For years, Connor Mackey has imagined his NHL debut.
Thousands of fans, an electric atmosphere, dozens of family and friends in attendance — the same things that all players picture.
The best-laid plans.
The coronavirus pandemic robbed the former Minnesota State standout of all that, but after a tenuous few weeks, it just didn’t matter. Mackey finally made his debut with the Calgary Flames on Saturday night at Vancouver.
“When my name was called, it kind of all (went) away,” Mackey said. “Just the emotions of hearing I was going to play and getting my head around that I’m playing my first NHL game ... I’m not really thinking about the no fans and all that.
“I’m just kind of embracing the moment ... once you get playing, you’re just rolling.”
The hardest part was the waiting.
Prior to Saturday, Mackey said that he had dressed and warmed up with the team for its previous five games, only to be left out of the lineup. However, the night before his debut, Mackey was having a casual conversation with Flames’ general manager Brad Treliving, and some hints were dropped.
Mackey had a pretty good idea Saturday was going to be the day.
“He was just talking to me a little bit, small talk, and he just kind of said ‘be ready,’” Mackey said. “After that, I maybe had a bit of a gut feeling on Friday night that I might be in. ... Coming to the rink the next day, right before pregame skate, I got there early and got the definite word that I was playing.”
Getting into the lineup was one thing, but then Mackey actually had to play a hockey game, something he hadn’t done since MSU’s 4-2 WCHA quarterfinal victory over Alaska Anchorage on March 7, 2020.
As a member of the Flames’ taxi squad, Mackey has been with the team all season. He has traveled and practiced with the team, but other than some intrasquad scrimmages in the summer, no games.
“You’ve just got to get the timing and the speed back, a couple little things, reading plays ... obviously you’ve got to be ready if you get your number called. You don’t want to have an excuse that you’re not ready just because you haven’t played in awhile,” Mackey said.
During games, Mackey has done what he can to soak up information. Rather than watching in the locker room as others do, Mackey assumes a high perch at the arena so he can see the big picture.
He has asked questions and learned a lot, but said there were still a few nerves when he stepped onto the ice for the first time.
“It’s quick, definitely a couple levels up,” Mackey said with a laugh. “Everyone’s bigger, stronger, faster, but everyone’s so good positionally too.
“I was ready for it, just being on the team, going to training camp, practicing with the team, but once you do get thrown in the game, it is a little different. Everything is a bit more elevated.”
In Mackey’s first game, he played just under 14 minutes and got 25 shifts, according to ESPN.
He was also in the lineup Monday night, a game in which he recorded his first career point, an assist. Mackey also went to the penalty box three times, but was a plus-2 in that contest.
His old coach has been impressed.
“When you get to that level, the opportunities that you have can be few and far between. That would be one of the proudest pieces, is that I think he was prepared,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said. “He has worked incredibly hard mentally and physically to be prepared for that opportunity.
“For not playing from last March at the collegiate level, to step into the NHL — I think it just says a lot about Connor Mackey.”
Follow Kevin Dudley on Twitter @Dudley7Kevin.