Sid McNeill lost a full season of development thanks to three heart surgeries, but just three years later the defenceman is wearing the Maple Leaf at the World Junior A Challenge
Katie Brickman – December 12, 2022 – Sid McNeill dreamed of the day he might get the chance to put on a Team Canada jersey and represent his country.
He wasn’t sure if that day would ever happen after undergoing three heart surgeries three years ago.
Now, feeling healthy and strong, the 18-year-old is donning the Maple Leaf with Canada East at the World Junior A Challenge in Cornwall, Ont.
“Growing up and watching Team Canada … it was always a dream to put this jersey on,” McNeill says. “For it to happen after everything, it’s awesome.”
McNeill is a 5-foot-7, 140-pound defenceman with the Summerside Western Capitals of the Maritime Hockey League (MHL), and he’s grateful for the opportunity to represent not only his province (he’s a Summerside, P.E.I., native), but his country.
“This tournament is a huge stage,” he says. “This is a great opportunity and I plan on taking advantage of it.”
For months in 2020, McNeill wasn’t sure if he was ever going to be able to play hockey again. He was in Michigan competing in training camp with the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies AAA program when medical personnel noticed an irregular heartbeat and suggested he be taken to the hospital for more testing.
“I had a routine physical and they found an irregular heartbeat. It turned out to be a heart condition,” said McNeill. “The weird part – I felt fine. We went through a tough training camp, and I thought I held my own and my heart felt fine. I never had issues growing up and there’s no family history either.”
McNeill underwent a battery of tests in Michigan, including an ECG, EKG, ultrasound, heart MRI and stress tests. After another week, he had an electrophysiology study procedure to see if he needed an ablation – a procedure to treat atrial fibrillation which uses small burns to cause scarring on the inside of the heart to help break up the electrical signals that cause irregular heartbeats.
He returned to Toronto for a second opinion and was then flown to Halifax for the procedure in September 2020.
“The first ablation they did, they went through the arteries and burned a piece off my heart,” he says. “When I went back for testing, they said it didn’t work, so they did a similar surgery but with a camera to try and get an image of what they were looking for. The third time, they got it right.”
After being in and out of hospitals, McNeill struggled with staying positive and even took time to think about what life could look like without hockey.
“I wasn’t sure what the future held for my hockey career. At one point, I could have just said ‘enough is enough’ and be done with hockey and try and start another career path. But at the end of that season [2019-20], I got cleared to play. It was a huge relief to go through all of that and still play the game I love.”
Through the experience, McNeill has learned a lot about perseverance.
“It has taught me to never give up,” he says. “It helped me realize that everyone goes through adversity. When you come out on the other side, things are a lot better.”
McNeil still sees his cardiologist in Halifax yearly to make sure his heart rate is normal.
A clean bill of health isn’t something he is taking for granted, especially since he decided to stay in P.E.I. and play for his hometown Western Capitals, helping the team to an MHL championship last spring and a spot at the Centennial Cup, presented by Tim Hortons, Canada’s National Junior A Championship.
“Playing at home is awesome. After having a big scare, I just decided the next time I played hockey, I wanted to be in front of my family,” McNeill says.
And alongside his family. For the past two seasons, his defence partner has been his older brother, Ed.
“We have been partners for the last two years. It’s special – not many people get to do that, especially at a high level of hockey,” he said. “We work well together.”
For Western Capitals head coach Billy McGuigan, who is also serving as bench boss of Canada East in Cornwall, it’s not hard to describe the impact McNeill has on his teammates.
“He’s a remarkable young man. He’s a student of the game, and he is a guy that always wants to learn and get better. He has a tremendous work ethic,” McGuigan says. “He is a great asset to have. He means as much to this team with Canada East as he does in Summerside.”
When thinking about a future in hockey, McNeill knows if he keeps working, he may get another opportunity. He has his sights set on college hockey in the U.S.
“I think with being a smaller, undersized defenceman, I’ve always looked at playing NCAA,” he says. “Hopefully I can play some good hockey here and turn some heads and maybe some people will look at me.”