Pittsburgh Penguins defensive prospect Ryan McCleary looks up to his father.
And former NHL forward Trent McCleary does the same with his son.
At 6-foot-2, Ryan has something of a vertical advantage over Trent.
“I barely scraped six feet,” said Trent McCleary, who suggested that extra height came from his wife, Tammy. “And he’s (6-foot-2). He still has a baby face so there might still be some room to grow.”
Ryan McCleary still is taking the first steps in his development as a would-be NHL-er. A seventh-round pick (No. 194 overall) in 2021, McCleary, who turned 19 on Sept. 9, is attending the Penguins’ ongoing rookie camp. And while plenty of refinement is still required for him to reach the NHL, he appears to have the base elements to reach this level.
In 63 games with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League (WHL) last season, McCleary put up 30 points (six goals, 24 assists).
“He always jumped in the rush, but his timing wasn’t great,” said former Penguins coach Mike Johnston, now the Winterhawks’ coach. “But I thought last year he was really effective, and his point totals reflected that.”
A right-handed shot listed at 180 pounds, McCleary has spent the past two seasons in Portland playing for Johnston, who long has valued aggressive defensemen.
“He wants an offensive defenseman type of mindset,” Ryan McCleary said. “Always try to jump up in the play and be that fourth guy in the rush.”
“(McCleary is) a big lanky guy who can jump up into the play and make good plays,” Johnston said. “The one thing about making plays as a defenseman, sometimes you’re going to make a mistake. Things aren’t going to happen the way you wanted them to. But he’s able to recover. He has enough confidence to evaluate what he’s done and then make a play the next time and not be afraid or intimidated by the moment.”
The style — and the overall sport — Ryan McCleary plays is eons different from what his dad saw two-plus decades ago.
Undrafted, Trent McCleary carved out a 192-game career with the Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a hard-scrabble, rambunctious agitator.
“He was a very hard-nosed kind of (agitating) type of player,” Ryan McCleary said. “He kind of hits a lot of guys. It’s a different (game) these days, but I try to bring some of those aspects he had into my game.”
Trent McCleary suggests there’s a larger gulf between their styles.
“I’m glad he plays a different game,” the elder McCleary said. “Because the game that I played is pretty much the way of the dodo bird. I was one of those antagonists and (expletive) disturbers and guys like that. You can’t do that (today). He’s way more of a skilled type of player. He moves the puck. He’s got much better size than I ever did. So it’s kind of night and day.”
Johnston suggests a far more intangible similarity exists.
“Hockey sense for sure,” the coach said. “Ryan’s a really smart player. When his dad was playing, I thought Trent was very, very similar. A high hockey sense, high IQ on the ice. That’s where Ryan separated himself from players when he was younger. He’s really starting to show, at (the junior) level, he can play with some physical compete to his game, which he’s also added within the last year or two.”
Trent McCleary’s career was halted prematurely at the age of 27 because of a gruesome injury in January of 2000 while he was skating for the Canadians.
During a home game, he slid down to block a one-timer by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Therrien and was struck in the throat by the puck. In the process, he suffered a fractured larynx.
McCleary was rushed to Montreal General Hospital for a life-saving tracheotomy while he was still wearing much of his equipment, including his skates.
He offers a peculiar description of the mishap that could have been cataclysmic.
“It’s the best career-ending injury a guy can have,” said Trent McCleary, who turned 50 on Sept. 8. “I can pretty much do anything, other than play anaerobic sports. I lost about 25 to 30% of my airway. But you don’t need your full airway unless you’re doing extreme sports. I feel bad for these guys with concussions or bad knees or shoulders or backs because those are lifelong. I was fortunate.”
Note: According to the team’s website, the Penguins defeated the Boston Bruins, 6-4, in a rookie tournament game at the LECOM Harborcenter in Buffalo on Saturday.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .