WATERFORD, Mich. – Sometimes, hockey can be used as therapy to get away from the sad and dreary faces of reality.
And in rare instances, a simple goal can mean the world to the one that scored.
Metro Jets’ 20-year-old forward Zack MacKay found himself on the ice in the waning seconds of the Jets’ home opener last Saturday night against the Cincinnati Swords at Lakeland Arena.
The score was tied and MacKay was playing just three days after finding his father in his Howell home dead, the result of myelofibrosis (a disorder of the bone marrow in which the marrow is replaced by scar tissue, a form of cancer) taking hold of Ronald MacKay’s 61-year-old body.
Cue the Hollywood music.
MacKay took control on the ice and scored the go-ahead goal with just 28 seconds remaining and the Jets held on the rest of the way for the 4-3 win.
Prior to the game, Jets’ coach Jason Cirone made the prediction that MacKay would score. He just didn’t know what the magnitude of the goal would be.
“Getting the game-winner was more than just scoring a goal – it was for the team,” MacKay said. “Coach had made a statement that (goalie) Kam (Limburg) was playing on his head for us all game and to go win it for him. Most importantly, it was for my dad and family. After I scored, I looked over to see my mom and brother standing up and cheering, yelling, pointing. I looked at my mom and pointed to her. It was the best feeling in the world. It was as if my dad had scored himself.
“I had to play Saturday. I know my dad would've been upset had I not. It was for him whether I was really ready to play or not. His life expectancy after (myelofibrosis) came about was five years and he hadn’t even told me he had it until three years had passed. He was in a test study for new drugs, but none seemed to work. I truly thought he would've beaten the disease – he was always a tough man. Finding him dead was extremely unexpected.”
While MacKay’s parents divorced when he was younger, he lives with his mother, but never lost the father-son bond over the years.
“Me and my father had an odd relationship with the separation of my parents, but he was the main reason I even played hockey,” said MacKay, an alternate captain this season with the Jets. “If he could make it to a game, he would and we'd always do something after. The rest of my hockey career is devoted to him, to make him proud. I know that's what he would want. This season, I just want to put everything I've got into hockey, devote all my time to it and make sure I'm the best I can be. I've got to do it for my dad because he's my inspiration.
“Hockey is most likely going to get me through this, along with support from my family. It's hard to focus on anything, but with hockey, you can really leave any problems at the doorstep and know your team and coaches are there for you.”
Now with a 3-0-1 record through the first four games of the North American 3 Hockey League season, the Jets are playing with a sense of confidence – and feeding off emotional players such as MacKay.
“The team is a lot better than I had expected,” MacKay said. “Right from the start, I thought we would need a lot of work breaking in all the new guys, but as Jason says, a win is a win no matter how you get it, and we've been getting them thus far. To be honest, I didn't think I was going to play any more after last season (with the Jets). I didn't go to any camps nor did I even skate regularly. I maybe skated three times after last season. My dad said he would find a way to make it so I could play if I wanted and he made it happen.”
And on the ice, away from the somberness of losing his father, MacKay is making things happen for the Jets.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD
Prior to MacKay’s dramatics Saturday night, Alex Holm had made it 3-2 in favor of the Jets at 16:05 of the third period before Cincinnati's Nikita Korotkov tied the game at the 18-minute mark.
That set the stage for MacKay.
"Our guys never quit and they work extremely hard – every one of them," said Cirone. "Our four 'D' were outstanding and Kam made some great saves for us. Your goal is always to win as many hockey games as you can and right now, the kids are believing in themselves."
Brad Hepler and Cody Jones also scored for the Jets and Limburg stopped 28 shots in goal.
In the rematch Sunday afternoon, Hepler scored at 18:05 of the third period to pull the Jets into a 3-3 tie, but the Swords took the game 4-3 in a shootout.
Zach Kopinski scored two goals for the Jets, while Trevor Kalinowski, last week’s East Division player of the week, made 32 saves between the pipes.
The Jets host the Flint Jr. Generals this Saturday night at 7:50 p.m. before traveling to Flint on Sunday afternoon for a 2:30 p.m. puck drop at Iceland Arenas.
“I think this weekend against Flint is going to be our first true test,” said Metro captain Josh Beleski. “They are a strong and fast team and they never stop working. This weekend is going to come down to who makes the most mistakes, but how I see it is that if we just play within Jason’s system and work hard and minimize our mistakes, then we will be moving on to the following weekend with four more points.”
The Jets and Swords observed a moment of silence in Ronald MacKay’s honor before Saturday’s game … Jones, drafted by Metro in both the 2012 and 2013 NA3HL drafts, leads the team in scoring with two goals and three assists for five points … Beleski left Saturday’s game after getting elbowed by Cincinnati’s Nick Haase and did not play Sunday. Haase earned a five-minute major on the play. Beleski has been experiencing concussion-like symptoms.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Jon Cooper, who led the Jets to the 2002 Silver Cup Junior B national championship, is starting his first full season at the helm of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning after stepping into the role midway through the shortened 2013 season.
Cooper also won junior championships in the North American Hockey League with the St. Louis Bandits and in the United States Hockey League with the Green Bay Gamblers before going to the pro ranks and winning an American Hockey League title in 2012 with the Norfolk Admirals.