BY TERRY BRIDGE, LISTOWEL BANNER SPORTS
KINGSTON – Doug Gilmour feels Roland McKeown will be a perfect fit for his hockey club.
Gilmour, general manager of the Kingston Frontenacs, selected McKeown with the second overall pick of the 2012 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection.
He thinks the big blueliner from Listowel will play a big role for his team right out of the chute.
“He’s a horse out there to start with, he logs a lot of minutes. Offensively he’s gifted, defensively he’s gifted, so he’s an all-around player,” Gilmour said over the phone from Kingston last week. “Roland’s going to get a great opportunity.” Being drafted so high by the Frontenacs was a thrill, but 16-year-old McKeown feels his hockey odyssey is only just beginning.
“It’s pretty humbling, I’m honoured to be selected there,” McKeown said. “I’m proud and I’m really looking forward to getting going here because the draft doesn’t make or break anybody, you’ve still got to keep progressing down the road.”
McKeown was taken after the Erie Otters took Connor McDavid with the first overall pick. McDavid is only 15 but was granted exceptional player status prior to the event, making him eligible a year early.
Both players were teammates on the triple-A Toronto Marlboros Minor Midget team this season. They won the Greater Toronto Hockey League championship and came within an overtime goal of taking the OHL Showcase Cup.
McKeown and his family were in Kingston for draft day on April 7 because they already knew Gilmour was going to take him with the pick.
“I knew I was going there but you never feel too comfortable,” McKeown said, adding that he was up at 6 a.m. that morning tossing and turning in anticipation. “Sitting in the conference room I had butterflies going through my stomach before my name got called.”
Roland’s dad Neil played minor hockey against Gilmour as he grew up in Belleville, about an hour from Kingston. Neil enjoyed experiencing his son’s latest career progression.
“It was a foregone conclusion, I’d say we celebrated that he moved on to the next level is the best way to put it,” Neil said. “It wasn’t a surprise, so it was more of a graduation, that’s how I looked at it.”
Neil and Roland have primarily lived in Etobicoke during the last two hockey seasons. Neil is a manager at a company that makes landscape fills and mulches, with several locations in the Greater Toronto Area.
Roland, after growing up in Listowel and skating for the triple-A Huron-Perth Lakers, was able to join the Marlboros organization, a minor hockey system steeped in history and excellence in producing talented players.
It was speculated for most of the 2011-12 season that Roland would be a top-five OHL pick, but it was still nice to put the whole process to bed for the Marlies captain.
“It’s a little overwhelming but I’m glad it’s all over with,” Roland said. “I’m looking forward to going down to the city of Kingston and rebuilding there.”
Management escorted him – wearing a bright yellow and black Frontenacs jersey complete with his No. 20 and the McKeown nameplate on the back – to a nearby sports bar where the club held a draft day party. They anticipated about 30 people would attend, but to their surprise about 130 showed up to welcome their new blueline prospect and Marlies teammate Sam Bennett, the Frontenacs’ second pick in the first round, ninth overall.
“They gave them a standing ovation when they walked in, people were excited,” Neil said. “It’s actually a good hockey market, but they haven’t had a whole lot to cheer about [lately].”
“Signed autographs, took pictures, that was a cool experience,” Roland noted.
With 100-plus fans showing up just to welcome their newest rookies to the city, what kind of pressure does that equate to?
“It’s pressure, but you have to take the pressure in stride and move forward,” Roland noted. “It’s always good to be a guy that’s keyed on, I like that kind of pressure.
“I thrive off that pressure, I think it’s something you have to cherish through life. Not everybody gets the opportunity, you always have to be ready when that opportunity comes. It’s a lot about preparation, whenever that pressure’s put upon me I always accept it with a smile.” Gilmour, 48, saw plenty of McKeown’s games this season, partly because his son Jake also played in the GTHL for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens.
“He was consistent all year, obviously got the senses that we’re looking for,” said Gilmour, who also drafted his son Jake. “In our eyes he’s obviously going to be a potential pro and, not to put pressure on him, but he’s one of those guys that loves the game and he’s committed to it. Again, he’s going to lead the rush and be the first guy back at the same time.”
Kingston has a population of about 150,000 and is home to Queen’s University, one of the selling points as far as the McKeowns were concerned.
“As a family we all liked Kingston, a nice university there makes them that much more comfortable that there’s quality there. It’s a beautiful city, we like it,” said Roland, whose older brother John is heading to the University of Ottawa and oldest brother George is already enrolled at Montreal’s McGill University.
Roland was recently at a regional camp in hopes of making Team Ontario for the World U-17 Hockey Challenge. The provincial camp is in Cornwall July 3-8, then the tournament is around Christmas-time.
Until then, Roland will finish the school year at Etobicoke’s Richview Collegiate Institute.
Next year he will enroll at Kingston’s Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School. Between school years there is off-ice dryland training and strength and conditioning in Kitchener.
With McDavid being a year younger, McKeown is essentially the second ’96 birth-year to be drafted to the OHL after defenceman Aaron Ekblad was snagged first overall in 2011 by the Barrie Colts when he was granted exceptional status.
McKeown and Ekblad have crossed paths plenty of times through their minor hockey days.
Having Bennett – not only a teammate but a good friend and classmate at Richview – join him through this experience and end up with the same OHL club was a thrill for both of them.
“[Sam’s] really good friends with Roland. That’s exciting, not only from a personal standpoint, but we’re all big believers in Sam’s ability,” Neil said. “Ultimately Roland wants to win, that’s a good step for the Frontenacs.”
It’s a rebuilding squad that finished with a 19-41-3-5 record and missed the playoffs, but the existing group of players that are there are excited to add players like McKeown and Bennett to their core.
“Their Frontenac veteran core has already reached out to Roland and offered their congratulation, but also their support in anything they can help them with. That was very nice to see too,” Neil said.
Kingston was part of a player controversy a year ago when first-round pick Max Domi refused to report to the club. They ended up dealing his rights to London, which helped kick-start the rebuild and ended up benefiting them long-term.
“We’re still a young hockey club, we had 12 guys 17 and younger last year, adding four more 16-year-olds again,” Gilmour noted. “You look at Ekblad last year, as an underage but rookie year, and he logged 20 minutes a game, so we’re expecting the same for Roland.
“We’ll give him every opportunity on this hockey club to succeed.”