TORONTO – Around the table sat the future Maple Leafs prospect and his family. One major decision loomed at the time for Andrew MacWilliam, one that would decide his future in many ways. Drafted by the Spokane Chiefs, the teenage defenceman had the option of joining the Western League club as a 16-year-old. Then there was college, the route his father, Alex, preferred – ever the believer in the value of a degree – and the course that would offer a more lenient curve of development.
"I never watched college hockey growing up," MacWilliam, a Calgary native said. "Being from western Canada you don't see it much."
It took a trip down to Denver, Colorado for the West regional of the 2007 NCAA tournament, a tour of the pristine facilities there and an opportunity to watch Jonathan Toews and Kyle Okposo before a choice was made. Recruited by head coach Dave Hakstol, MacWilliam opted for the hockey-rich program at the University of North Dakota, where he spent the past four seasons before arriving at Leafs training camp this fall.
"Probably the best decision of my life so far," MacWilliam stated sincerely of choosing college, where he was voted captain by teammates last year. "I definitely would recommend it to any young guys deciding what route they're going to take."
Selected with the 188th overall pick in the 2008 Draft from the Camrose Kodiaks of the Alberta Junior League – where he played alongside Joe Colborne – MacWilliam has climbed slow and steady to the edge of the NHL. Now a mature 23-years-old and a thick 230 pounds, the 6-foot-2 defender has definite darkhorse potential for the Leafs this season.
A combative protect-the-house type with a penchant for rough play, MacWilliam has offered a positive impression to the Leafs brass and coaching staff in the first week of camp. While still a long-shot to make the NHL club at the outset and more likely pegged to join Steve Spott and the Marlies initially, MacWilliam has not looked out of place in the early going.
"I just wanted to show what I can do," he said of expectations coming into camp. "I obviously want to make it a tough decision for the coaching staff. I know there's a lot of numbers [on defence] already up top, but I just wanted to come in and show what I can do and how I can play."
MacWilliam has no illusions about his role. His job, quite simply, is to protect the house. He projects as a defender in the Mark Fraser mold, though he probably moves the puck more efficiently than his NHL counterpart and owns better foot speed. Because he remained at North Dakota for the full freight of four years – where he also played alongside former Leaf Matt Frattin – MacWilliam also appears physically ready to play at the next level. At one point in practice on Wednesday, he capably battled for net-front position with Joffrey Lupul, eventually ousting the All-Star to the ice.
MacWilliam attributes his solid frame to years of lifting weights at school – where they play in and around 40 games – adding 15 pounds from the point of his freshman year. "Just that extra little oomph I guess is just huge at this level," said MacWilliam, who played in two games with the Marlies at the end of last season. "It helps you out in the net front and in the corners, being able to handle a man's game."
Named to the Western College Hockey Association's all-academic team three years straight, MacWilliam also found time to focus his efforts on foot speed, improving his quickness laterally over his junior and senior seasons. Maybe most important to the college experience though was the reward of a degree, which he earned in business management. "You're not going to play hockey your whole life right," he observed with the savvy of someone far beyond his years. "You're not guaranteed anything as far as a pro career. Having that to fall back on is something that I take a lot of pride in and down the road will have some use for me."
Whether he makes the jump now to the NHL is a question that will decide itself in the coming days of camp. The Leafs have a number of more experienced defenders on the roster and one in Cody Franson who remains unsigned. All of which makes an initial stint with the Leafs unlikely. But if MacWilliam demonstrates continued readiness and progression in the coming two weeks he could just sneak onto the roster or at the very least, provide the club with options to play with on the back-end.
"It's been a long five years," MacWilliam concluded of the process that saw him drafted and now on the verge of the NHL. "But they say it's not about the destination, it's the journey.
"The whole process, along the whole way of my career, we haven't taken things too fast, we just take it slow and it hasn't hurt me yet."