As February crept closer, Marc Michaelis and Connor Mackey each had the dates circled on their calendars.
Because of the NHL’s pandemic creation — the Canadian division — Mackey’s team, the Calgary Flames, and Michaelis’ team, the Vancouver Canucks, were set to play four straight games against each other between Feb. 11-17.
Could a scheduling quirk of the pandemic that ripped them apart in March, 2020, bring them back together for their NHL debuts nearly a year later?
The two were sharing regular progress reports with each other and figured their respective calls from the taxi squad were coming.
Each was hoping for the dream scenario.
Mackey ended up making his debut Feb. 13, the second game in that stretch, while Michaelis had to watch his former teammate and friend from the stands that night.
It took another 19 days, but Michaelis isn’t watching anymore.
On March 4, Michaels made his long-awaited NHL debut in Vancouver’s 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“The day before, I got a message from one of the assistant coaches, and he kind of said that my name has been mentioned,” Michaelis said. “When I came to the rink the next morning, the head coach (Travis Green) came up to me and told me I was going to make my debut that night.”
Michaelis played just over 12 minutes in his first game and has been in the lineup for Vancouver’s two subsequent games — both wins.
As someone who’s played in two world championships for his native Germany, Michaelis has shared the ice with NHL players before.
However, that didn’t take anything away from his first NHL moment, which came when he looked across the ice in warmups and saw Toronto’s Joe Thornton.
Thornton, a 41-year-old who has more than 1,000 career NHL points, is a player the 25-year-old Michaelis modeled his game after growing up. He only got on the ice with Thornton once during the game and didn’t get a chance to speak with him, but it was still a highlight of the debut.
“Going out in warmups and seeing Thornton, I only know the NHL with him in it,” Michaelis said with a laugh. “I was watching him when I was 5, 6, 7 years old ... seeing him still being in the league and playing against him in my first game was very cool.”
While making his debut was great, the buildup challenged Michaelis in ways he never could have imagined.
Michaelis spent the first seven weeks of the season on the Canucks’ taxi squad, something that didn’t exist a year ago. The taxi squad usually practices separately from the rest of the team, so Michaelis has had to adjust to practices with only four or five other players.
Off the ice, Michaelis is living in an apartment complex right next to Vancouver’s Rogers Arena, and he rarely leaves it for anything not hockey-related due to the NHL’s strict protocols.
Mackey, who has gone through the same thing, has been a great resource, but since arriving in Vancouver just before Christmas, Michaelis has been on lockdown. He wasn’t even able to see Mackey before or after any of the February games.
Michaelis has been skating on his own to make up for the lack of games, but there’s nothing to actually simulate games, and Michaelis just hasn’t played many in the last year.
“I’ve been doing it for seven weeks, just practicing,” Michaelis said. “Then you get in and you play your first NHL game against guys who have played 25 already ... they have that game shape already, and then you get in playing your first game without any playing time prior to that. It was very difficult.”
MSU coach Mike Hastings thinks Michaelis is as equipped to deal with that stress as anyone.
“Everything that’s going on right now ... there’s not a script for going through what he’s going through from (the) pandemic piece,” Hastings said. “In my opinion, he’s a very mentally strong young man, and you need to be in today’s world, let alone today’s world in the National Hockey League.”
Follow Kevin Dudley on Twitter @Dudley7Kevin.