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'I WANTED TO BE A FLAME'

Minnesota State University-Mankato product Connor Mackey says there was never any doubt what team he hoped to sign with

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

When Connor Mackey sat back and mulled over the options, he didn't think twice.

Turns out, Calgary was always the frontrunner. 

"Honestly, it goes back a long time," the former free-agent blueliner said Friday after signing a one-year entry-level contract with the Flames. "It was the right fit for so many reasons. 

"The relationships I built with the organization over the past numbers of years made this an easy decision."

Mackey, a highly sought-after NCAA free agent, is now a member of the Flames organization after an exceptional three-year stint with Minnesota State University - Mankato. 

But his contact with the Flames goes back at least that far, too. 

"A couple summers ago, I was able to come to Calgary for development camp - had a great experience with the coaching staff, got to see the city a little bit, and I loved it," Mackey said. "I'd just finished up my season in the USHL and already had some conversations with the organization. There was interest in both sides, and I ended up getting the invite to camp. It was amazing - first-class, all the way.

"I learned so much, on and off the ice, and really built a connection with everyone there. We also did some really cool team-building stuff that showed off the city a little bit, and I thought it was amazing. 

"I really thought it would be a good fit one day. 

"And now, here we are."

 

Tweet from @NHLFlames: Pen to paper! Congrats Connor! pic.twitter.com/FgZ3gmr2Iv

 

Mackey finished the 2019-20 season with seven goals and 24 points in 36 games, giving him 61 points (18G, 43A) in 118 career games with the MSU Mavericks. The 6-foot-2 and 1/2, 205-lb. rearguard was named to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association First All-Star team, finishing with a league-high +19 and helping the Mavs to a league-best 31-5-2 record.

He was also the USHL Defenceman of the Year in 2017 when he led the Green Bay Gamblers with 47 points (6G, 41A) in 60 games.

Pointing to that resume, along with Mackey's ability to defend top players in all situations, Flames GM Brad Treliving says, convincingly: "He's close." 

"His combination of hockey sense, size, mobility and skating ability is really attractive," Treliving said. "I think he's going to be a guy that will play against good players, play against skill, play against speed, and he can transition the puck with the best of 'em at the college level. 

"He's a big body, he's long, he's got good reach and good range.

"We definitely think he's close - but I don't want to put any expectations on him."

While the offensive numbers are sure to turn heads, Mackey's transition to the collegiate level the following year led to an epiphany, of sorts. 

"I was definitely a bit more of an offensive guy in the USHL," he said. "Kind of a pass-first guy, mainly, but loved to skate and move the puck.

"But one thing I quickly realized at the college level - which, I think, has prepared me well for the pro game - is how solid I needed to be in all three zones. I was still putting up numbers and I'm happy to be a guy that can be counted on for that, but my game has grown so much over the past three years and think I'm really well-rounded now."

Part of that is due to the natural progression of a developing blueliner, but a lot came courtesy of the "underrated" MSU program. 

"It doesn't get nearly enough credit," Mackey said. "But with my experience there - and you look at what we were able to achieve this year, especially - we really made a statement and put our school on the map. 

"Everything from the coaching staff on down, it was first-class all the way and an experience I'll never forget."

Mackey says the program is run like an NHL team. The college route is gaining in popularity, with the opportunity to get an education, a softer schedule to help encourage training and studies, and ample, invaluable practice time for individuals at this critical, development stage to sharpen their skills.

For Mackey, the growth in his game accelerated over the past three years.

"The one thing that really appealed to me was how well they prepared you for the pro game," he said. "For many of us, that's the goal, right? From the video coaching, working on those finer details of the game, creating an environment that's like pro already, it really sets the foundation for a successful career. 

"The other thing, too, is that you have a great mix of older and younger guys - some real quality people at every turn.

"My head coach, Mike Hastings, was huge for me. There was always plenty of one-on-time time and he really helped me take my game to another level."

And all that time, the Flames - led by assistant GM Craig Conroy and amateur scout Billy Powers - were there, tracking that curve with boots on the ground.

"Players have lots of opportunities in lots of other spots," Treliving said. "To me, it's about being up front and honest with these players, telling them where you see them as players, what they do well, things they need to get better at, how they can get better in those areas, and what's their path to the NHL? The more touch points you can have with them, the better. 

"There's a fine line with this, because we don't want to overbear these kids and we don't want to smother them, but we do want to make sure we're staying in touch with them and make sure we're answering any questions they might have."

With the foundation in place, the 'sell' was much easier.

"It's the right fit," Mackey said 

"I wanted to be a Flame."

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