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Former NHLer Brett MacLean out of hockey at age 23, but happy to be alive

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer and defenceman Mike Komisarek (right) react as Winnipeg Jets left winger Brett MacLean (25) celebrates a goal by teammate Tobias Enstrom, not shown, during first period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday October 19, 2011. MacLean was in the prime of his life. Just 23 years old and coming off a 25-goal season in the American Hockey League, he had his eye on a permanent spot in the NHL when he suited up for a pick-up game in July. That dream was wiped away in an instant.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

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Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer and defenceman Mike Komisarek (right) react as Winnipeg Jets left winger Brett MacLean (25) celebrates a goal by teammate Tobias Enstrom, not shown, during first period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday October 19, 2011. MacLean was in the prime of his life. Just 23 years old and coming off a 25-goal season in the American Hockey League, he had his eye on a permanent spot in the NHL when he suited up for a pick-up game in July. That dream was wiped away in an instant.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO - Brett MacLean was in the prime of his life.

Just 23 years old and coming off a 25-goal season in the American Hockey League, MacLean was working towards a full-time spot with the Phoenix Coyotes this summer when he joined some friends in Owen Sound, Ont., for a pick-up game.

Little did he know, it would be the last time he pulled on skates as a professional.

"I remember going to the arena and going on the ice and that's it," MacLean said during a recent interview. "I guess 40 minutes in I made a pass and just collapsed."

He was experiencing sudden cardiac arrest. In top physical shape, and with no history of heart disease, MacLean's life hung in the balance. The survival rate in Canada for out-of-hospital cardiac arrests is just five per cent.

Fortunately for MacLean, there were people around who started acting quickly. Two fellow players performed CPR until a local firefighter could retrieve the arena's automatic external defibrillator—better known as an AED—and shock him back to life.

Paramedics soon arrived and he was eventually airlifted to a hospital in London.

"I was lucky," said MacLean. "It just kind of shows that it can happen to anyone."

The miracle that saved his life was accompanied by news that he'd have to end his hockey career. With the cause of MacLean's cardiac arrest unknown, doctors inserted an implantable cardiac defibrillator, which will monitor his heart for abnormalities and prevent him from participating in contact sports.

However, MacLean had vowed to turn his experience into something positive before he was even discharged from hospital.

He quickly made contact with the Heart and Stroke Foundation through his Twitter account and took part in the launch of the charity's new awareness campaign last week in downtown Toronto. Just three months on from a life-altering event, he's willing to speak openly about what he went through and help spread the word on behalf of the foundation.

"The more people that know CPR, the more lives we're going to save," said MacLean.

Life has slowly started returning to normal for him. MacLean plans to eventually enroll in some courses with an eye on landing a job in the sports industry, and feels well enough physically to be able to run.

He even returned to the ice for a light skate recently and is thrilled to be exercising again.

"Obviously, I was a little cautious the first time," MacLean said. "But more than being nervous I think I was just excited to do things I did before and move back to being myself."

One of the lasting memories he'll take from the experience is the outpouring of support he received from the hockey community. MacLean called it "overwhelming."

A former second-round pick of the Coyotes, he realized his childhood dream of playing in the NHL during a 13-game stint with Phoenix in 2010-11 and five games with the reborn Winnipeg Jets at the start of last season.

He was eventually reclaimed on waivers by Phoenix and spent the rest of the year with AHL Portland. However, the organization still viewed the six-foot-two winger as a potential full-time NHL player.

"We still held out some hope that he could help us down the road," said Coyotes GM Don Maloney. "Unfortunately, that's not going to happen. But the good thing is he's healthy and he can get on with his life."

MacLean is doing just that. Equally as amazing as the actions that led to his life being saved is his willingness to move forward and not feel sorry for himself.

"When I was in the hospital, I had a tough time with why this happened to me," said MacLean. "I've worked hard my whole life and I've eaten well and done the right things. ... But now I look at it like at least I'm still here and at least I'm healthy.

"I'm looking at the bright side. If I can help other people in the future then it's all worth it."

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