📝 by Chris Kuc | AHL On The Beat
When it comes to implementing strategies during a hockey game, including when to be patient, when to deke your opponent and when to make the final push toward victory, they can resemble those used in a less physically demanding sport: chess.
For Chicago Wolves forward Mackenzie MacEachern, that could prove to be advantageous this season since the veteran’s new favorite off-ice pastime is playing the venerable board game.
The seventh-year pro, who is in his second stint with the Wolves, picked up chess while stuck at home in Michigan with his fiancee, Katie, during the COVID shutdown. The couple stumbled across the Netflix miniseries drama “The Queen’s Gambit” and an obsession was born.
“I probably play every day, whether it’s against my fiancee or against people online on my chess app,” MacEachern said. “I like the mental aspect of it. Sometimes when you’re away from the rink it’s kind of nice to sit and use your head.”
Also appealing is playing a game with very little chance of sustaining an injury.
“It’s intense, but to my knowledge I don’t think you can get injured playing a game of chess,” MacEachern said with a laugh.
MacEachern is doing a lot of smiling these days, healthy and happy to be back in familiar surroundings. The Wolves were MacEachern’s first professional stop after being drafted in the third round (67th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues – at the time the Wolves’ NHL affiliate.
After three standout seasons at Michigan State, the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., native turned pro prior to his senior year and was assigned to the Wolves. With Chicago, he had 11 goals and 10 assists in 101 games over two seasons from 2016-18.
He began the 2018-19 season with the Blues’ new AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, and by mid-January made his NHL debut. He went on to contribute to the Blues’ 2019 Stanley Cup championship, scoring three goals with two assists in 29 regular-season games.
“It took me a couple of years to get my feet under me being pro and starting (in Chicago) and then my third year is when I really kind of figured out how the ins and outs of how pro hockey works,” MacEachern said. “I stayed healthy and got my chance in St. Louis and was fortunate to be there for their Cup run my first year and a good stint after that.”
Perhaps the most telling aspect of MacEachern’s demeanor and sense of purpose, his first stop on his day with the Stanley Cup was at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit.
“I just think it’s good to give back to people,” MacEachern said. “I’ve been blessed my entire life to get the opportunities that I’ve had so I think it’s cool to share moments with people who are maybe going through a tough time or maybe are not as fortunate as I was growing up.”
Now the Carolina Hurricanes’ affiliate, the Wolves have welcomed MacEachern back after he signed a one-year, two-way contract with Carolina on July 15.
Perhaps even more appealing than the experience, strong skating ability for his size (6-3, 205) and willingness to go to the front of the net, MacEachern has brought to a team reloading after capturing the franchise’s fifth championship the aforementioned sense of community.
“We want great hockey players, but we want really great people off the ice, too,” Wolves general manager Wendell Young said. “That’s something in our organization that we talk about. He’s 100 percent that type of person.”
The veteran of 115 NHL games and 182 AHL contests has already become a leader with the Wolves, serving as an alternate captain during their Oct. 15 season-opener against the Milwaukee Admirals, and is handing out advice to the team’s young players.
“I’ve already seen him talking to guys and helping them,” Young said. “Especially young guys who might not be from North America, he’s been trying to help them. It’s a little bit of leadership quality but it’s also how nice of a person he is.”
Being a leader while also trying to work his way back to the NHL is something MacEachern embraces.
“This is my seventh year as a pro and I’ve seen a lot and been through a lot so I can help the younger guys,” MacEachern said. “We have a lot of first-year pros so I’m just trying to help them as much as I can.”
He’s leading by example both on the ice and in the dressing room.
“It’s just playing the right way on the ice – no cheating, playing the right way and playing winning-type hockey,” MacEachern said. “And then in the room just try and keep it easy. It can be intimidating for first-year guys to come into a new room so I just try to help everyone out, try to talk to them and make it an easy room to come into.”
He’d also like to make it a room he can come into and eventually say to a teammate, “checkmate.”
“I haven’t found any chess lovers here yet,” MacEachern said. “I have to keep asking around.”