By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – It was a little after 11 on Friday morning, about eight hours before the Florida Everblades would take the ice against the Mississippi Sea Wolves.
As his new teammates trickled off the ice one by one, Kenndal McArdle stayed. He had one end of the ice to himself, and even though it was snowy and slushy, even though he had just arrived in Florida at midnight after a 12-hour airplane odyssey, even though as a 2005 first-round Florida Panthers draft pick he was never supposed to end up here … McArdle just kept skating.
Shooting and then looping back and around again in a circle, gliding effortlessly despite the still-healing broken foot that made him miss half the season with the AHL’s Rochester Americans.
There was a rhythm to it all — a glide, slap, shhhhhh! of starting and stopping and ice spraying up as the puck banged against the back of the net.
He was 3,400 miles from his Vancouver, British Columbia, home and across Alligator Alley from the team that selected McArdle 20th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, but McArdle was at hockey practice. To him, that was the same everywhere. It was time to work hard.
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McArdle, 21, is the first first-round draft pick ever sent down to the Blades from an NHL affiliate. Current defenseman Brad Brown and former Blades Brad Church and Ty Jones were also first-round picks, but they came to the Blades at the end — not the beginning — of their careers.
Circumstances had to align perfectly to get McArdle to Germain Arena.
First, he played on a horrendous AHL team in Rochester, N.Y. The last-place Amerks won’t reach the playoffs.
Second, he broke his jaw six games into the Amerks’ season and broke his foot shortly after returning, causing him to miss most of this season.
Third, the Panthers have great respect for the Blades’ development program — and the Blades have already clinched a berth in the Kelly Cup playoffs.
Fourth, McArdle agreed to come. His contract with the Panthers stipulates that he can only be sent to the ECHL with his consent. Some players surely would have looked down their noses at it, but McArdle didn’t see things that way.
“Pro playoff experience … that’s something you don’t want to turn down,” he said Friday.
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Not turning it down meant a late flight out of Rochester that turned into a flight to Washington, then to Charlotte, N.C., and finally to Fort Myers, arriving at midnight on Friday.
Some NHL first-rounders become accustomed to private jets and five-star hotels.
McArdle hasn’t gotten that. But when he got to Florida, a teammate was waiting to pick him up at the airport. Nine hours later, he was at the rink.
“Everyone has been so welcoming so far,” McArdle said of his new teammates, just one of whom he’d met before Friday’s pregame skate.
Everything involving hockey still seems so fresh, so exciting for McArdle, who hasn’t had the easiest introduction to pro hockey, given his injuries and Rochester’s struggles.
It’s that kind of spirit that brought McArdle to hockey in the first place, and his mom, Leilani, raised him and drove him to 6 a.m. practices on her own.
McArdle carries that dedication on the ice, playing an entire game in Rochester with a broken foot, taking some of the blame for his coach being fired in Saskatchewan and then leading his Moose Jaw Warriors from last place to the playoffs in junior hockey.
The next year, when he was 20, McArdle was traded to the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, scoring the winning goal on May 18 to help the Giants to the Memorial Cup championship, winning the series 3-1.
It was that kind of spirit, not just McArdle’s numbers (37 goals and 37 assists in 70 games the year before he was drafted) or his size (6-feet, 205 pounds) that made Panthers scouts choose McArdle — or what made coaches select him for Team Canada 2007 to compete in last year’s under-20 world junior tournament. Canada went on to win the gold medal against Russia in January 2007.
It was also his toughness, what teammate David Shantz calls McArdle’s “extremely hard work ethic that speaks for itself.” It’s what Gerry Fleming calls “exciting” about McArdle, and what the Everblades coach hopes will bolster the Blades’ championship bid this season.
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When the Panthers drafted McArdle in 2005, you can bet the Everblades weren’t on their list of plans for the then-18-year-old. This would never have happened if Rochester was better or McArdle could have avoided injury.
But it did happen, and now the Blades find themselves with the fourth-ranked prospect in the Panthers organization here to stay through the playoffs.
If McArdle’s attitude and health continue, it looks to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“Some of the (former Blades) in Rochester gave me a pretty good heads-up when they heard I was coming down,” McArdle said. “Everyone says (Florida) is the right place to go in the (ECHL).”
Even, apparently, for a first-round pick.