Struggling in the AHL, McNeill still wants to make the big leagues

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Mark McNeil was a first-round draft pick for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011. Now, he is playing for the Rockford IceHogs for the fourth straight season, but says he still has the dream to make it the NHL full time.

    Mark McNeil was a first-round draft pick for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011. Now, he is playing for the Rockford IceHogs for the fourth straight season, but says he still has the dream to make it the NHL full time. Associated Press file photo/2011

  • Mark McNeill, center, has only played in one NHL game. He is playing for the Rockford IceHogs for the fourth straight season, but says he still has the dream to make it the NHL full time.

    Mark McNeill, center, has only played in one NHL game. He is playing for the Rockford IceHogs for the fourth straight season, but says he still has the dream to make it the NHL full time. Associated Press file photo/2014

  • Graham Knott, left, and Mark McNeill skate during the Blackhawks training camp festival scrimmage Monday September 21 2015 night at the United Center in Chicago.

    Graham Knott, left, and Mark McNeill skate during the Blackhawks training camp festival scrimmage Monday September 21 2015 night at the United Center in Chicago. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/7/2017 6:18 AM

Mark McNeill remember the day well: draft day, 2011.

Sitting in his seat with his mom, dad, brother and sister, McNeill was on top of the world when general manager Stan Bowman stepped up to the microphone and told the world the Blackhawks were taking him with the 18th overall pick.

 

"Tons of excitement," McNeill said. "Something I'll remember for the rest of my life for sure."

Network announcers gushed over the selection, with one saying: "Chicago fans will like this player a lot. Reliable in all three zones. Very physical. … When you have him and a player like Jonathan Toews going forward this will be a very difficult Chicago team to handle."

There was immediate talk that McNeill could make the Hawks out of his first training camp. He was that physically ready to contribute.

But now here we sit 5 years later and the 6-foot-2, 212-pound McNeill has played in just one NHL game. For one reason or another players such as Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Phillip Danault -- all taken after McNeill in 2011 -- and others such as Teuvo Teravainen, Vinnie Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman, Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz all were promoted while McNeill has stayed in Rockford.

IceHogs coach Ted Dent said it's not that McNeill doesn't have the skill -- he can shoot, he has solid speed, and he's sound defensively. It's just for one reason or another management and coaches haven't seen enough.

To McNeill's credit, the soon-to-be 24-year-old doesn't grouse publicly or demand a trade, and he expects that one day his dream will be realized.

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"It's a journey to the NHL," McNeill said Saturday when the IceHogs visited the Chicago Wolves. "Everybody has a different route, a different journey.

"I've still been focusing on my game and improving every day -- whether it's in practice, in the gym or playing a game with my team. It's just a matter sticking (with) it and pushing yourself to be better."

Dent, though, admitted he has seen a different McNeill in 2016-17 from the previous three seasons in which the Langley, British Columbia, native piled up 66 goals.

"I haven't seen a lot of frustration in his game," Dent said. "But everyone has feelings, everyone has emotions, and I think deep inside Mark's got a lot of hidden emotions that he doesn't really bring out to the forefront because he's a quiet guy and he keeps things to himself. …

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"There's definitely some frustration, some anxiety deep down in his belly (wondering) why isn't he getting a chance. I think it's affected his play this year for sure."

The numbers don't lie on that front as McNeill has 6 goals, which means he's on pace for just 11 when the campaign is over.

"It's been hard for him mentally to focus and dial in," Dent said. "He's just a little bit off in his overall game."

Dent added that it wouldn't surprise him if McNeill was hoping to get a chance with another franchise. There are plenty of stories of former IceHogs who go on to contribute on other teams.

With McNeill's contract ending after this season, there's also the option of playing overseas or just coming to terms with the fact that some guys never make it past the AHL level.

While he offered a "no comment" when asked whether those two options were possible going forward, McNeill did admit he wants to keep playing for as long as possible.

"The NHL is still my goal -- it's still what I want," McNeill said. "It's always been my dream.

"But this game I play is something I started when I was a little kid, and I never want to stop, to be honest with you. I want to keep playing until my body says no. … I love it and I always want to be a part of it."

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