Andover’s John McCarthy vividly recalls the terrifying day that changed his life.
“It was a couple weeks before Christmas, I woke up and something didn’t feel right,” McCarthy remembered of the day in 2019. “I just felt off. I felt very uncoordinated and awkward. Then my left leg started going numb, and I knew something was wrong.”
The then-33-year-old veteran professional hockey player had suffered a potentially life-threatening Ischemic stroke. His playing career was over, but his San Jose Barracuda soon offered McCarthy a spot on their coaching staff.
Now, just over two years later, McCarthy will be trusted with developing the future talent of a National Hockey League team.
McCarthy has been hired as the head coach of the San Jose Barracuda, the American Hockey League affiliate of the San Jose Sharks.
“I am very excited for the opportunity,” he said. “It all happened fairly quickly. I thought I was just talking hockey with the organization, but they were interviewing me for the job. Coaching was always something I thought I might go into after my career, and literally the day I had my stroke, the Sharks made a coaching change and it opened up a spot on the Barracuda bench for me. Now, I’m thrilled to be the head coach.”
McCarthy, a veteran of 88 NHL games and a member of the 2019 Team USA Olympic hockey team, now leads the Barracuda team he spent 11 seasons playing for, dating back to the team’s time as the Worcester (Mass.) Sharks. At 35-years-old, he’s also the youngest head coach in the AHL.
“The organization came to me and asked if I was interested in the head job,” he said. “I was surprised, but don’t think that I don’t feel prepared. I’m ready, and I think I’ll do a good job. I spent 11 years playing in the AHL, so I understand the nature of the league. I understand what it takes to get to the NHL, and I want the players to know that our goal is the same, to get them to the NHL.”
STROKE AND RECOVERY
McCarthy was 18 games into hit 11th professional hockey season as Christmas approached in 2019.
The former St. John’s Prep (class of 2004) and Boston University (2005-09) star had appeared in 557 career AHL games (130 goals), serving as the Barracuda’s captain since 2016.
But his life would change forever in an instant.
“The stroke really came out of nowhere,” he said. “My wife had gone home for a couple weeks before Christmas. I’m lucky I woke up when I did. Sometimes people sleep through it, and then it’s too late to get the medicine. I took a shower, my leg went numb, and I felt pins and needles. It was like my legs were dragging.
“I called our team trainer, but I hadn’t spoken because I was alone. When he answered, my speech was slurred. He was concerned. We called the team doctor, who told me to get to the hospital. I took an Uber there!”
McCarthy had suffered an Ischemic stroke, and doctors had to act fast.
“I had a hole in my heart so small that no one knew it was there, and we go through very extensive physicals as hockey players,” McCarthy said. “A blood clot passed through the hole and went to my brain.
“The doctors gave me a powerful blood thinner that was so strong I had to sign a waiver, because it can cause internal bleeding. Luckily it worked, and 2-3 hours later I was sitting up in bed, wondering what happened.”
By the end of the day, McCarthy felt close to fully recovered. But his journey to recovery was not complete.
“I had heart surgery two months later,” said McCarthy, who now splits his time between San Jose and the Boston area with his wife Erin and 9-month-old son Jack.
“It wasn’t open-heart surgery. They went up my groin and put a clamp over the hole to make sure nothing passed through. I had some residual issues. My left hand was a little off for a few weeks, and I had to take blood thinners for a while. But I did some exercises, and now I feel great.”
BECOMING A HEAD COACH
Following his stroke, McCarthy spent the rest of that season as an assistant coach for the Barracuda. The following offseason, he transitioned into a player development role.
“It was kind of a hybrid coaching and management job,” he said. “I would be on the ice every day before and during practice, working on skills and development. Then, during games I would watch from the press box and be the, ‘Eye in the Sky’ then come down between periods. I would also travel to see our prospects in college and juniors.
“I wanted to get back on the bench. What I found out about myself is I wanted to feel the game, feel the wins and losses and the progress of the season. That motivated me to get back into coaching full-time.”
Following the 2021-22 season, Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer — who McCarthy played for throughout his career — was transitioned to an advisory role after 22 years and an 808-721-48 record.
“I had expressed that I wanted to get back on the bench, and we had conversations about how that could happen,” said McCarthy. “The conversations continued, about my coaching philosophies. They were interview-style questions, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Then, they came to me and said, ‘Roy is moving to an advisor role. Are you interested in the job?’ I said, ‘absolutely!’”
Barracuda general manager Joe Will said the hiring was an easy choice.
“John is a natural fit as the next head coach of the San Jose Barracuda,” said Will. “His leadership skills and professionalism, matched with his hockey IQ, have allowed him to succeed throughout his long and distinguished career with the Sharks and Barracuda. These traits, which he showed extensively as part of our player development staff over the last two years, will be a great asset for our developing players.”
McCarthy is currently in the process of building his coaching staff, crediting Sommers as a valuable sounding board, and preparing for the NHL Draft starting July 7.
He also plans to lean heavily on his background as an AHL player in his new role.
“The last few years of my playing career, when I had aged out of being an NHL prospect, I viewed myself as an extension of the coaching staff,” he said. “I worked to be a mentor for the younger prospects, making sure everyone was doing what they needed to do.
“The biggest thing I will draw on from my playing career is knowing what the players are going through. The season can be a long grind. I’m not far removed from my playing career. I know what they’re feeling. I have to establish I’m not there to be their friend, I’m here to get them to the NHL. We might not see eye-to-eye all the time, but in the end, I care about them and their careers. I want them to trust I know what’s best for them. That is the key to coaching.”