McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Former NHL draft pick trades jersey for scrubs

Anesthesia resident reflects on road since he was drafted

By Tucker Wilson
Published: June 24, 2016

Brent MacLellan was at a crossroads in his career — the 20-year-old defenseman was a standout for the Rimouski Oceanic, enough for the Chicago Blackhawks to have taken him early on in the 2001 NHL entry draft a few years prior.

But the Blackhawks didn't offer him a contract, so Brent was invited to the Montreal Canadiens' training camp as a free agent. A "defensive defenseman," MacLellan admittedly didn't have enough natural skill with the puck to become more effective in a game that was rapidly requiring defensemen to be more offense-oriented. He was eventually reassigned to the Canadiens' affiliate team, the Hamilton Bulldogs, and was offered a professional contract by then-General Manager Bob Gainey.

However, signing this document would have also resulted in his forfeiting a significant scholarship that was negotiated for him when he initially joined Rimouski. Brent had to make a choice — continue pursuing hockey through the minor league system and hope that he'd eventually get a call from the big leagues, or try something else.

He chose the latter.

Now, nearly fifteen years since the Hawks called MacLellan's name in the fourth round of the draft, the young physician is almost finished his fourth year of residency in anesthesia at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University.

"If you'd have told back then that I was even going to go to university, I wouldn't have believed you," says MacLellan.

But that's exactly what he did after sitting down with his parents and talking about his options outside of professional hockey.

"I didn't have an exact plan at that time. I wasn't 100 per cent sure that I wanted to pursue medicine. I said to them that [hockey] wasn't working out anymore — there are so few people that truly make it. And they were supportive of that," he says.

"My parents are, of course, a big influence on me."

MacLellan's parents, Joe and Kristen, say their son always excelled at whatever he chose to do, mainly because of his exceptional work ethic, determination and maturity.

"Brent wisely realized that hockey is ultimately a business where, as a professional player, you are competing with many others for a relatively small number of NHL jobs," says Joe.

"It takes a lot of courage for a passionate young man to make such a difficult decision and Kristen and I know several others in similar circumstances to Brent who decided to continue to pursue their fading hockey dreams and eventually never became more than career 'minor leaguers' who never gave the option of pursuing their education enough real consideration. I guess Brent had the wisdom at this critical time in his life to think with his head and not only with his heart."

MacLellan applied his scholarship towards a bachelor of science degree in Biology at Dalhousie University. Both he and his parents say that while MacLellan always had an affinity for education, his older sister Erin, now an obstetrics and gynecology surgeon, might have had an influence on his choosing to go into the sciences.

Having spent a lot of his youth in dressing rooms and out on the ice, MacLellan says those first years of undergrad were a big change.

"I vividly remember being in science labs in my first year of university, sitting next to teenagers and thinking, 'How am I going to interact with them?' Before that, I'd been riding a bus around Canada and talking with other hockey players. So academia was a huge social adjustment for me."

MacLellan eventually settled into the university lifestyle, and went on to get his medical degree at Dalhousie. He'd briefly mulled over becoming a dentist, but ultimately chose to go into anesthesia.

MacLellan says he's learned that his two career paths aren't entirely at opposite ends of the spectrum. There are some transferable skills that he's brought with him into the emergency room.

He says the biggest parallel between the two is teamwork. The challenges of getting your teammates to work together to win a big game are very similar to collaborating with nursing and surgical staff to ensure a sick patient gets through a high risk procedure as safely as possible, MacLellan explains.

He also has been prepped to deal with high pressure situations, though the circumstances are a tad different, he says.

"Performing in front of 20,000 people with your career on the line is a lot of pressure, especially when you're 16. But now when you're working to save someone's life in the middle of the night, there's a lot of pressure. Different pressure, but a lot of it."

And he hasn't completely left the game behind. MacLellan continues to play hockey, this time recreationally and against other doctors. The games are for fun, he says, and he doesn't have to worry about scouts or contracts.

As he reaches the end of his residency — he plans to extend his academic career with a fellowship after this year — MacLellan is able to look back on his unorthodox career path after hockey. With the 2016 NHL draft here, both he and his parents reflect on his journey and conclude that he made an excellent decision.

Dr. Fred Baxter, a clinical professor of anesthesia at McMaster, agrees with those sentiments. MacLellan recently received the inaugural Dr. Fred Baxter Award for Excellence in Nephrology and Patients Care, and the award's namesake had some glowing words for its recipient.

"Brent was drafted to the NHL but wisely decided to go down this path instead," says Baxter. "He could go out and practice tomorrow."

As long and arduous as his post-hockey career has been, MacLellan says he's happy he didn't sign that contract with the Montreal Canadiens. MacLellan, and everyone around him, says that he made the best career choice possible, and is now being rewarded for taking door number two.

"I realized that getting an education like this is really the best overall route to a stable career. I feel lucky that I'm able to do something I enjoy and, to be honest, for which I'm best suited compared to pro hockey."

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