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Brett MacLean triumphs over tragedy and turns adversity into opportunity

Two years after suffering a cardiac arrest, MacLean is living a normal life with minimal physical limitations.

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Jeff Gross

A little more than two years ago, Brett MacLean's life changed forever.

Coming off a fourth consecutive 20+ goal AHL season, MacLean was enjoying his summer by playing a pick-up hockey game in Owen Sound, Ontario. After playing 18 games in the NHL in his previous two seasons combined, MacLean had aspirations of becoming a full-time NHLer.

That dream evaporated on July 2, 2012 when the then 23-year-old suffered a cardiac arrest during that pick-up game. In an instant, his professional hockey career was over. Doctors inserted a cardiac defibrillator which prevents MacLean from playing elite-level contact sports. He was forced to retire.

Now 25, MacLean has been able to regain some semblance of normality in his life. He is active and able to play sports with few restrictions, including recreational hockey.

"Physically and mentally I am doing really well," MacLean wrote in an email. "I do not have many physical limitations other than pushing myself to the level of an elite athlete, but I feel very lucky that I can live a normal life."

He could have dwelled on the fact that his career was taken away, but MacLean used the opportunity to not only move on with his life, but to give back to the community.

"First I want to finish coaching and finish my degree at the university. I have really enjoyed coaching so hopefully I can continue to travel down that path or maybe join a front office of a team. I know that I would love to stay involved in hockey in some way." - Brett MacLean

MacLean is a spokesperson for the Heart & Stroke Foundation, a 60+ year-old donor-funded charity in Canada, dedicated to heart and stroke research and awareness. The Ontario native attends various events to tell his story of survival and meet with other individuals who have gone through similar life-altering experiences. MacLean's biggest task is to help spread awareness for the importance of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillators (AEDs), two things that saved his own life.

MacLean keeps busy away from the charity events as well. He runs a hockey school in his hometown of Port Elgin, Ontario for a week in August and he is studying Recreation and Sports Business at the University of Waterloo, where he is also the assistant coach of the men's varsity hockey team.

His choice of curriculum opens the door for a potential return to professional hockey, this time behind the bench or in a front office.

"Right now I am just trying to keep my options open," MacLean wrote. "First I want to finish coaching and finish my degree at the university. I have really enjoyed coaching so hopefully I can continue to travel down that path or maybe join a front office of a team. I know that I would love to stay involved in hockey in some way."

After a promising four-year OHL career, split between the Erie Otters and Oshawa Generals, in which he scored 131 goals and 288 points in 245 games, MacLean was drafted in the second round (32nd overall) of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the then Phoenix Coyotes.

The forward jumped from the hotbed of hockey to hotbed of heat, the Arizona desert. It was a transition he enjoyed.

"I loved living in Arizona and have so many great memories from my time there. The Coyotes may have a smaller hockey market in terms of fans but they were just as loyal and dedicated to their team as hockey fans in Ontario. It was great as a player to be able to escape from hockey when you were away from the rink, which I think is a very enticing to players around the league," MacLean wrote.

He played nearly two and a half seasons with the AHL's San Antonio Rampage before getting his first shot at NHL playing time. When he did finally get that shot, he made the most of it.

He scored his first career goal, a game-winning goal, in his first NHL game.

"It was an amazing feeling. Definitely the moment from my hockey career that I will remember the most and that I am most proud of. At the time it was just a blur and I don't think I appreciated how special it was until my career was cut short," MacLean wrote.

MacLean's second NHL game came nearly three weeks later, his third game was six and a half weeks after that. When it was all said and done, MacLean played 13 NHL games during the 2010-11 season.

Shortly after the 2010-11 season ended, the Coyotes exposed MacLean to waivers, where he was claimed by the Winnipeg Jets. He scored two points in five games with Winnipeg the following season before being offered back to the Coyotes.

The Coyotes took him back and sent him to their new AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates, to finish out what turned into MacLean's final professional season.

MacLean finished up his AHL career with 99 goals and 203 points in 264 career games. His NHL career ended with two goals and five points in 18 games. Promising numbers.

How successful could MacLean's career have been if he was not forced to retire?

"It's so hard to say," MacLean wrote. "I was still working hard to become a full-time NHL player so in a perfect world I would see myself playing regularly in the NHL. I would definitely still be playing pro hockey if I had the choice."

He may no longer play professionally, but MacLean's passion for hockey is as strong as ever. Turning tragedy into opportunity has not only helped MacLean cope, but has opened the door to a bright future for not only himself but, through his work with the Heart & Stroke Foundation, others as well.