The drill looked simple enough. Skate hard from the sideboard next to the face-off dot to the blue-line, stop and skate backward before finishing with a quick pivot.
Isaac MacLeod showed it off first to the Nelson Leafs defencemen, his skating hiding the surgically repaired knees that destroyed his NHL dream last year. Then he watched as his players repeated the motion over and over until MacLeod was satisfied with their footwork.
MacLeod led several more drills before practice ended. Leafs head coach Mario DiBella, who had been helping MacLeod, took the 23-year-old aside afterward.
“We came off the ice and I said, ‘Geez Isaac. All those drills look kind of familiar,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, they were all the ones that you showed me when I played for you.'”
MacLeod, a San Jose Sharks draft pick in 2010 and Boston College defenceman, was hired as an assistant coach by the Leafs in December. The offer came just two months after knee surgery ended his professional career before it ever really began, a new reality he is still trying to cope with.
“It’s tough. I don’t really like looking back on everything that happened because I wish I was still playing. I wish I didn’t have to look back right now. I wish I was still there, but it’s the reality of the game,” said MacLeod.
If some players only get a cup of coffee in the pros, his was just a sip. After graduating from Boston, the Sharks declined to sign him. Instead, MacLeod signed a two-way contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ then-AHL team in Springfield, Mass., and was assigned to the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings for the 2014-15 season.
Nine games into the season a skate tore MacLeod’s Achilles’ tendon. He returned to the ice about a month later — earlier, he thinks now, than he should have — and promptly blew out the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee after just four more games. That ended his season and ultimately his career. His last game was in December 2014.
MacLeod still hoped he’d get back to the game. But during rehab and training he blew out his right knee in early August. His last surgery was in October. His playing days were over.
“If you want to end your hockey career, you kind of want it to be on your terms,” said MacLeod. “You want it to be in your hands. You want to know that you weren’t able to play at that next level or you weren’t going to be successful and you wanted to move on, not having it taken away from you like that. That’s what happens in sports, right?”
He returned to Nelson, the place he was born and grew up in. He got a job, but it wasn’t a hockey job.
Meanwhile, the Leafs needed a new coaching staff. David McLellan resigned as head coach in December and assistant Greg Andrusak exited with him. Team president John Dooley suggested DiBella give MacLeod a call.
DiBella has known MacLeod since he was a small boy — the DiBellas and MacLeods carpooled their kids to preschool together — and later coached MacLeod from age 11 up through bantam hockey.
“Isaac was a very good player, very respectful, well mannered and intelligent young man,” recalls DiBella. “To see him get back to the game warms my heart.”
The pair are close. DiBella recalls asking once what MacLeod’s favourite hockey memory was. To his surprise, it wasn’t the national championship MacLeod won with Boston College in 2012.
Instead, MacLeod said it was when DiBella coached his peewee hockey team that won the West Kootenay championship and went to provincials.
“For all the things that he’s done as a hockey person, to have him name that as one of the greatest highlights of his hockey career was pretty special,” said DiBella.
MacLeod was thrilled by the job offer, which is his first paid coaching job. He said working with the Leafs reminds him of the thrill he got playing for the team when he was 16 and won a KIJHL championship in 2008-09.
Being in charge is still taking some getting used to.
“Every drill I’m sitting there kind of wanting to jump in and do it with them, but it’s their turn to learn right now and my turn to step back and just help them whenever I can,” said MacLeod.
DiBella said he’ll talk about the defence with his staff prior to the game, but when the puck drops MacLeod is in control of the Leafs’ defensive line changes. It’s a lot of trust to place in his protege, but it’s trust that’s been earned.
MacLeod is still recovering from the sudden end to his playing career. He’s keeping his options open. Lately he’s been considering finding a job in Boston that makes use of his business degree, and getting back to the rink is helping. The Leafs have given him purpose again.
“I’m trying to help these guys get to that next level,” said MacLeod. “We’ve got a lot of guys on our team that want to play in the BCHL and get drafted and go play college or major junior. I want to help them achieve those goals so they have some of the memories and some of the feelings that I did growing up.”