Greater Trail hockey player Erin McLean may have taken the road less travelled, but she is making a living at playing the game she loves.
The former Kootenay Wildcat defenceman signed a contract to play professional hockey with Team Kazakhstan, also known as the Aisulu Almaty of the European Women’s Elite Hockey League earlier this year.
“Playing professional hockey is a dream come true, and there’s days when I think I should be paying them for allowing me to be here,” McLean told the Times from a stop in Vipeteno, Italy. “I grew up playing with the Wildcats in the West Kootenay and was lucky enough to have a father (Grant), who was passionate about progressing the female game.”
The 10 team league includes representatives from eight different countries including Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Italy, Poland and Germany.
McLean played her minor hockey in Trail and for the Midget AAA Wildcats where she was recruited by the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). At SAIT, she earned Rookie of the Year honour in her first year, was named assistant captain in her second, and MVP in her third year. She transferred to Mount Royal University in Calgary to finish her last two years of eligibility playing University or ‘USports’ hockey.
The 24-year-old is part of a group of 1995 born hockey players that are set to embark on their professional careers. McLean grew up with former Trail Smoke Eaters Jake Lucchini, Scott Davidson, and Craig Martin. Lucchini is set to play in the American Hockey League with the Pittsburgh Penguins affiliate, and Quinnipiac grads Davidson and Martin signed contracts with South Carolina Stingrays and the Adirondack Thunder, respectively, in the ECHL.
Erin’s time playing at her sister Chelsea’s alma mater also paved the way to the EWHL. She toured with the Almaty team in February for a month before returning home, then was invited back for another tour in April. A spiral fracture of her left tibia postponed her return to Kazakhstan, but the Trail product made an impression, and the Almaty wanted her back.
“Before breaking my leg, I thought I would continue to travel back and forth, but my injury really made me realize the fragility of being an athlete. It’s not something me or my body can do forever … ultimately Aisulu Almaty offered me a salary to move to Kazakhstan full time and I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Each EWHL team is allowed four North American skaters, yet, McLean and two other Canadian players decided to relocate to Kazakhstan and apply for dual citizenship. The move will free up spots for the Almaty to sign more North American players as well as make McLean a Kazakh citizen and therefore eligible to compete in I.I.H.F. sanctioned events and in the Olympic qualifier next December.
The Almaty is also the Kazakh National Team and supplemented by the government, yet, the team is also affected by the shifting politics of the times and recently endured a budget cut.
Despite the many challenges and detractors, players with the skill and dedication of McLean can only help grow the game and guide it to the next level.
“I still remember being the young girl who was asked if my hockey jacket was my boyfriend’s, and academic advisors telling me I couldn’t be a professional female hockey player ‘because one day I’d get sick of eating pasta’.”
McLean doesn’t mind eating pasta, especially in Italy, where the team has been for the last week playing EWHL regular season games. She plans to make her home in Kazakhstan, continue to improve her game, and, eventually, fulfill another dream of playing hockey in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
“From a young age I always dreamed of a being an athlete, but could not have imagined the crazy windy path it has been to get here.
“I could not be more proud of our ‘95 class, and it is so crazy to think those kids wobbling around the kids’ rink at the Cominco Arena are getting paid to play in rinks across the world,” added McLean. “We truly owe it to our community, as Trail has an amazing way of supporting athletic aspirations. I hope we can inspire the next generation of athletes to stick with their sport, and to see the unfathomable opportunities the game has to offer.”
Aisulu kicked off the 2019-20 season with the ‘Super Cup’ tournament in Germany earlier this month, and continues on to Denmark for games against Hvidovre Ishockey Klub.