|Mark McNeill, right, and the Prince Albert Raiders are off to a strong WHL start this season. Photo by Jim Wells/Calgary Sun
CALGARY - Chances are, lockout or no lockout, Mark McNeill wasn’t going to play in Chicago this season.
But the Prince Albert Raiders captain would have liked the opportunity to at least go to the NHL Blackhawks training camp.
“It’s a little disappointing,” McNeill said. “Any time you get to go to a main camp with pros, it’s a tremendous learning experience.
“But I can’t dwell on it. I have to focus on Raider hockey right now.”
The 19-year-old has done a good job of doing just that with nine points, including three goals, through seven games.
As disappointing as it is to not get a chance to strut his stuff for the ’Hawks, who selected McNeill in the first round (18th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, things could be worse.
At least he has a place to play.
“You look at the lockout and guys are scrambling to find jobs whether it’s overseas or wherever it may be,” McNeill said. “I’m very fortunate to have a place to play here in Prince Albert.”
The Edmonton product and his Raiders teammates have jumped out of the gate and sprinted to the front in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
They beat the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Calgary Hitmen on the road on back-to-back nights last week, and McNeill scored the shootout winner against the Hitmen.
“We’ve had a good start as a team,” McNeill said. “But we’ve only got six games behind us, so there’s still a lot to prove. It all started in camp. We all came in with a positive vibe.
“The guys worked really hard over the summer.”
Raiders head coach Steve Young said McNeill should be able to better last year’s 71-point campaign.
“I think there was a lot of pressure on him last year after the draft,” Young said. “This summer, he prepared a little different. He was more relaxed, and I think that’s helped him.
“He’s been a good leader, and he’s come to play every night.”
McNeill has evolved from the young gun to an established veteran.
And he’s now passing his knowledge on to others like German import Leon Draisaitl, who is expected to help shoulder the offensive workload.
“It’s a different situation,” Young said. “As he’s been coming up, he’s had guys helping him.
“But now, he’s on another spectrum, and he’s done a good job helping Leon.”
In addition to being the Raiders go-to guy offensively, McNeill is a physical force.
The 6-foot-2, 210-lb. centre had just 48 penalty minutes last season.
But as Red Deer Rebels defenceman Matt Dumba found out recently, McNeill can chuck the knuckles.
Young said playing a physical game is essential to McNeill’s success.
“No question,” Young said. “I classify him as a power forward. He has to finish checks, get his nose dirty and block shots. And he can score.
“When he plays that type of game, he’s very powerful.”
On Twitter: @SUNScottFisher