As teammates on the Barrie Colts in junior hockey, Reid McNeill and Norm Ezekiel were asking each other to pass the puck.
Three years later, one was asking the other to fight.
During his first full season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, McNeill hasn’t strayed from the sound, devensive game that landed the 21-year-old blueliner in the AHL. But he has developed another element — fighting.
And he’s gotten pretty good at it.
Over the last three seasons, McNeill totaled nine fights during two years in juniors, and last season with the Wheeling Nailers and a late run with the Penguins.
This year, after appearing in 43 games with the Penguins, McNeill has equaled that total.
And it wasn’t by accident.
“Coming into this year, I knew I had to bring a different element to my game,” McNeill said. “Just trying to find something as a way to get noticed.”
Last weekend, McNeill dropped the gloves on back-to-back nights. On Friday, he squared off against Hamilton’s Justin Courtnall in a decisive win. The next night, McNeill fought Norfolk’s Garnet Exelby after the veteran tough guy laid a hit on teammate Adam Payerl.
“I made a bad pass to Payerl and had to jump in there,” McNeill said.
The move caught the attention of head coach John Hynes.
“The fact that Reid did that is part of his makeup as a player. It was good to see him do that,” Hynes said. “Part of Reid’s game is fighting and he’s done it at the right time.”
There’s a couple of reason’s why McNeill is fighting more than he ever did in his career. Not only is it a valuable element that could make him more appealing as an NHL player one day, but the 6-3, 210-pound blueliner is comfortable with that part of the game.
McNeill admits that he never learned how to fight properly during his junior days, but this season he has one of the best teachers in teammate Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. The pair often spar at the end of practice with Leblond offering tips to McNeill.
They are lessons that McNeill is putting to good use.
“A lot of people don’t understand that fighting is a skill,” he said. “Pierre is one of the best at what he does, and having him teaching me some stuff really improves your confidence. There’s been some times where I had to learn the hard way, but I also have used some of the things that he taught me.”
Leblond, who leads the Penguins with 17 fighting majors and has 120 AHL fights to his credit, is glad to help his young teammate, both in practice and before games.
“Before games, I tell him the guys I know. He’s been asking more questions about it and he’s doing well,” Leblond said. “It’s nice to mentor a young guy like that who wants to learn. I tell him to try something in a fight and he does it. Reid is going to be a good fighter and a good player.”
While McNeill’s fighting majors this season are triple what he posted last year, his penalty minute total hasn’t gone through the roof.
In 44 games with Wheeling last year, McNeill registered 90 penalty minutes, inclufing two fighting majors.
After 43 games with the Penguins this season and nine fighting majors, McNeill is third on the team with 101 penalty minutes. Avoiding costly penalties is another aspect McNeill has worked on, in addition to fighting.
“Last year, there was a longer transition period and my D-zone coverage was a little looser than it is now. You lose your guy and it means you have to use your stick. That results in more penalties,” he said. “This year, I’m trying to stay away from those stick penalties.”
And that is another element which could pave the way for McNeill to reach the NHL one day as a physical, shutdown defenseman.
Even if it means fighting a few more former teammates along the way.
McNeill admits the Ezekiel fight was a little different in that he was now dropping the gloves against a player he used to play with.
“That was the first time I ever had to do that. We had the lead so I was kind of hesitant. But he asked and stayed on me, so we went,” McNeill said. “But that was a fun fight for us, kind of seeing where each of us stood. And as with most fights, there’s a lot of respect. We gave each other a tap at the end and left it on the ice.”