30 Sharks: Alyn McCauley Recalls San Jose’s 1st Trip to Conference Finals
Alyn McCauley’s arrival marked a new chapter for the San Jose Sharks.
The 2002-03 season marked a setback for the San Jose Sharks. After establishing themselves as a regular playoff team, the franchise slid back, finishing 28-37-9 for 73 points — 26 lower than the previous campaign — en route to missing the post-season for the first since 1997. Late in the season, the Sharks pulled off a blockbuster trade, which resulted in acquiring Alyn McCauley from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Going to Toronto was franchise player and fan favorite Owen Nolan. Coming with McCauley was prospect Brad Boyes and a 2003 first-round pick.
While parting with Nolan may not have been easy, the Sharks wanted to go young.
It was a fresh start for McCauley too.
In Toronto, the native of Brockville, Ont., had limited ice time. That would change in San Jose.
In this installment of my “30 Sharks” series for San Jose Hockey Now, I speak with Alyn McCauley, who talks about his fondest memories from his time with the Sharks.
A Welcomed Change
Despite being drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1995, McCauley, who was still playing at the major junior level at the time, never played for the club. Instead, in early 1997, the Devils shipped McCauley, along with Steve Sullivan and Jason Smith, to the Maple Leafs in a five-player deal that saw fan favorites, Doug Gilmour and Dave Ellett, head to the Garden State.
After beginning his professional career in the 1997 AHL playoffs in (this writer’s hometown of) St. John’s, Newfoundland, where the Leafs’ affiliate was located at the time, McCauley would make his NHL debut in time for the 1997-98 season.
McCauley would spend the next six seasons with the Leafs, averaging just under six goals and 14 points in each of those campaigns. Unfortunately, concussion issues limited McCauley’s production and saw him play a full 82-game schedule just once with the Leafs.
In March 2003, though, McCauley was traded to the San Jose Sharks and the centerman hoped for a new beginning. However, being traded for a player of Owen Nolan’s caliber, while daunting for some, didn’t seem to affect McCauley.
“I did not really,” he said in response to whether he felt pressure being traded for Nolan. “The [Sharks were] trying to reset after a difficult season. I just wanted to prove that I could handle more responsibility in a greater role. He was an All-Star and I knew that I would never fill that kind of void.”
I then asked McCauley how welcomed he felt joining his new team.
“Although I knew some of the [Sharks] players by name, I didn’t know anybody personally,” he acknowledged. “There were a number of players I grew up watching like Vinny Damphousse and Mike Ricci, Scott Thornton, Bryan Marchment, and the only player I actually knew ahead of time was a guy named Matt Bradley, who had played for the [OHL’s] Kingston Frontenacs. So, when I was home [in Kingston] in the summers, Matt skated with our group, so I knew him.”
For McCauley, though, since he was traded at the NHL’s annual trade deadline, the Sharks made another deal which, unfortunately, came as bad timing for the former Ottawa 67.
“I got traded from Toronto to San Jose and there were a number of trades that happened, also, at the trade deadline, so before I got to play [for the Sharks], Matt was shipped out of town,” McCauley remembered. “The one player I actually knew in San Jose left. So, he was gone and there were a lot of new faces that also came in at the same time I did. So, that probably helped a little bit.”
Fortunately for McCauley, the disappointment of Matt Bradley’s departure from San Jose didn’t last long as those who remained with the team made up for his friend’s exit.
“The guys were fantastic,” beamed McCauley. “I remember my first game, I arrived the day of the game and having a lot of different emotions — being nervous and everything else — but after the game was over, Vinny Damphousse, who was a veteran and a terrific person, too, he pulled me aside and he was, like, ‘Listen, if you need anything, I’ve been in San Jose for many years,’ so he got me in contact with a realtor the very next day. Scott Thornton also had a house in the Kingston area, so I very quickly made connections with guys whether they played in the same junior league or — everybody’s somewhat connected or not too far removed from other players.”
Because of those connections, word traveled fast, even in the days before social media. Nevertheless, it worked in McCauley’s favor.
“Adam Graves was [in San Jose] at that time and had played in New York with Glenn Healy, who was a teammate of mine in Toronto,” the former Shark added. “It was still early in the cell phone days but there still was some contact in those days, before texting, but word certainly got around about the person or the player I was, and I really felt like the veteran corps of that group made me feel welcome.”
While San Jose did provide a welcomed change, an adjustment period was needed for McCauley.
“It still took some time to feel part of the group on the ice because I had gone from playing a fourth-line role in Toronto to what amounted to a second-line role in San Jose,” McCauley explained. “So, it took some adjusting not just on the ice, but the guys were great and, of course, it was a nice change in weather, too. Between November and March, we never had trouble getting family or friends to come out to visit.”
Night and Day
While it may be a privilege to suit up for one of hockey’s most storied franchises, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs comes with a great deal of responsibility and pressure.
Alyn McCauley was no exception to this.
Still, the future pro scout made the best of his time with the Leafs. When he joined the San Jose Sharks, though, he could immediately tell the significant differences between the two markets.
“There was certainly a big difference outside of the rink because I can tell you that while I was in San Jose, I think I was recognized maybe three times outside the arena and when I came back for the [NHL] Awards banquet in ‘04, I believe, in Toronto, I was probably recognized 33 times between the airport and the hotel. So, there was a huge difference,” an amused McCauley noted. “What I would say, though, what was a pleasant surprise or a shock to me was in the arena, and not that year because we weren’t very good, but [in 2003-04], how loud and boisterous, and how knowledgeable the crowd really was. There was a real passion for the Sharks that I’m sure has grown since then.
“It was a really loud building. People were excited, really into the game. We did have some success while I was there, and I’m sure that helped, but the one thing that helped on maybe a personal-slash-professional level was that it was kind of nice to — and trust me, I enjoyed my time in Toronto, met some great people and played with a lot of Hall of Famers — but to step outside the rink [in San Jose] and leave it behind a little bit more instead of having to necessarily talk about what was wrong with the team or how great the team was, it was nice to step away from it at times.
“[That’s] difficult to do for any of the players that are in Toronto and with social media and everything that goes on now, but at that time, it was a nice change of pace.”
While he did wish at times that he could have produced more to help the Sharks celebrate higher success, McCauley nonetheless enjoyed his career in San Jose to the fullest.
“I’ll be honest, I was kind of hoping to be one of those players but just wasn’t lucky to be talented enough, I suppose, to play with one team and end with one team,” he admitted. “So, that was a bit of a shock to the system [being traded to San Jose] and difficult to swallow at the time but I truly enjoyed my time in San Jose. I was lucky in the sense that we had some good teams and some playoff success, although we didn’t go all the way in achieving our ultimate goal.”
A Quick Turnaround
After missing the playoffs in 2003, McCauley and the San Jose Sharks roared back to life the following season, improving by 15 wins and 31 points in 2003-04. Of course, McCauley was not content to sit idly by.
Healthy enough to play in all 82 regular season games, McCauley made the most of this opportunity, setting career highs in goals (20), assists (27), and points (47).
“The ‘03-04 season itself was my most productive in the league,” he reflected. “I scored 47 points, played with Nils Ekman, Alexander Korolyuk, and we had a lot of great chemistry together. We played well with one another as our talents meshed very well together. I was also a finalist for the Selke Award [as the NHL’s top defensive forward]. So, that was a lot of fun, and just that season, it was kind of a younger group.”
While the Sharks would go on to earn 104 points in 2003-04, the season began slowly for the club. They were 1-5-4 and in the midst of a seven-game road trip.
“I do remember being down in Tampa and we had lost a couple of games — I can’t remember if it was two or three games in a row, something like that, and it was early in the year, and we had a closed-door, players-only meeting,” McCauley noted. “And we were a young group — I was 26 and a veteran on the team. So, in the meeting, everyone gave their opinions on where we were at, where we needed to go.”
Then, a turning point occurred that gave the Sharks the proverbial kick in the pants they needed to get going.
“We kind of made a truce, a promise to each other that we weren’t going to lose two games in a row the rest of the way, which seemed like a simple goal but in reality, can be difficult to achieve,” McCauley added. “But we did, and we kind of just got rolling from there. We didn’t play a great game in Tampa — [the meeting] was after the game at practice the next morning — and Ron wasn’t very happy with our performance the night before — and Tampa was a good team; they won the Stanley Cup [later] that year — then, we went into Florida, won that game and go on a bit of a roll.”
The rest, as they say, is history as the Sharks didn’t lose consecutive regulation games until February.
“That [meeting] was a real bonding moment for us,” he continued. “It was like once [we] lost a game, then we were, like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to be sharp tomorrow,’ and everyone kind of bought into that mindset. At times, it’s the game of hockey and it’s simple and maybe a simple approach can have the right kind of results.”
Whatever it is was, though, McCauley and company were committed to enjoying the ride.
“It was a lot of fun that season to be around our group and just good vibes,” reflected the former centerman. “The year before, I think, was difficult. I got traded there towards the end of the year, but it seemed like a lot of the guys were happy that the season was over with and there were a number of new faces the following year and just a number of guys coming into their own. A lot of players were establishing themselves and I benefitted from the team’s success. Also, my linemates [Ekman and Korolyuk]: Both smart, competitive players and we had a lot of chemistry together. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. Alex didn’t come back the following season and my body started to fail me, as well.
“But that year was a lot of fun. I loved being in San Jose. It’s a wonderful community. At the time, I was hoping to remain with the team and then ride off into the sunset and retire as a Shark. That’s not how it went down and that’s life but it was a lot of fun being a Shark.”
While they may not have gone all the way in achieving their ultimate goal, the San Jose Sharks did set a franchise precedent in McCauley’s first full season with the club. In 2004, the Sharks advanced to the Western Conference Final for the first time in team history, facing their former coach Darryl Sutter and the Calgary Flames. Yet, while they ultimately lost in six games to the Flames, that single-season turnaround nonetheless proved to be the most impressive in team history at that juncture.
The Right Motivators
In San Jose, McCauley played for a coaching staff that included a former Leaf teammate.
“My first year in Toronto, I actually played with Rob Zettler, so I had a bit of a relationship, we’ll say, with Rob from our playing days together,” recalled the former Ottawa 67. “As far as he and the rest of the coaches, [head coach] Ron [Wilson] as well, it certainly gave me more responsibility, more opportunity. I felt like they were very well prepared.”
McCauley continued, elaborating on what made Ron Wilson such an effective coach for the San Jose Sharks.
“Ron was a very analytical guy, probably a little before his time,” he said. “He had this device, I think it was called a Sling — I’m pretty sure it’s still around — but you could take your video from your home system, whether it’d be satellite or whatever, and you could throw it to a device. So, he would have it on his phone or — I can’t even remember what else he had it hooked up to at that time, maybe it was his laptop — but he was a very detailed coach.”
As much as he respected him professionally, though, the former Leaf was a fan of Wilson as a person, as well.
“He was also a very sarcastic guy and much more — I don’t know if ‘sociable’ is the right word, but he wanted to have some kind of connection to the players because he was a player himself,” McCauley added.
As important as Ron Wilson was to McCauley, though, the Brockville native used the opportunity to segue into his experiences with his previous coach, Hockey Hall of Famer, the late, great Pat Quinn in Toronto.
“Pat Quinn, wonderful man,” McCauley beamed. “And maybe it was just because Ron was a younger coach and Pat was an older coach — but Pat was just a coach. I mean, there were times, one-on-one, where Pat would act as a dad or along those lines. But, for the most part, there was a separation between player and coach, whereas Ron lessened that gap a little bit and so it was a different dynamic, if you will, with Ron in that respect. But all three guys [Zettler, Wilson, Quinn] had played before at that level, all were very sharp, astute hockey minds, and they had us very well prepared for games.”
While on the topic of Quinn, McCauley immediately thought of the Leafs’ assistant coaches at the time — a coach who the former center marveled at in terms of his preparation for games.
“It reminded me, actually, of my first year in the league when we had a coach named Mike Kitchen,” McCauley noted. “Even though we weren’t a great hockey team, Mike was very detailed in his preparation for opponents and in particular with the penalty kill. That’s kind of the way I am in my life. I like to be a detailed person and so it was a good connection from the coaches to the players, to myself, because that’s how I approached the game.”
Pat Quinn, however, was not the only Hall of Fame coach that had McCauley had the privilege of playing for.
In his four years with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, he played for one of the winningest coaches ever in Brian Kilrea. For McCauley, though, Kilrea meant more than his legendary status.
“Killer really helped me to grow up and mature both on and off the ice,” he emphasized. “Taught me how to be accountable to my teammates and take on a leadership role. Those would be the biggest lessons I learned under Kilrea.”
One moment that immediately came to mind for McCauley from his San Jose Sharks’ career came not from an on-ice accomplishment, but what he received for it.
“Well, my only career hat trick came as a San Jose Shark,” McCauley noted. “We were down in Florida and I scored two goals in the first period and while I can’t say any of them were highlight-reel goals, they did find the back of the net. Then, I scored one early in the second period [for the hat trick] and I still have the trophy that one of the equipment managers made for me.
“He would come and work as equipment manager but his day job was at Boeing or NASA. It was crazy. He was an engineer. I can’t think of what type of engineer he was but he was a really sharp guy and, as a hobby, he would come help at the rink. So, if there was a goalie’s first shutout or somebody got 50 goals or a hat trick or something like that, he would make these trophy-looking things. So, that was certainly a special thing for me.”
Yet, while his role may have changed in San Jose, so did the forward’s status.
“Something that was a big change for me was that I was one of the younger players really all my time in Toronto — and there were a few younger guys that came along like Nik Antropov and Tommy Kaberle — and then I went into San Jose and I was the 25, 26 years old, and it was a really young group there. So, I became a part of the old, veteran crew and that was different. I got to take on more of a leadership role and those responsibilities,” explained McCauley. “Getting to wear the captaincy in San Jose was something I took a lot of pride in and was honored to have that for the length of time that I did.”
Of course, San Jose also holds a special place in the veteran’s heart on a personal note.
“My son was born in San Jose during our time there, although he can’t really remember it because he was too young,” McCauley fondly noted. “But, it was one of the only times where I had all my family there to watch [me as] more of a productive player.
“Just a lot of fond memories. I still keep in contact with a gentleman, Chris Peacock. The Peacocks lived around the corner from us. They had kids around the same age as our kids. We have a similar interest in golf, in The Masters, and he was always asking me about stuff with the Sharks. We just lived in a great community there.”
Overall, San Jose marked a very special juncture in Alyn McCauley’s life, and he’s richer for it.
“Life has twists and turns that you can’t foresee,” he began. “I do wish that I had the opportunity that my body had held up and could have been a San Jose Shark for the remainder of my career and retired there. My wife loved the community and city. If my family wasn’t in the Kingston-Ganonoque-1000 Islands area, we probably would have settled down there.”
In 174 regular season games with the franchise, Alyn McCauley scored 35 goals and 48 assists and added a pair of tallies and helpers in 17 postseason games.
In the summer of 2006, McCauley would head down to Southern California, signing with the Los Angeles Kings. Unfortunately, the former centerman would only play 10 games for the team before retiring because of knee issues.
Don’t feel too bad for him, though.
In 2008, McCauley returned to Kingston to become an assistant coach with the Queen’s University Golden Gails. The next year, he returned to the NHL, re-joining the Kings as a pro scout and earning two Stanley Cup rings with the team along the way.
These days, McCauley continues his role as a pro scout but with the Philadelphia Flyers, who he has been with since 2017.
He may have wanted to play a bit longer and score a few more goals, but as far as the 43-year-old is concerned, there is no reason to change a thing.
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