By Ross Forman – Connor Mackey – with No. 3 emblazed on the back of his road white Calgary Flames jersey – took to the ice Saturday, Feb. 13, at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, marking his NHL debut, a dream-come-true for the son of a former NHL player.
Mackey, who skated for the Barrington High School JV Team as a freshman about 10 years earlier, was one of six defensemen that night for the Flames who ultimately lost 3-1, as Vancouver ended a six-game losing streak with two third-period goals.
He was minus-1 for the night in the plus/minus column, but still thrilled with the moment, a magical experience that sent smiles throughout Illinois, particularly Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Another one of our own has had made it to the pinnacle of hockey.
“It’s been awesome, an amazing experience,” Mackey told AHAI in an exclusive interview. He played in three NHL games, then was sent to the Stockton Heat in the American Hockey League (AHL). “Hopefully, I can get back up there and keep making a name for myself. It was unreal getting to play those few games, the best thing in the world.
“It’s kind of hard to describe,” playing in the NHL.
Stockton Heat photos courtesy of Candice Ward
Yeah, it “was pretty special,” he added.
Two nights later, the two teams battled again, with the visiting Flames scoring a 4-3 overtime victory – and Mackey notched his first NHL point, an assist on Milan Lucic’s first period tally.
“At the time, when it happened, it was exciting,” Mackey said. “Looking back now, days later, yeah, to get an NHL point is pretty exciting. It felt good, is always good to get on the scoresheet.
“I don’t think it hit me until after the game, when I got the puck and had to do a few interviews. It was cool; it definitely was a cool experience.”
Yep, even more smiles around Illinois – from the Barrington Redwings to the Barrington Broncos to Team Illinois, and beyond.
“Connor was a forward who was very smart. He was coachable and willing to play any position to help the team,” said Rob Hutson, who coached Mackey locally for four years. “He was open to moving to defense, knowing he would get more ice time and opportunity. He made everyone around him a better person with his work ethic and family values. Being around his family, with his work ethic and attitude, he was destined for good things.”
Hutson, coaching two teams this season for the AAA-level North Jersey Avalanche, added: “Connor took his own path and respected high school hockey. He played JV as a freshman. He never once questioned his placement and worked harder than the next guy. He was a pleasure to coach.”
Mackey acknowledged it has been “a long journey,” but one that’s now really just starting.
“Growing up, I think a lot of kids are so focused on playing a high level at a young age,” Mackey said. “But whatever level, and at whatever age, I think you should just have fun playing the game. You don’t want to get burned out at a young age and kids lose their love for the game because the higher (level) you get, the more of a job it becomes.
Photos courtesy of Connor Mackey
“For me, I just had fun playing hockey wherever I was at. I always believed in myself and had that dream of playing in the NHL one day.”
“Just believe in yourself,” Mackey said, when asked for advice for youth players. “If you have dreams and goals, and want to achieve them, you have to believe in yourself. And have fun when you’re playing, enjoy the game.”
Mackey’s hockey career included a stint with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League (USHL) after his 2015 graduation from Barrington High School. He was the Gamblers’ alternate captain in 2016-17 and was named the USHL Defenseman of the Year and to the USHL First All-Star Team. He then moved on to the Minnesota State Mavericks for the 2017-18 season, his first of three playing in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).
Mackey praised all his past coaches, including his dad, Steve Martins and Steve Maltais, among others. “They were good coaches and they put you in situations where you wanted to succeed – and they always pushed you to get to the next level,” he said. “All of my coaches in Illinois hockey were significant for me, for sure – whether it was pushing me, or just helping me have fun. I wouldn’t change anything.”
Barrington, he said, gave him the perfect opportunity to grow as a person and a player, especially getting to play alongside a lot of his friends. He also was teammates with his twin brother, Ian.
As a BHS freshman, on the JV team, they skated for the state championship, but lost. He still cherishes the memories from that season, which he tagged as one of his favorite ever.
Photos courtesy of Connor Mackey
The Mackey brothers both made the league all-star team as freshmen.
“We had a good team my freshman year; I don’t recall losing many games that season and playing in the state final was a cool moment,” he said.
His junior season was fun, too, “and we had a really good squad.” Mackey had 5 goals, 12 assists in the Scholastic Hockey League (SHL) regular season. His 17 points were third-most on the team.
The Mackey brothers moved to Team Illinois for their senior seasons, where they won their league championship, but lost to the Chicago Mission in the state championship.
Mackey said he has “really fond memories” of playing for TI, with all the traveling, to New York and elsewhere, getting scouted, etc.
Mackey’s success certainly echoes through this season’s Barrington squad, as the pro has skated on local ponds with some of the current Broncos, and more.
“It was really cool seeing Connor out there playing in the NHL,” said BHS varsity player Quinn Rowley, a senior center. “I grew up playing a lot of pond hockey and street hockey with him. Over the fall, before he went to Calgary, we went to the gym together and worked out multiple times a week. Seeing his hard work payoff is really amazing; I hope he continues to do well playing for the Calgary Flames.”
Mackey said seeing’s Rowley’s passion for hockey and training “was pretty cool.”
Mackey also has skated at the Crystal Ice House in Crystal Lake during past summers since graduating.
“Whatever I can do to give back … it’s rewarding. I always try to be a good role-model for others,” he said.
When asked to name his all-time favorite youth hockey game in Illinois, Mackey hesitated. “That’s a tough one to answer,” he said. “One game that stands out … I can’t remember who it was against, but it was my first game my junior season. I had 4 goals, 2 assists. I kind of knew right then that it would be a good year, a fun year.”
Mackey also noted the freshman season four overtime win against New Trier that put Barrington into the state championship. “That’s another game that sticks out,” he said.
Mackey is, of course, following the path his dad skated. Dave Mackey, a left wing, played 126 games over the course of 6 NHL seasons with 3 teams, with 8 goals, 12 assists.
“I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in without him and his guidance,” the younger Mackey said of his dad. “He taught me how to play the game.”
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.