An actual hole in his heart took away the game he loves, but Hunt Award-winner John McCarthy will now chase championships as a coach
Andover’s John McCarthy '04 awoke this past December 10 having labored through 11 seasons and 665 games in professional hockey. But a microscopic slit in the wall between the atria of his heart was about to do what no check or wayward puck or even Father Time had done to the 33-year-old forward: Send him to the bench, forever.
“I was at home (in San Jose, Calif.) when I woke up and something felt off,” recalls McCarthy, a 6-foot-1, 194-pound forward. “My left leg was feeling really funny, and I was just coming off a back injury, so at first, I didn't know if that had something to do with it. I gave it a few more minutes, then I called the trainer. That’s when I realized my speech was gone.”
McCarthy was experiencing a transient ischemic attack (TIA) resulting from a clot that originated in his heart blocking the flow of blood to his brain. A few minutes later he was in an Uber on his way to the hospital. The verdict? A PFO, or patent foramen ovale, a flap-like hole in a wall of the heart (imagine the swinging gate of a fence). It’s a congenital defect that McCarthy has carried since birth. Emergency treatment reversed the effects of the blockage. At the end of January, McCarthy underwent successful transcatheter repair surgery to clamp the flap shut.
Be that as it may, after 577 games in the American Hockey League and 88 in the NHL, it was time to take stock. McCarthy had amassed 130 goals and 167 assists for 297 points in the AHL. The team’s captain for the past four years, he is the Barracuda's franchise leader in games played (275), goals (62), assists (76), and points (138). He’d been an Olympian and a collegiate national champion, and he turns 34 in August.
“At my age and with this going on, I think it was a good way to segue into closing this chapter,” says McCarthy, who earned a degree in economics at Boston University. “Very few people have the opportunity to play sports and walk away on their own terms. That's true for me too.”
A gritty, lefty forward at the Prep, McCarthy scored 51 goals and passed for 56 assists as an Eagle, helping the program go 35-19-4 in regular-season play and make back-to-back Super 8 tournament appearances during his three years in a varsity uniform. A versatile student-athlete, he was also a two-time All-Conference selection in football at St. John's, as well as co-captain during BU's 2009 NCAA ice hockey championship.
Originally drafted by the Sharks in 2006, McCarthy made his pro debut in the fall of 2009 with the Sharks’ AHL affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda. He got his first taste of NHL play near the end of that season, then earned stints on the big club’s roster in four of the next six seasons. On New Year’s Day of 2018, he was named to the Team USA men’s ice hockey roster for the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. [See “American Eagles,” Summer 2018]
In a stark example of one door closing and another opening, the Sharks parted ways with a member of the coaching staff the day after McCarthy’s health scare. The team offered him the job on December 27. In May, McCarthy got an even bigger surprise when the American Hockey League announced he was the winner of the 2019-20 Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award as the AHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, determination, and dedication to hockey. The award, first presented by the AHL in 1978, is voted on by coaches, players, and members of the media in each of the league's 31 cities.
For a guy who made a career out of being diagnostic and anticipatory on the ice to make the most of his skillset, McCarthy seems well-positioned to pass along his wisdom to younger players. “I’d like to think so,” he says. “It’s a different type of fulfillment than it was when I was playing, but I love it. Now, it’s all about developing these guys to have a shot to play in the NHL.”