Carson McMillan is the consummate hockey professional. The Steelheads forward looks, thinks and acts the part, and he has more than 400 games of pro experience — including 16 in the NHL.
Despite his impressive resume, McMillan brings a workmanlike attitude to the rink every day. And that mentality, coupled with outstanding leadership qualities and on-ice versatility, made the first-year Steelhead an easy choice as captain for coach Neil Graham.
“Carson has made it all the way to the pinnacle of our sport, and he got there by playing the right way,” Graham said. “We talk a lot about doing the little things, and when you see your captain doing those things every single night — especially a guy who’s played at the levels he’s played at — it certainly sets a great example for everyone else.”
The 27-year-old Canadian was a seventh-round pick in the 2007 NHL Draft. He has played 351 games in the AHL and 16 in the NHL, all with the Minnesota Wild. He scored a goal in his 2011 NHL debut and has two goals and three assists overall while playing on the world’s biggest hockey stage.
Those are fond memories for McMillan, but they haven’t altered his approach to the game.
“Wherever I go and whoever I’m playing with, I’m just working hard,” McMillan said. “I think that’s what got me to the NHL. I’m grateful for those opportunities, and I’ll never forget them.”
With Minnesota, McMillan was one of the younger players on the team. In Idaho, he’s the elder statesman in a locker room full of youngsters hoping to one day skate in the NHL. During his first full ECHL season, McMillan has been the tone-setter for the Steelheads with his gritty consistency, no matter the situation.
“He’s been a steady rock all year for us,” said alternate captain Jefferson Dahl, a second-year pro. “We have a young team, and Carson was a calming influence when we were struggling early in the year. He’s been unbelievable, both in the locker room and on the ice. It’s easy to follow a guy like him.”
The ice hasn’t always been smooth for the Steelies. The first two months of the season were full of challenges as the team hovered near the bottom of the ECHL West Division. But the players kept believing in Graham’s system — and in each other — and the team has quickly roared to the top of the standings.
The Steelheads have won 22-of-30 games since Dec. 11.
McMillan’s leadership played a big role in the team’s turnaround, says Andrew Carroll, an alternate captain and Idaho’s second-most experienced veteran.
“He blocks shots, he takes big face-offs and he just kind of grinds away,” Carroll said. “In the locker room, he’s able to tell guys if they’re doing the right things, and if they’re not, he tells them how to change it. I’ve been very impressed by him with that.
“It’s pretty easy to look across the room and see Carson and know that he’s got your back.”
McMillan is known as a blue-collar grinder, but players don’t reach the NHL without some high-level talent, too. After a slow start in the scoring column, the Idaho captain has poured it on of late, scoring nine goals in his past 13 games.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit for his skillset,” Graham said. “He has great hands, and he’s definitely capable of being a big contributor for us in the offensive end.”
The goals have come in bunches for McMillan, who netted his first professional hat trick Jan. 27 and had another three-goal night Sunday at Wichita. Heading into this weekend’s pivotal home series versus Utah, he ranks second on the team with 15 goals in 53 games.
“I don’t worry too much about scoring goals,” McMillan said. “I worry more about winning face-offs, playing good D-zone and helping out on the penalty kill. But it’s always fun to score and to help the team out that way.”
Steelheads get new goalie for weekend series
▪ Who: vs. Utah Grizzlies
▪ When: 7:10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
▪ Where: CenturyLink Arena
▪ Radio/TV: 1350 AM/Cable One channel 72
▪ Tickets: CenturyLink Arena box office or idahosteelheads.com
▪ Notable: Goalie Philippe Desrosiers has been sent to Idaho by the affiliate Texas Stars of the AHL. He replaces Jack Campbell, who was sent to Texas earlier this week. Desrosiers played 20 games in Idaho earlier this season (8-6-3, 2.46 goals-against average, .907 save percentage). Idaho also has Branden Komm on its roster. ... The Steelheads have a two-point lead on Utah for first place in the West Division of the ECHL.