Michael McNiven puts the people who matter the most to him in his heart before every game with the Owen Sound Attack.
The 17-year-old goalie, whose strong OHL yearling season has put him on the NHL draft radar, has a ritual of honouring his late grandfather, Donald (Jim) McNiven before each game. It's been vital for the Georgetown, Ont., native, since his grandfather's passing in December 2013. Playing for his hometown Raiders in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, a mourning McNiven opted to play that night and got the win.
"I write his favourite number, four, for Bobby Orr, on the back of my stick and changed my number to 40 this year," says McNiven, who is NHL Central Scouting's sixth-ranked North American goaltending prospect. "There's a little quote on my mask that says, 'keep your legs warm and have fun' in memory of him. Those are just a whole bunch of things I do.
"It was really tough at the time," McNiven adds. "My [Georgetown] team was there to support me. We had a game that night, and I decided to go play because that's what he would have wanted me to do. He wouldn't have wanted me to stay home. I battled through it, played that game, we won 5-1 [over the Hamilton Red Wings] and the game right after that two days later I got a shutout. I had a good run with that team and they supported me."
The 6-foot-1, 207-pound McNiven, who's regarded as a positionally sound goalie, was the rare 16-year-old able to be a No. 1 goalie in Junior A at age 16. He logged 35 regular-season games with Georgetown.
"I probably played around 50 games,with playoffs," says McNiven, who attended Hockey Canada's summer goaltending development camp. "I guess that's a big jump for a 16-year-old goalie at that level, but it's made me better."
It was also an excellent stepping stone to joining the Attack, where McNiven partners with 6-foot-7 Jack Flinn, a 19-year-old. While Flinn takes a lot of the demanding starts, McNiven's 2.39 average and .926 save percentage in 905 minutes compares favourably with the league leaders. He appears to be on his way to becoming the second Owen Sound goalie in five years to be drafted; Jordan Binnington was a St. Louis Blues third-rounder in 2011.
"We both support each other and have a good team in front of us and that all goes into the statistics," says McNiven, who works with goalie coach Greg Redquest in Owen Sound. "I credit them a lot. Jack was our true starter at the start of the season. Now it's going back and forth. Hopefully I can continue to show I deserve to be in there and be the starter."
1. Which NHL goalies do you study closely?
"Jonathan Quick and Carey Price. I wish I could mix up a bit of both of them, but they are totally different styles of playing. I'm probably say I'm more in the style of Jonathan Quick. I'm very athletic and I battle hard. I don't really have much structure to my game, like Carey Price does. It would be nice to have each in me."
2. Which teammates have done the most to help you adjust to Owen Sound?
"All of them have really helped, but the big ones are Jack Flinn, Zach Nastasiuk and Chris Bigras, all of the leaders on the team. Jack and I are very close and we battle each other every practice, every game."
3. Some people say a young player should wait a few years before going in goal full-time; what's your stance on that?
"I think it's a good idea. Even until I turned 12, in the summer I was still playing 3-on-3 leagues as a player just to get better exercise. It's a better workout than being a goalie. It's always fun to have the change."
4. Did your father (Mike McNiven), being a goalie himself, have any concerns about you also playing the game's most stressful position?
"He didn't really say anything. I was a player at first but I decided to switch it up in my first year of triple-A and I stuck with it, made that team, and continued to get better and better up until this point."
5. Where is your favourite road rink in the OHL?
"That's a tough one. I'm not really a fan of the road — no one's on your side. Oshawa is a good one. It's nice. I haven't played in it yet, but it's nice."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.