WOLFVILLE, N.S. – By John DeCoste – Prior to the fall of 2017, it was rare for the Acadia hockey Axemen to have a player whose father had played in the NHL. The list, including Fred Armstrong (son of long-time Toronto captain George Armstrong), an Axemen player in the early 1980s, has not been a long one.
It’s still a fairly rare occurrence, but for the record, this year’s Axemen roster includes not one, but two ‘second generation’ hockey players, whose dads were both long-time NHLers.
Second-year winger Jack McClelland is the son of Kevin McClelland, who played all of part of 14 seasons with five NHL teams.
The elder McClelland spent most of his career as a valuable role player with the Edmonton Oilers, and ended up part of four Stanley Cup champions as a teammate of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
Jack McClelland, who was born in Oshawa, ON in 1996, the year after his father retired as a player, grew up in the U.S, largely in Wichita, Kansas where Kevin served as head coach of the CHL Wichita Thunder from 2010-2016.
“I was born in Oshawa, but I didn’t live there long,” says Jack, who moved around a lot as a youth as his father’s lengthy coaching career progressed.
He played most of his junior hockey with the Wichita Thunder Tier 1 Junior A team in the Western States Hockey League. His father was coaching the pro team in Wichita at the time, “so I was never coached by him.”
First-year Axemen defenseman T.J. Fergus is the son of Tom Fergus, who played all or part of 12 NHL seasons, including multiple years in Boston, Toronto and Vancouver.
While he never got his name on the Stanley Cup, Tom Fergus finished his career in 1995 with 235 goals and 581 points in 726 NHL games. He had 28 and 30-goals season with Boston, and scored a season-high 31 goals his first season with Toronto in 1985-1986.
T.J. Fergus, born in Oakville, ON in 1997 – two years after his dad retired as a player following two seasons playing in Switzerland – played his major junior hockey in the OHL, spending three seasons with the Erie Otters and splitting his age-20 season between Hamilton and Barrie.
During his time with Erie, he was a teammate of current NHL superstar Connor McDavid, who “was my captain” during the 2014-2015 season.
As for how they came to choose Acadia, McClelland noted, “my assistant coach in Wichita was Sean O’Reilly,” whose five years at Acadia included a pair of national championships in 1993 and 1996.
“During my final season, he put me in touch with (Axemen head coach) Darren Burns,” who liked his style and character and recruited him to Acadia. “I love it here,” Jack says. “I love the small-town feel, I love the hockey, and academically, this is a prestigious school, and I love that part as well.”
T.J. Fergus began his hockey career as a forward, but switched to defense when he reached minor midget. He suggested, “I would term myself an ‘offensive’ defenseman.” Though not a high goal scorer in major junior, he had seasons of 33 points with Erie and 41 points with Hamilton and Barrie, and “likes being part of the offense” in addition to the defensive side of his game.
As for ending up at Acadia, there were “three or four guys” he had played against in junior who ended up at Acadia, including Ryan Foss, Dawson Carty and 2017-2018 AUS scoring champ Stephen Harper.
“Once I decided on the university route, I visited (Wolfville and Acadia) and loved it from the start.” He is still managing the transition to the university experience, both on the ice and in the classroom after not being in school for four years. He added, “I’ve really enjoyed it so far.”
Both Jack and T.J. were born after their fathers had finished their NHL careers, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t “special moments” around having fathers who had played hockey at the elite level.
“I wasn’t alive when dad played, but it was cool to have a former NHL player as a dad,” Jack says. “At an early age, I didn’t really understand it, but as I got older, I got to attend some (NHL) alumni events. There are memories I’ll cherish forever, but I’ve never taken anything for granted.”
His father “coached me a lot when I was young,” but not as a junior player. Jack was determined to make it as a player on his own merit, and not as just his father’s son.
“The best thing dad ever told me was to only worry about the things you can control. It was good advice and I’ve followed it ever since. It’s helped keep me sane.”
Jack acknowledged “it was a little bit crazy coming in” to Acadia. “You have to adjust to different situations, and learn to balance hockey and school.” At the same time, “last year was very enjoyable, one of the best years of my life so far.”
Juggling school and hockey “was hard, but I expected that. I played (junior hockey) at a lower level than a lot of these guys, and it took a while to adjust to the pace.
“I play more of a defensive style,” Jack says. “My game is opening up space in the offensive zone for the guys who have more of a chance to score.” He also enjoys the physical side of the game.
For Fergus, Acadia has been “fun so far.” Hockey-wise, “I’ve never been on a team that’s this close as a group, both on and off the ice. It’s been awesome. I’ve really enjoyed being around the guys. Being involved in hockey (at this level), you end up with 20 new best friends.”
The university lifestyle has taken a little getting used to. “It’s a bit different.” In junior, “I was always part of a billet family. Now, living with three teammates, it’s different, but I’m enjoying it so far.”
With a dozen or more first-year players, the Axemen are in a bit of a reloading phase, and their early-season record reflects that. Both McClelland and Fergus see Acadia hockey as a program on the rise, developing and building toward hosting the CIS University Cup in March of 2020.
Fergus is currently enrolled in a business program “for now.” Prior to this year, “I was out of school since finishing high school, focusing on hockey, and it’s been an adjustment.”
On the other hand, “it is getting easier. All the guys in our house are taking a lot of the same courses.” His intention all along has been to enroll in business “and see where that takes me.”
McClelland is in the second year of a kinesiology program, his program of choice. “Actually, there are only three of four of our team this year who are in that program,” he says.
To McClelland, having a relatively ‘famous’ dad “can work both ways. Having the dad I do has meant opportunities for me. It’s definitely been more of an advantage than a disadvantage.”
His father “has always been there for me when I needed it. It’s been great. A very low percentage of the population get to do what he did. I’ve taken all the advice he’s been able to give me.”
While T.J., like Jack, never saw his dad play in the NHL, he says, “I’m definitely proud of him” and what he was able to accomplish as an NHL player. “I’ve put a lot of work into my own hockey career, and all dad ever said to me was to not be afraid to work hard.
“It’s crazy to have a dad who played in the NHL for as long as he did,” T.J. says. “Living in Oakville, so close to Toronto, going to Leafs’ games is special having a dad who played there for eight years.”
While McClelland has his sights set on a career in physiotherapy after graduation from Acadia, “even though it will likely mean a couple of extra years of study,” Fergus’s goal is still to play hockey professionally someday – a path chosen (and achieved) by a number of former Axemen players.
“Another of the reasons I came here is the calibre of hockey (in the AUHC). After school, I’d like to try and pursue a pro hockey career – but with a degree to fall back on if it doesn’t work out.”