The goaltender for the Valley junior A Wildcats never wanted to be anything but a goalie from the time he first started playing hockey at age four.
“I always loved it, from day one,” says the Annapolis Royal native. “I think it's the coolest position to play, by far. The flashy gear, you get to make the flashy saves. You're really the X factor almost every single game. If I could go back and pick again, I'd stay a goalie.”
After two seasons between the pipes for the Valley Wildcats major midget team, McLaren has moved up to junior A this year, evenly splitting time in the crease with New Brunswick native Jacob Stewart. He earned his first junior A victory in the Wildcats home opener, a 6–2 decision over the County Aces from St. Stephen, NB.
The road hasn't always been easy for McLaren, who today smiles and laughs about playing bantam hockey in Dartmouth after being cut by the Valley team.
Between the pipes
McLaren says his father, who was himself a goalie, did try to steer him away from the goalkeeper position, but there as just no stopping him.
“My dad didn't want to go there. He knew the stress, all the pressure that gets put on you, so he tried to keep me away from it. But even in I-P, we'd be skating around doing shots and I'd go in player gear, and jump into the net, trying to be saving the puck,” he recalls.
“Ever since day one, my dad's always told me you have to have an instant reset button. You have to keep staying in the moment. You have to bounce back for the team. You've got to be ready.”
McLaren's biggest test of his young career came last spring, as his major midget Valley Wildcats tangled in the playoffs with Halifax. Game four of the playoff series went into quadruple overtime. McLaren made 86 saves in the marathon contest before Valley finally fell 2–1.
“It was a crazy game to be a part of it looking back on it now, “ says McLaren. “In the game, you're just like, oh yeah, fourth overtime. Hopefully, we'll win. It didn't seem like that big a deal at the time, but now... Me and (Halifax goalie) Dakota (Lund-Cornish), we both had a long night.”
His stellar play also led McLaren to training camp with the Halifax Mooseheads this season. The Herd selected him in the eighth round of the 2016 QMJHL entry draft. McLaren says it's surreal to be in the dressing room in Halifax surrounded by very talented players.
“You see these guys like Benoit-Olivier Groulx, Jared McIsaac... all these guys you know are going to end up playing in the NHL one day. Just getting to have the friendships with them in amazing; getting to know those guys. They might be highly touted hockey prospects, but they're just people, just like you and I.”
On the Wildcats
McLaren and last season's starter, Stewart, give the junior A Wildcats a formidable one-two punch in goal. McLaren says Stewart is a great goalie, and that's what fuels them both to elevate their games.
“We're buddies off the ice, but on the ice, you could kind of say we're rivals," he says.
"You just want to be the number one goalie no matter where you are. You want to be that starter. You just have to keep working as hard as you can in practice. You want to be the best player, period.”
McLaren is already having an impact on the ice, says Wildcats head coach Travis Young.
"Cole is obviously a very talented goaltender, but I think the most important thing he brings to the team is just a sense of calm when he is in the net," Young said.
"It's easy to forget at times that he is still eligible to be playing midget because he carries himself like a much older player. As a coach or player, it is a great feeling to know that you have a guy back there who you know is going to give you a chance to win every night."
McLaren has high praise for his teammates as well.
“We've got a great group of guys this year. It's a lot of fun so far,” says McLaren. “We're not going to be a team that's going to be easy to play against. As a team, we need to focus on coming out every night hard. We have enough skill to win. We have enough grit to win.”
And the 17-year-old goalie knows that each season is an audition for the next one.
“Personally, this season I just want to have a good year," he said. Hopefully, I'll get some call-ups with the Mooseheads, and get my foot in the door again.”
If you go: The Junior A Valley Wildcats have only one home game in Berwick this month. They host the Pictou County Weeks Crushers on Oct. 21 at the Kings Mutual Century Centre.
From: Annapolis Royal, NS
Weight: 185 pounds
Birthday: Feb. 18, 2000