgotten about out here, but I haven't forgotten that I'm from here. This is my home. I'm happy to be here, that's for sure."

It's not common for players from Massachusetts or New England to spend their collegiate careers playing in any of the nation's three western leagues. There are just nine players from New England on the 24 teams in the NCHC, Big Ten and the WCHA. McInnis is one of those players. Born in Boston, McInnis played at Lawrence Academy, a prep school in northern Massachusetts known as a factory for Division I hockey players.

It's just not as well known as a pipeline to the WCHA, nevermind Mankato, Minn.

McInnis' hockey career, however, has been all about finding his own way, about finding himself. Like most high school, prep or junior players in New England. Dreams of playing in Hockey East or the ECAC floated through his head. There's the Beanpot and the Hockey East Tournament, a packed TD Garden, playing under the rafters holding numbers and names like Orr, Bourque and Bucyk.

McInnis wanted all of that, but the chance never came.

After graduating from Lawrence Academy in 2008, McInnis started the next step in that route he found on his own. Like the rest of his plans, it didn't take him to any of the junior leagues college prospects from the Northeast typically consider.

"I went to prep school, graduated from Lawrence Academy," McInnis said. "Obviously, I wanted a chance to play at a Hockey East school growing up. Once I got to that time, it wasn't in the cards. I made a decision to go to Alberta, play some junior hockey."

Okotoks, Alberta, sits 24 miles south of Calgary, 1,300 miles northwest of Mankato and more than 2,600 miles from Boston. Despite the distance, McInnis found yet another place to call home.

In two years in the Alberta Junior Hockey League with the Okotoks Oilers, McInnis scored 67 goals and added 61 assists in 120 games. His performance drew the attention of Minnesota State. Once again, McInnis was faced with another choice to shape his own future. Again, it led him to a place he never considered.

"I wanted to do something different, to see a part of the world I'd never seen before," he said. "Going to Alberta was arguably the best two years of my life, along with these four. That's why I wouldn't change a thing about the things I've done or the decisions I've made."

It's funny for him now, thinking about the journey. The goal of playing in Hockey East in front of his family and friends every night never came together. After four years, though, McInnis can't see it any other way.

He led Minnesota State in goals (21), improving on his previous career high (13). The Mavericks finished the regular season in second place in the WCHA behind Ferris State.

After a rough start to the year, McInnis and his teammates recovered from a 4-7-0 record to enter the playoffs as a favorite along with Ferris. McInnis scored a pair of goals and assisted on another in the run to the showdown with Ferris. Defeating the Bulldogs, 4-1, in the league title game in Grand Rapids, Mich., meant a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth for the Mavericks and the first-ever conference title in Division I.

For so many players, coaches and fans around the country, a league title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament means so much. For McInnis, it meant a homecoming.

Around 40 people, family and friends, will be in attendance when McInnis and MSU takes on Hockey East Tournament Champion Massachusetts-Lowell Saturday evening. The third-seeded Mavericks are the decided underdogs against a Lowell teams that has allowed just one goal in its last three games. No matter the result, MSU coach Mike Hastings is pleased with the development and the maturity of his captain.

"I'm incredibly proud of the young man," Hastings said. "I don't know if you guys caught it, but when he starts talking about mentoring freshmen and sophomores, that they're just starting this long process, he's only been here for four years. He's still a young man, but, mentally, he's gotten himself to be a better person. No matter what happens to Johnny McInnis, Johnny McInnis is going to be successful.

"I can't help, but think that because he took some time to spread his wings and go to Canada, which is a place not a lot of players from Boston go. Then to take the opportunity afforded to him at Minnesota State by Troy Jutting and the staff to take that chance and say he's willing to do this. To see him grow as an athlete, as a person and academically, he's at a point now where I think, no matter where he goes, he's going to be successful."

The game means a bit for McInnis, though. He's happy with where he is, both at Minnesota State and in terms of his development. But the journey's been a bit harder, a bit longer than he initially expected. Saturday's game, against the class of the league in which he dreamed of playing, is a chance to prove people wrong.

"I was just looking for an opportunity to play college hockey when I finished juniors," McInnis said. "Obviously, I wanted it from a school out here, so there is a little bit of a chip on my shoulder that I kind of got pushed aside. There's no hostility. It worked out the way it worked out the way it worked out. I couldn't be happier, but there's definitely a little chip on my shoulder."

Saturday night, he'll play a college hockey game in Massachusetts for just the third time in his career. Johnny McInnis is happy he spent two years in Alberta. He loves the life he's made for himself in Mankato. But he remembers where he came from, he says. It took six years, but Johnny McInnis finally got to come home.

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