📝 by Patrick Williams
Black aces have been a long-time part of playoff hockey lore.
Typically the role is designated for American Hockey League players. Following the completion of a team’s AHL season, the parent National Hockey League club will recall a number of players from their affiliate for the duration of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The group will practice and work to stay game-ready. The move is part reward, part insurance for the NHL roster in case help is needed.
Stockton Heat defenseman Connor Mackey has reversed that tradition, however. He went through the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Calgary Flames in a reserve role only to return to the AHL to pursue a Calder Cup. That battle continues tonight in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Chicago Wolves, who have a 3-2 series lead (8 ET, AHLTV).
“Conference finals in the American Hockey League, it doesn’t get much more of a battle than this,” Mackey said. “It’s good hockey out there. For me just gaining this experience and playing in the playoffs as well is huge.”
Mackey’s path to the Calder Cup Playoffs for that additional experience has been a rather circuitous one.
Calgary had recalled the 25-year-old Mackey from Stockton back on April 2. He played three games with the Flames, picking up an assist in a 5-3 home win against the Seattle Kraken on April 12, and remained in the NHL through the end of the regular season and two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before Calgary’s season ended on May 26.
A day later, Mackey was on his way to rejoin the Heat. He made his playoff debut in Game 4 of the Pacific Division Finals, a series-clinching 1-0 win over the Colorado Eagles.
Mackey was part of a talent haul back to Stockton that included fellow blueliner Juuso Valimaki, forward Adam Ruzicka, and goaltender Adam Werner.
“[It was] a great experience in Calgary,” Mackey said. “I’m very fortunate I was there for our playoff run. But it’s always exciting for me to come back here and the team I played with the majority of the season. I was super excited to have a chance to make the run with the team here.
“[I] just keep looking to keep growing my game here and keep winning with this team.”
Mackey is fully immersed in Stockton’s ongoing battle with the Wolves. His overtime goal in Game 5 on Saturday night saved Stockton’s season as they continue to recover from what had been a 3-0 series hole.
Despite being gone for nearly two months with Calgary, Mackey fully considered himself invested in Stockton’s playoff run. He had played 53 regular-season games as a second-year pro with Stockton, where he had 36 points (five goals, 31 assists) and a plus-15 rating. Signed by Calgary out of Minnesota State University Mankato following three college seasons, Mackey was coming off a strong rookie campaign with the Heat in 2020-21 that earned him a spot with Team USA at the IIHF World Championship last spring, as well as a new two-year extension from the Flames this past fall.
His ongoing strong performance in the Calder Cup Playoffs will be another check in his favor when he pursues a full-time role with the Flames in September at training camp. Certainly experiencing the Calder Cup Playoffs can benefit Mackey’s game. And with an imposing opponent like the Wolves, the Heat are relying on Mackey to handle a considerable load on their blue line.
But he also wanted to be back with his teammates for this challenge.
“We have a great leadership group, and our stick-to-itiveness and just our willingness to keep battling for each other and the guy next to each other… I think that’s the biggest thing, the character of the guys. We have a special group, and we’re just willing to compete for each other. When you do that, good things happen.”
Tonight the Heat once again will play for their season. If all goes well for them, they can repeat that highwire act on Wednesday in a Game 7. Throughout these past two weeks and perhaps beyond, Mackey has had an important lesson reinforced by Calder Cup Playoff hockey.
“You’ve got to play every shift like it’s your last.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.