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Remarkable journey for Rangers goaltender Skapski

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- Mackenzie Skapski had just won his first NHL start, but there was something the rookie goalie for the New York Rangers needed to do before the celebrations could start in earnest.

Skapski, 20, called home to share the moment with his parents. It was a conversation that left Skapski's father, Denis, a wreck.

"He was pretty happy when I talked to him, and then my mom told me later that he got pretty emotional afterward," Skapski said, noting the uncharacteristic display of emotion from his dad had other family members asking what was wrong. "I've never seen him like that personally. My mom said the only other time she's seen him like that was my bus accident."

Unexpected apprenticeship with Rangers benefits Skapski's game

Mackenzie Skapski has embraced his opportunity with the Rangers, using it to further refine on his craft.

The chance to work more regularly with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire has been a game-changer. Skapski credits Allaire for the strides he has taken between the pipes, and between the ears, since being drafted.

Allaire visits the Rangers' AHL affiliate twice a month, and after getting Skapski to use his 6-foot-3 frame more effectively by not hunching over as much as he did during his final season of junior hockey, the focus is switching to stressing more conservative positioning and efficient movement patterns. Allaire has helped Skapski manage his game and his expectations when it slips.

"His biggest emphasis this year was, ‘You've gotten to this point, you need to play to your strengths,'" Skapski said. "As soon as you start tweaking your game after a bad game or a bad performance, that's when you get in trouble, because now you are thinking of different things instead of pounding out what you are good at. But the quicker I can stay in my bubble and say, 'Hey I don't need to change anything in my game, let's move onto the next game, stay within my mindset and my play,' it gives me a really good chance to play well the next time. … When I was going through the bus accident I was in that bubble."

Skapski knows there will be more work to do when Henrik Lundqvist returns and Skapski goes back to the American Hockey League. But he said he believes he'll be better for the experience of getting to face shots from Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis and work every day with Allaire, for the opportunity to remind the hockey world what kind of goalie he was destined to be before the accident.

"Not only has it put me back on the map as a legitimate prospect in the goaltending world, but it gives me a confidence boost that I've played in the NHL," Skapski said. "It's given me that much more fight to actually grab a hold of a position."

-- Kevin Woodley

The emotion that poured out of Denis Skapski after Mackenzie's win against the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 20 was about a lot more than the joy of seeing his son win his first NHL game. It was about everything overcome in the five years since the last time the son made his father cry.

When Mackenzie was 15, the bus carrying his youth team to a tournament in rural British Columbia hit ice and rolled. Mackenzie was seriously injured in the accident and was airlifted to Vancouver. Soon after, surgeons had to cut a 3-inch square through the back of his skull after additional scans revealed bleeding that was putting pressure near his brain.

"A neurosurgeon came in and said, ‘We have to go in right now. If we don't he will get sick really quickly and he will stop breathing,'" Denis said. "We had the fear of him not surviving."

During surgery, doctors discovered a vein that was severed in the accident. The vein was cauterized, and two dissolvable plates were inserted in Mackenzie's face.

"It wasn't in the brain, but on the outside, thank God," said Denis, who was a defenseman for three seasons of NCAA hockey with the University of Alabama-Huntsville and one in the ECHL. "But it was bleeding significantly and starting to press on his brain."

Given all that, it's easy to understand the emotions Denis went through when his son called after he made 24 saves in a 3-1 win against the Sabres.

"For me it's the resilience and all he had to overcome, stuff that would make most quit," Denis said. "There were times it was hard watching him play because early on he wasn't the same goalie. And how the [heck] could he be the same? And then to take advantage of that opportunity [with New York] is so remarkable in my mind as a symbolic marker of his resilience and character."

Mackenzie lost more than 20 pounds in the hospital and had to wait three months to get back on skates. By the time he was ready to resume playing, he had lost more than half a year during a critical point in his development. It cost him the chance to make the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League as a 16-year-old, and later a shot at being selected in his first year of eligibility for the NHL Draft.

"The accident wreaked havoc with where he was in his development," Denis said. "He really had to go start at the beginning again."

On the surface, Mackenzie seemed to handle it well, but it wasn't always easy.

"I was delayed a year," he said. "There was a lot of bitterness."

It took almost three years, until the midway point of his second full season in the WHL, for Skapski to get back to being the goaltender he was before the accident. The Rangers selected him in the sixth round (No. 170) of the 2013 NHL Draft and signed him to an entry-level contract in June 2014.

It's been a whirlwind ever since.

Skapski went into training camp unsure if he'd start his pro career or return to junior. The Rangers sent him to Greenville (ECHL) to start the season, and he earned a promotion to Hartford of the American Hockey League by the end of October.

"It's been absolutely crazy," Mackenzie said. "I walked into camp and really had no idea what was going to happen with me. You look at where most 20-year-old goalies are and they're either in junior or they're in the [ECHL] playing games."

He made another leap after Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was hit in the neck by a shot and diagnosed with a vascular injury. Skapski was called up to New York on Feb. 4.

"That was biggest surprise and excitement, the call to your parents saying you have just been called up to the NHL," Skapski said. "They got really excited about that, probably more so than my first start."

His parents flew to New York to be at Madison Square Garden for that Feb. 4 game to watch him as the backup to Cam Talbot against the Boston Bruins. They were back home in Abbotsford, British Columbia, when he got his first start in Buffalo three weeks later. They were also home watching on TV when he started in Buffalo on March 14 and made 20 saves to become the second-youngest goalie in Rangers history to have a shutout.

Denis Skapski can only shake his head at the name of the only goalie to accomplish the feat at a younger age: Dan Blackburn, who, like Skapski, played for Kootenay in the WHL. It's one of several ties to the Rangers that leave Denis a bit bewildered.

It includes Mackenzie being born hours after the Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.

"It was kind of like he let us watch the game and then it was, ‘OK, I am ready to come out now,'" Denis said with a laugh.

When MacKenzie was 5, he watched his first WHL game.

"I look back and see a 5-year-old kid that couldn't take his eyes off Dan Blackburn," Denis said. "He was mesmerized. It sounds crazy but when I think about the correlations they kind of boggle my mind, like, is it really supposed to be this scripted? I'm probably getting a little goofy, but it seems too much to be coincidental. You feel like some things are just meant to be for some people."

Skapski knows his time with the Rangers is coming to an end. Lundqvist is healed from his injury, back on the ice practicing and hopes to be game-ready in a week.

Before Skapski departs, he has one more piece of family business to finish. He flew his grandmothers to New York, where he has jerseys waiting for them, to watch what might be his final game at Madison Square Garden. It won't matter that Skapski will take the warm-up and then most likely spend the rest of the game watching Talbot.

The grandmothers know what Skapski overcame to get on the ice and the person he has become during that journey. The kind who phones home before celebrating his first NHL win, knowing only his family could appreciate the real significance of his accomplishment.

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