Junior hockey can be a nomadic sport for some, with players transferring from team to team – across multiple leagues – over the course of their careers.
One minute, you can be on Vancouver Island and the next, find yourself in an unfamiliar jersey playing in a small rink in northern Manitoba.
Such is the life of a young hockey player.
Surrey Eagles captain Paul McAvoy knows this better than most – he’s been a man on the move ever since he started seriously chasing his hockey dream at the age of 13.
Unlike some of his teammates, who grew up in communities where hockey was popular and possibilities plentiful, the 20-year-old McAvoy was afforded no such luxury. Born in Ohio, he grew up in Richmond, Ky. – a hotbed of horse racing and college basketball.
“I think when I played, we had two rinks in the whole state,” he said.
“But I think we have three now, so it’s slowly growing.”
After playing minor hockey in nearby Lexington until he was 11, McAvoy moved on to play with a higher-level team an hour up the road in Louisville – home of the Kentucky Derby – for the next two seasons.
Then, at 13 – and with an eye towards playing at the AAA level, which in the U.S. is a stepping stone to junior – he headed south to Alabama, another non-traditional hockey market.
In Alabama, he suited up for a AAA squad that McAvoy called “basically a southeast all-star team.” After one season in the south, he packed his bags and headed north to Cleveland, where he spent two seasons playing for the Barons’ AAA organization – “That’s where I really developed,” he said – and then returned south again for one last AAA season, with the Dallas Ice Jets.
McAvoy admits that moving so far from home – repeatedly – was tough on him at first, but both he and his family knew it was in the best interest of his hockey development.
“At first it was tough. I was homesick at first, being 13, 14 and moving away from home,” he said.
“I didn’t know how to do laundry, didn’t know how to cook, but I had some good help from billet families.
“And as you get older, you get more comfortable with it, you adjust and it becomes fun. You get to see a lot of the country.”
No matter where he was during his cross-country hockey adventure, McAvoy said his parents would follow, racking up Air Miles by flying in “every couple weekends” to see him play.
“We get pretty good deals on flights by this point,” he laughed.
It was his parents – specifically, his father – who turned McAvoy onto hockey.
“My dad used to play. He grew up in Michigan and grew up in New Jersey and New York, so he played hockey his whole life, in college,” he explained. “We had a minor-pro team in Lexington, too – for about a year or two. The Kentucky Thoroughblades. I went to a game one time, and I was hooked.”
After his time at the AAA level ended, McAvoy spent two seasons playing junior hockey in Connecticut, and then made the move to the BC Hockey League last season after being recruited by head coach Blaine Neufeld at a showcase tournament in Boston.
Though the Eagles were coming off a historically poor season at the time – and would have one more to come – McAvoy was enticed by the chance to play a lot while also gaining better exposure to college scouts.
“I took it as an opportunity to play. I think there was a lot of playing time offered and available last year and it was a good way to get my feet wet in the BCHL,” said McAvoy, who had 14 goals and 32 points in 48 games in his rookie season.
The move to Surrey also gave the well-travelled American a chance to experience a new country, as well as come further west than he’d ever been.
“I’d never been to the coast before – the closest I’d ever been was Las Vegas,” he said.
“I thought it was beautiful. I’d never seen oceans and mountains like there are here. It’s something else – especially coming from Kentucky where it’s all hills and horses.”
Midway through last season, after a handful of trades shuffled the team’s roster, McAvoy was named captain by the coaching staff. Then in training camp this year, he was voted by his teammates to again wear the ‘C’ on his jersey.
“He’s a very loyal teammate, and the guys look to him (to lead),” said Neufeld. “At the junior level, (being captain) can be an extra burden for a player who is still trying to get his feet wet, but Paul has been great. He’s not a ‘me’ guy – he’s all about the team.”
McAvoy – who has 17 points in 17 games so far this season – had such a strong first year that his play ensured he’d soon be on the move again. Last May, he committed to Colgate University, and he’ll join the Hamilton, N.Y.-based team for the 2017/18 season. Current Eagles teammate Jeff Stewart – a Semiahmoo Minor Hockey alum – will join him on the team the following season.
Assuming he spends a full four- or five-year term at Colgate, it will be the longest McAvoy has ever spent with one team since his minor-hockey days in Kentucky.
But with an NCAA scholarship in his back pocket, the unorthodox route was worth it, he said.
“When you’re looking to go the junior and college route, it’s what you do.”