The phone call virtually every hockey player dreams of came for Brandon McMillan in the wee hours of the morning on Nov. 20.
The former Kelowna Rockets forward was told to pack his bags for sunny California where he would join the Anaheim Ducks for the start of his National Hockey League career.
McMillan began his first pro campaign with the Ducks’ AHL affiliate last October in Syracuse, N.Y., but his stint in the minors ended after just 16 games.
“I thought I was playing pretty well in Syracuse, I was getting settled there, so I was sort of prepared to play the season there,” said McMillan who played four seasons with the Rockets. “But for some reason, I just had the feeling I was going to get called up. When it happened, there were a lot of nerves and excitement all mixed in. I wanted to be there, but didn’t know if I could do it. But once I got there and started to feel comfortable, things kind of fell into place.”
A third-round draft pick of the Ducks in 2008, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound McMillan didn’t take long to settle his rookie nerves as he scored his first NHL goal in just his third game. The memorable marker came on Nov. 27 in Phoenix against the Coyotes.
“It was a play where (Ryan) Getzlaf beat a couple of guys and just slid it over to me, back door,” said McMillan. “I would have been pretty upset if I would have missed. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a good feeling. It’s nice when you can get those out of the way early and get on with things.”
McMillan would go on to play in 60 regular season games for Anaheim, scoring 11 goals and adding 10 assists, while averaging more than 14 minutes of ice time per game.
And much like he did in the WHL, McMillan displayed his versatility for the Ducks, playing all three forward positions, killing penalties and adapting to a number of different linemates during the season.
“For a rookie, Brandon was pretty impressive,” said Ducks assistant coach Mike Foligno. “He became a very versatile player for us, one of those guys with a lot of speed who has the potential to do a lot of things for you. We put in him some key situations and a lot of times he made us, as a coaching staff, feel comfortable having him out there. When Getzlaf was hurt, he even played on our top line and the job he did was commendable.”
Still, as much progress as McMillan made in his first season, Foligno is confident the 21-year-old forward has much more to offer in the years to come.
“Like every young player, he has areas we want him to shore up, we think he can do more offensively, but that will come in time,” Foligno continued. “We know he can give us more and we’re always trying to help players realize their full potential. We’ve been very demanding on Brandon and he’s responded pretty well to that.”
As is the case for any newcomer to the NHL, McMillan found the speed and physical aspects of the game the most difficult adjustments to make.
But perhaps making that learning curve a little less severe for the speedy forward was the opportunity to witness some of his veteran teammates ply their trade on a daily basis: namely Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan.
“Getting to watch those guys every day, to watch what they do, you can’t help but pick up things from each of them,” he said. “Selanne, he just loves the game, he has fun with it every day. That rubs off on you. When you see him enjoying it the way he does, it makes you want to do the same.”
One of the disappointing turns during McMillan’s rookie season in the NHL was the Ducks’ first-round exit from the playoffs last week at the hands of the Nashville Predators.
Still, there are more than few positives for McMillan to build on from his first tour of duty in the big time.
“At first it was a bit surreal, but then as I got more comfortable, it was such a good experience. As a whole my first year of pro hockey was good, it was a lot of fun,” said McMillan, who insists he’s taking nothing for granted as he looks ahead to his future in the NHL.
“I know I still have to come back next season and earn my spot again. I need to have a good summer, try to keep developing my game, and come back ready to go in the fall.”
But before then, he plans to relax and enjoy some time off from the rigors of his rookie season in the pro ranks. McMillan and a couple of friends will head to Europe next week for a little vacation time in Italy and Greece.