Johnny McInnis went west as a young man, and now, five years later, his amateur hockey career is coming full circle.
"Something I learned over the years is everybody finds their own way," said McInnis, a senior forward and captain for the Minnesota State men's hockey team.
The Boston native will begin his final season of college hockey tonight when the 11th-ranked Mavericks play at No. 14 Providence in the first game of a nonconference series.
For his family and friends, the games in the Rhode Island capital will take place less than an hour's drive from their Massachusetts homes, and McInnis appreciates the rare visit after playing three seasons in Mankato and the previous two in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in Canada. He's played close to home before, when the Mavericks had games at Connecticut and Massachusetts-Lowell.
"It's about our team going out there and getting two wins, not about a homecoming for me," McInnis said. "That's a little extra incentive for me, but the main goal is to get two wins."
Had he not decided to take a road barely traveled for Boston-area hockey players, McInnis doesn't think he'd be in the position he's in today, with a "C" stitched to his Minnesota State sweater.
"Hockey-wise, East Coast to Alberta? That doesn't happen," MSU coach Mike Hastings said.
McInnis said he wanted a change of scenery out of high school, wanted to try something a little different, wanted to be pushed a little harder.
"I had a feeling — I don't know why — that there was something more in Alberta," he said. "And it ended up working out. ... I probably wouldn't be (at MSU otherwise)."
After an up-and-down freshman year, McInnis started to show improvement as a sophomore and had somewhat of a breakout junior season. In that third year, he scored 13 goals, including five game-winners, and finished with 22 points — all career highs. When Minnesota State won the Connecticut tournament over the holidays, McInnis, with family and friends watching in the stands, was named MVP.
"I think the biggest thing with Johnny McInnis is his transformation physically from his first day here until now," assistant coach Darren Blue said. "It's from the hard work he's put in off the ice."
One of just three seniors on this year's roster (two others from his rookie class are redshirt juniors), McInnis was voted captain of an MSU team that faces higher expectations than almost any in the program's Division I era.
"There wasn't a question in the voting who was going to be captain, not in the least bit," Hastings said. "He earned it."
McInnis also replaces a good friend, Eriah Hayes, in that leadership role and will be called on to help fill Hayes' skates as a top-six forward and power-play contributor.
McInnis said he's always admired Hayes, who scored 20 goals last season, including 13 on the power play, and is now a professional player in the San Jose Sharks' system.
"To see where he's at now and to watch how hard he worked to get there ... it's not easy," McInnis said. "I think, through watching him, I've learned that. ... I'm not going to try to be Eriah, because there's no way I am Eriah. I'm going to try to do some of the things he did because he did them the right way.
"But I'm going to have to find my own way."
He's used to doing that.