In a span of one week last March, Connor Mackey experienced the absolute highs and soul-crushing lows a sport can throw at you.
First, there was the game-tying goal he scored in the WCHA playoff championship game, the one with 56 seconds remaining in regulation that led to Minnesota State’s eventual overtime victory over Bowling Green in a jam-packed Mankato Civic Center.
Seven days later, at Providence, Rhode Island, there was the major penalty called on him in the third period of a tie game, one that came after an official review and led to two Providence power play goals in an MSU loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“Coming off a big win like that at home, we were riding high,” Mackey recalled. “Going into the tournament we had confidence. … Yeah, it sucked the way it ended, but I just gotta own up to that. At the end of the day, it is a hockey game. It’s one game, and it wasn’t meant to be, I guess.”
In the days that followed the Mavericks’ loss, Mackey, considered one of the top free agents in college hockey, had to decide whether he was going to return to Minnesota State or sign with an NHL team. In the end, he opted to return to school for a third season.
“It was a tough decision,” he admitted. “It was hard. It happened in about a week, I think. It was a quick turnaround, but I thought it was the best play for me at the time.”
Mackey, whose dad, David Mackey, had a long pro hockey career that included 126 games in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota North Stars and St. Louis Blues, said he returned to Minnesota State in order to continue his individual development but also to help one of the country’s top teams go further in the postseason.
Prior to the season, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenseman met with representatives with about seven NHL teams who might be interested in signing his college career ends.
It’s a process he said he’s enjoyed, but he hopes the next decision can wait until after the Mavericks make a deep postseason run.
“Looking at last season, we won two (conference) championships,” he said. “We can do more, and I want to be part of it. There were a lot of factors that played into (the decision to return), but that was a big factor.”
Mackey, who has 12 goals and 41 points in 88 career games, is off to a strong start again this year. He has four points, including the game-tying goal in the Mavericks’ 4-4 overtime game against North Dakota on Oct. 18. Going into this weekend’s WCHA series against Bowling Green, he currently leads MSU’s defensemen at plus-6 and with 15 shots on goal.
“He’s very comfortable in his own skin,” coach Mike Hastings said. “He put a lot of work in this last summer. He’s teetering between a pound or two of 200 pounds, so he’s done a lot of work in the weight room. I think that has allowed him to become a bit more assertive defensively. And as you’re seeing with his numbers ... he’s been assertive offensively.”
Teammate and fellow defenseman Riese Zmolek agreed.
“One thing he’s always been good at but continues to grow is his hockey IQ,” Zmolek said, “making the right plays, making smart decisions. He jumps in the play all the time but not carelessly.”
Hastings said Mackey shows his maturity in how he deals with the “peaks and valleys” of a season, and the way he handled how last season ended was a prime example.
“One thing we tried to do as a group immediately after the game and soon after that with Connor is make sure he understood we lost that game as a collective group,” Hastings said. “That situation was one that I think that he wears on his sleeve and always will because he’s prideful about how he conducts himself. He wants to be a ‘we guy’ not a ‘me guy.’ He always has since he started here.”
Said Mackey: “We all can learn things from that game. There’s a lot that went on in that game I think we would handle maybe different as a team. We were up, we had the lead and we did take some penalties. But it is what it is. We’re going to learn from it this year, and we’re going to move on from it for sure.”
Indeed, Mackey isn’t looking back. He’s looking forward — but not too far ahead, even with the NHL buzz that’s out there.
“I feel like I’ve handled it well,” he said. “Coming back, this is my focus. ... I think it’s made me more hungry to do well here.”
Follow Shane Frederick on Twitter @puckato.