BOWLING GREEN — Mitch McLain has been a leader for one of the top college hockey programs in the country this season.
McLain has scored 13 goals, tops on the No. 14 Bowling Green State University hockey team that is 16-8-6 overall and tied for sixth-best in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. He’s in the running for the Hobey Baker Award, the Heisman Trophy of college hockey, as the senior captain of the Falcons, who stand second in the WCHA with 46 points thanks to a 13-4-5-2 mark.
Bowling Green hockey player Mitch McLain, left, has invited students from the Wood Lane School to take the ice with the Falcons.
But for all the good work the native of Baxter, Minn., has done on the ice, it pales in comparison to the work he continues to do off the ice.
McLain is one of 11 national nominees for the 2018 Hockey Humanitarian Award, presented annually to “college hockey’s finest citizen — a student-athlete who makes significant contributions, not only to his or her team, but also to the community at-large through leadership in volunteerism,” according to the award’s website.
“It’s been a whirlwind of people congratulating me,” McLain said when asked about the honor. “To me, it’s just an everyday thing that I enjoy doing.
“I didn’t think about getting an award for doing stuff like that.”
That humble attitude is what allows him to connect with students as a volunteer at Wood Lane, a Bowling Green school that provides services for students with special needs.
“Mitch obviously loves kids, and he’s able to relate to our kids,” said Misha Williams, an adapted physical education specialist at the school. “I love his humility. He doesn’t walk in and say, ‘Do you know who I am?’ He comes in and connects with them. He helps them succeed.”
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McLain said he learned about opportunities to work with students with special needs while in high school.
“There was a class called Social Skills where we were mentoring kids on the autism spectrum,” he said. “I had fun; I really enjoyed it. I hung out with those guys outside of school, and it was a blast.
“I’ve always liked it. I’ve never had a bad experience working with students.”
And many of these students have good experiences working with McLain. Williams remembers when BG’s senior forward brought Wood Lane students to the Slater Family Ice Arena to interact with his teammates.
“I remember one of our students, who communicates with facial expressions and body movements,” Williams said. “When he was with Mitch on the ice, he was full of smiles and excitement.
“He was laughing and beaming. You could tell it was the highlight of his day.”
But the Wood Lane students on the ice were not the only ones who learned something that day.
“We have a lot of guys who are business majors or communications majors, and they don’t know what my major is about,” McLain said. “So when I get that opportunity to have the kids there, they come out of their comfort zone.
“My teammates handled it so well. It’s an experience where you can learn a lot about yourself and about other people. It was awesome — you can tell the kids enjoyed it.”
McLain’s work with the special needs community also has impressed Chris Bergeron, his coach at BG.
“It’s one thing to go to a school and work with kids, and he’s really good at that,” Bergeron said. “But to see Mitchell around those kids — and to hear the teachers talk about the impact he has had around them — is a pretty special thing.
“You can get so caught up in winning and losing that you can forget about everything else. But he’s an example of a kid who’s doing good work and having an impact in the community.”
While McLain has a 3.515 grade-point average as a mild-to-moderate intervention specialist major, his volunteering at Wood Lane is not connected with his school work.
“He doesn’t need to come work with us — this isn’t a class requirement,” Williams said. “He comes here because he wants to be with our kids. He wants to help.
“To work with these kids, you have to have their trust. And he has their trust, because these kids know he cares about them.”
And McLain said he has grown to enjoy his time working with the students at the school.
“I’ve been in the classroom at Wood Lane, and I help some students with therapy in the pool, and that’s more one-on-one,” he said. “I’ve built some connections with some students that trust me, and I can motivate them.
“And that’s a cool experience, especially when they don’t want to be motivated by someone else. And that’s really rewarding.”
For McLain, the rewards transcend receiving honors for his good work.
“You definitely appreciate each day more, especially when your body is nicked up and you’re feeling tired,” he said. “To be at Wood Lane and see what those kids go through. ...
“I think those kids are an inspiration. They’re willing to try, and they want to be happy, even with all the circumstances stacked against them. It’s a gift that they have that we can definitely learn from.”
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