Utica, N.Y. - On February 11, 2019, second-year pro Zack MacEwen realized his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL, when he suited up for the Vancouver Canucks in a game at home against the San Jose Sharks.
"It was surreal for sure," MacEwen said, Tuesday, when speaking about his first game. "I had so many people reaching out from back home, friends and family, with love and support, it was awesome to see and I'm really appreciative of that."
The Canucks fell to the Sharks 7-2 that night, but MacEwen earned his first NHL point on an assist to Derrick Pouliot in the game. MacEwen said that despite the loss, it was a great experience and that getting on the scoresheet was a huge confidence boost.
"It definitely feels good, especially having my family and my girlfriend there, it was really cool," he said. "I think they were more nervous than me for the games. Getting the experience and getting my foot in the door, it means so much at this point."
As is customary in the NHL, MacEwen had to take a lap around the ice to start warm-ups, with just goalie Michael DiPietro, who was also making his NHL debut that night. In addition to the lap, his Canucks teammates wanted him to show off his hair, making him take the lap without a helmet.
"All I was thinking was stay on your feet, stay on your feet," he said about the traditional lap. "It was definitely pretty cool. I was expecting the rookie lap, but wasn't really expecting the no helmet so that was definitely a new experience too."
It wasn't until he got into the middle of game action that it really sank in that he was playing a true regular season game in the NHL.
"It was in the first game, [Markus] Granlund got kicked out of a face-off and I went in to take it and Joe Thornton was standing right in front of me," he said. "I was like, 'alright, I think I'm here.' It was a pretty cool moment."
A few nights later, on February 16, the two teams battled again, this time in San Jose. It was there that MacEwen was involved in his first NHL fight, facing Sharks right wing Barclay Goodrow at center ice of the SAP Center.
"I felt good in [the fight]," he said. "I was trying to make an impact in the game and I was happy with how it went."
MacEwen also said his family, namely his mother, enjoys that part of his game.
"She loves it," he said with a chuckle. "She doesn't mind it unless I lose, then she might not like it so much."
MacEwen said his time up with Vancouver was a great learning experience for him and that he understands better what it will take to make a full-time career up at that level.
"I had a lot of good feedback from the management up there and I think it's kind of just rounding off the details in my game," he said. "Decision making, making smart plays, puck management, stuff like that."
He also said that the pace of the game is a touch faster up in the NHL than the AHL, a common opinion among those who have played in both leagues. Still, he thinks being back here in the AHL provides him with a great challenge to continue improving his game.
"I found the biggest difference was that the time and space was a lot less," he said about the NHL style of play. "You think you have a second and then you've got guys hounding pucks and a lot closer to you. There's good hockey players in both leagues [though], so it's a tough night no matter where you're playing."
Though his first stint in the NHL was relatively short, MacEwen said that it is something he will always remember, and that it will motivate him to keep pushing to improve so that he can have a lengthy career there.
"It was a dream come true, it was unlike anything I've ever experienced," MacEwen said. "I got a taste for it now, so I'm just going to keep working to try to get back and give myself the best opportunity to stay there."