After Charlie McAvoy finished his sophomore finals at Boston University in 2017, he decided to become a professional hockey player. The teenager signed an amateur tryout agreement and drove to Providence, Rhode Island.
"The Bruins were looking to do a model that Zach Werenski did a year before," McAvoy says. "Which is to leave college, go play in the AHL playoffs, get your feet wet there, then the next year try to make the [NHL] team out of camp."
When he showed up to the rink for his fifth minor league game, McAvoy was told not to dress. The Bruins were down two of their top defensemen, Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo, entering a playoff series against the Ottawa Senators. They needed McAvoy, now. He made a pit stop to his dorm room to pick up a suit and his passport, and the next thing he knew he was being introduced to his new teammates. "[Zdeno Chara], [Brad] Marchand, Patrice [Bergeron], Krug, all these guys I grew up watching playing hockey at a level that was so crazy to think that you would ever get there," he says.
The veterans imparted one piece of advice to their newest teammate: "No pressure. Just play. Play hockey, that's it. Nothing changes. Play hockey the same way that got you to this point."
"They tried to play down the scene," McAvoy says. "Which is hard, when your first game was in the Stanley Cup playoffs."
McAvoy was paired with the captain, Chara -- who made his NHL debut in 1997, a month before McAvoy was born. McAvoy played the second-most minutes of any skater in his debut, and finished the series with three assists, nine blocked shots and a whopping 26:12 minutes per game of ice time. Boston lost in six games, but McAvoy got his first experience of why NHL players, coaches and executives often describe the Bruins' culture as so unique.
The Bruins also flew out McAvoy's parents to Ottawa for his NHL debut. And after the game, mother Jen along with father Charlie McAvoy Sr. got the same familial treatment their son received.
"In the family room after the game, Charlie wasn't really sure how to introduce us," McAvoy Sr. says. "But all of the veterans, they'd give him a wink, or come up to us and say hello. Charlie wasn't sure how to handle himself just yet, but it was so clear there were these great leaders he could follow."
That continued after the postseason run was over.
"Bergeron usually has everyone over to his house at the end of the season, to let loose," McAvoy says. "And he invited me, which is cool and made me feel special."
An NHL season is a long and taxing grind. The rookie had battled with his teammates for only a fraction of the journey, but it didn't matter. That McAvoy battled at all meant he was one of them.
"The team also does a little end-of-the-year weekend trip," McAvoy says. "I was going to go back to school, and the guys were like, 'You're absolutely invited, we want you to be there.' That was neat for me, seeing how inclusive they were. Knowing them for a week and a half, I already felt so close to them."
Life in the NHL can come fast, and less than four years later, the 23-year-old McAvoy is now the face of the Bruins' defense. The Bruins let Chara and Krug walk in free agency, hoping to retool the blue line on the fly. That left McAvoy, the No. 14 pick of the 2016 draft, as the team's obvious No. 1 option (through six games, he's averaging five more minutes per game than any teammate.)
At 6 feet, 208 pounds, McAvoy blends the size and physicality of a prototypical shutdown defenseman with the speed and agility of a next-gen blueliner. He's already a decent puck mover but admits his goal for the 2021 season is "to shoot the puck more" and "challenge myself to be a bigger part of the offense."
At next year's Beijing Olympics -- where NHL players are scheduled to return after a hiatus in 2018 -- McAvoy is a leading candidate to make Team USA and could team up with Werenski, Seth Jones, Quinn Hughes and Jaccob Slavin to form one of the most dynamic young blue lines the country has ever seen. "Playing in the Olympics would be something so special," he says. "It's always been a dream of mine, and something I would take incredible pride in."
McAvoy's ascent has been a steady one, and he has been poised for a bigger spotlight for some time. It was becoming apparent toward the end of last season.
"You're seeing a bit of the passing of the torch now right, like Charlie is playing more minutes, playing in all situations, things that Zee did years ago in his prime," Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said in August. "So that's an interesting dynamic as well, how they help each other. And there's really no competition in that regard, so maybe like a big brother-little brother kind of thing."
Which is exactly how McAvoy views it.
"Zee kind of played the role of player-coach in a way, because there were so many teaching moments," McAvoy says. "We had three great years of playing together, which I will never, ever take it for granted."
Chara signed a one-year deal with the Washington Capitals. After Washington's first game, McAvoy immediately searched online for the box score.
"I saw he played about 20 minutes, and I was so happy for him, because I know the biggest thing is he's such a competitor," McAvoy says. "Not really sure about the logistics of what went into the decision [to not re-sign Chara], but I know he has a belief he can contribute, and to see him to get an opportunity to do so, I'm just so happy for him. He's so easy to root for. It's going to be so weird seeing him line up on the other side, but I'll be the first one to find him after the game and give him a big hug."
The Bruins will travel to Washington to take on Chara and the Capitals for a two-game set starting Saturday.
McAvoy grew up in Long Beach, New York, the former training site of the New York Rangers. His father co-owns McAvoy Plumbing with his brother.
"My grandfather started the business in the 1920s," McAvoy Sr. says. "And my dad used to work for all the Rangers players and coaches, the old guard, which was pretty neat."
Though Charlie Jr. was born three years after the Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup, he would spend hours as a kid mesmerized while rewatching their championship on VHS again and again.
McAvoy Sr. was big on the street hockey scene and used to play daily with John Ferguson Jr., the son of the former Rangers coach and executive who now, coincidentally, is an executive with the Bruins. McAvoy Jr. grew up idolizing his father.
"His blue-collar attitude and the way he approaches life was everything, and I saw how hard he worked every day to give our family everything that we needed," McAvoy Jr. says. "It's something I have an even bigger appreciation for as I gain perspective and grow up."
McAvoy has three sisters, whom he calls "my biggest fans and my best friends." He's proud to report his older sister, Kayla, is getting her masters. His younger sisters, Heather and Holly, are twins and seniors in high school. While Holly is still figuring out her college plans, Heather has committed to play hockey at St. Anselm in New Hampshire.
"It's so cool because it's an hour drive [from Boston] and I can zoom up there on a Friday or a Saturday, if we're not playing, and watch her games," he says. According to his father, McAvoy Jr. was diligent about streaming his sister's games this past season.
McAvoy always had compassion for others. In second grade, one of his classmates witnessed her father kill her mother. The girl was an only child, dealing with unimaginable trauma. The teacher called up the McAvoys and asked if Charlie would look after the girl, and help comfort her through this. "It was amazing," McAvoy Sr. says. "The whole year he sat next to her, and never left her side."
McAvoy was coached by his father beginning at age 5. He played all sports and hung out with all the kids in the neighborhood, but hockey was always his favorite. "I'd come home from work, and his hockey bag would be at the door," McAvoy Sr. says. "He'd be like, 'Dad, dad, we have to get to the rink.'" McAvoy was always a strong skater, and he started to stand out as he grew older.
He started to get noticed, and had dreams of playing for Team USA. But he wasn't invited to the first U.S. National Team Development Program 44-player camp in 2013.
The list came out when the father and son were driving to Canada for a tournament. As McAvoy read through the list of other players who made the cut, he was dejected.
"It was heartbreaking for him," McAvoy Sr. says. "I said, 'Charlie, don't worry. Just keep working hard, and everything will be OK.'"
McAvoy played well in the tournament, with plenty of scouts in attendance. All the while, USNTDP coach Don Granato got a call from one of his friends -- Pat Dapuzzo, a long-time NHL lineman and scout for the Maple Leafs.
"You missed a kid in my area," said the New Jersey-based Dapuzzo. "This kid is phenomenal."
Within 24 hours, Granato got another call from someone who watched McAvoy in Canada. Another ringing endorsement. A week later, a player dropped out and McAvoy was added to the roster.
He has been on a star track ever since.
The Bruins have a storied tradition of No. 1 defensemen, from Eddie Shore (a four-time Hart Trophy winner) to Bobby Orr (the only defenseman in league history to win two scoring titles) to Brad Park and Ray Bourque (both Hall of Famers) to, of course, Chara. That McAvoy is next in line isn't something he takes lightly, and it's quite helpful that he's represented by the Orr agency.
McAvoy met Orr for the first time in 2016 in Florida, ahead of his draft year. "He's larger than life in my eyes, the best defenseman to ever play the game," McAvoy says. "And I couldn't believe what a gentleman he was, and how kind he was."
McAvoy hopes to carry on that tradition of humility, even if his game isn't exactly muted. Take, for example, last year's first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. With Boston trailing 2-1 in the third period, McAvoy laid a clean -- albeit crushing -- open-ice check on Canes captain Jordan Staal, which shifted the game's energy and helped spark a Bruins comeback.
Boston's second-round exit to the Tampa Bay Lightning, with the last loss coming in double overtime, stung. The team had made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 and won the Presidents' Trophy for the league's best record last season. But after the results of the 2020 postseason, it was clear that time was ticking for the aging core. Chara and Krug left, and David Krejci's contract expires after this season.
"All I wanted as a kid was to win a Stanley Cup," McAvoy says. "To get that close and not win was incredibly heartbreaking. The experience is something I know I'll rely on. I'm just so motivated to work hard and get back there."
McAvoy is on the second of a three-year bridge deal that pays him $4.9 million annually. He bought a condo in Boston in October 2019, and when the season was paused due to COVID-19 six months later, he felt like he finally had time to finish tasks around his place. He -- like many of us -- also did all of his workouts on a yoga mat in the living room.
"It was kind of easy, looking at it from a different lens, because there was no travel, there was no anything, there was barely leaving the house," McAvoy says. "So from a workout and diet perspective, it was really easy. I was going to the grocery store, planning all my meals, doing all the things I needed to be a good professional. It can be hard when you're on the road and feeling like you're moving around all the time."
And when he returned from the bubble in Toronto, he had time to reflect on how far he has come -- and still would like to go. After all, it seems like just months ago McAvoy was making his debut in Ottawa. McAvoy Sr. will never forget coming to greet his son immediately after the game.
"Dad," his son said, grinning and a bit breathless. "I just played in the NHL."