When rookie goalie Mackenzie Skapski got called up by the New York Rangers, he expected to be in the Big Apple for a game or two. That was three weeks ago.
The Abbotsford native backed-up Rangers goalie Cam Talbot Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks for the eighth straight game while injured No.1 netminder Henrik Lundqvist recovers from a neck injury.
Skapski, who had been playing in his rookie pro season for the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hartford, is still adjusting to life in the NHL after a steady diet of long bus trips and motels in junior and the minors.
“The hotels you stay at, the travel, the meals, it’s all top-notch,” Skapski said.
On the ice, there’s even bigger adjustments.
“Game-wise, I would say that I have to be a little more patient in the NHL than I would in the AHL – everything is kind of amped up a little bit, velocity, accuracy, everything.”
The young goalie says his first two practices with the Rangers “weren’t the prettiest,” but he’s been steadily gaining confidence facing NHL shooters.
“I felt really good [last practice], and I am being more patient and seeing the shots coming to me instead of just guessing where they are going.”
Three weeks in, there are still times when the NHL experience seems surreal.
“When I’m at the rink I don’t think much about it… when I get back to my hotel that’s when I realize, ‘Geez I was on the ice today with Rick Nash, or I was talking to Henrik Lundqvist today’ and all my buddies are FaceTime-ing and asking about certain players and what it’s like in New York.”
Skapski was in Syracuse, N.Y, preparing for a game with his AHL club when he was told he was NHL-bound.
“When you get that call, initially it’s pretty crazy,” said Skapski. “A lot of things go through your mind. You’ve obviously been working really hard for this your entire hockey career and invested a lot of time in what you do and to get that call… it was really exciting.”
He’d been on FaceTime with his brother when an East Coast number appeared on his smartphone screen. He wisely took the call.
“I called my brother back and he was pretty excited and then I phoned my parents and they were obviously pretty excited.”
His parents, who were shopping at Ikea when they received the call, headed straight back to their home in Abbotsford to quickly pack their bags and rush to YVR to grab a last-minute flight to New York.
The next day, Skapski arrived outside the legendary Madison Square Garden around 1:30 p.m.
“MSG is obviously a phenomenal place and the first person I saw was [Rangers coach] Alain Vigneault. I just quickly shook his hand and he said ‘Happy to have you here’ then I went into the room and they geared me all up and then I was all set to go.”
Skapski had been inside the hallowed arena before, but only as a spectator. When he returned to the dressing room prior to puck drop, an iconic Rangers blue jersey with his name and No. 70 stitched on the back was hanging in his stall.
“I wasn’t playing so it wasn’t as big a deal. It was more just enjoy yourself and enjoy everything about it,” he said about dressing for his first NHL Game.
Still, prior to stepping out on the ice he felt something he seldom ever felt: a case of nerves.
“I never really get nervous for games and I wasn’t even playing, but I felt goosebumps. Usually before a big game I’m usually pretty chill and relaxed. This was the first time I’ve been nervous-slash-goose-bumpy.”
His parents, who’d barely made their flight at YVR, had settled into their seats and eagerly waited to see their son on the ice.
Usually, during the pre-game warmup and anthems Skapski can spot them in the stands but not at the cavernous MSG.
“I honestly had no idea where they were. Usually I can pick them out in normal game but in a crowd of 20,000….”
One person he did recognize on the ice was the backup goaltender of the Boston Bruins, Malcolm Subban.
The pair had been teammates on the Canadian world junior team and had kept in touch in the minors.
“We just kind of talked a little bit [during the pre-game warm-up]; he was up and I was up. It was just kind of cool to see each other and what different paths we’ve taken.”
And while adjusting to the NHL is a steep learning curve, Skapski has been getting plenty of support, especially from his fellow puck-stoppers.
“Cam [Talbot] has been really good with me, really interactive with me. Same with Henrik. You know everybody here seems to be really helping me out.”
With his stay in New York lasting longer than expected, Skapski has been able to cross some items off his must-see in NYC list.
“I’m right downtown by MSG right now, my hotel, there’s always something to do. I still haven’t seen the Statue of Liberty and I want to see the stock exchange.”
Skapski played 24 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack prior to the call-up, posting a 12-7-3 record, along with a 2.38 GAA, a .914 save percentage, and two shutouts.
Skapski played for the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League and was selected by the Rangers in the sixth round, 170th overall, of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
In 2008-09, Skapski played on the B.C. champion Abbotsford Hawks bantam squad and the next season was playing for the Fraser Valley Bruins midget squad when he suffered serious facial injuries when the team’s bus was in an accident. He only played nine games that season and wondered how the injury might impact his career.
“There were definitely some serious question marks once everything was taken care of,” he said. “Initially, I didn’t think anything of it, being out a month, two moths, three months, I really started getting frustrated, and wasn’t on the ice so there was a lot of question marks around whether I would react the same to the shots and I really didn’t know how I was going to come back. But I guess things have kind of played out for me now.”
And while debuting in a Rangers uniform was a night he’ll never forget, the moment was equally special for his parents.
“I really think they thought there were a lot more question marks than I actually thought,” he said about his injury. “Too see me get called up three weeks ago I think was pretty emotional for them.”