Zack MacEwen may have finally found a permanent spot in the Vancouver Canucks’ lineup after being shuttled back and forth from the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League. Just like Alex Burrows, Antoine Roussel, and Chris Tanev, he wasn’t drafted, so he had to work even harder to impress NHL scouts to take a chance on him.
Now that he’s seemingly made the NHL as an effective bottom-six forward, and potentially even more, let’s take a look back at the journey that got him here.
MacEwen in the Maritime Junior Hockey League
Born and raised in Stratford, Prince Edward Island, MacEwen naturally began his hockey story in the Maritime Junior Hockey League (MHL). Put on the map by superstar Sidney Crosby (you may have heard of him), they have not produced a lot of NHL players over the years. Apart from the aforementioned Crosby, only 29 have graduated to the biggest stage in hockey. However, they do have some good representation in Drake Batherson (OTT), Ryan Graves (COL) and Ross Johnston (NYI) currently skating with NHL teams.
If you look at the 30 NHL players that the MHL has produced over the years, a lot of them were hard-nosed, physical hockey players with an impressive work ethic. Most of them were also drafted in the later rounds or not at all, so they all had to have workmen like attitudes and a whole lot of patience to make it to the NHL. MacEwen was no different as he also went undrafted and paid his dues in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and the American Hockey League (AHL) before ultimately making it to the NHL.
MacEwen’s breakout season in the MHL came in his second go-around with the Amherst Ramblers where he collected 29 goals and 52 points in 46 games. He also was a frequent visitor to the sin bin with 103 penalty minutes. That got him noticed by the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL, where he signed a free-agent contract.
MacEwen’s Days in the QMJHL
Just like his first season in the MHL, MacEwen didn’t set the world on fire when he began his stint in the QMJHL. He only played nine games for the Wildcats collecting one goal and two points. Though, when the playoffs came around, he came alive with two goals and four points in nine games en route to a second-round exit.
That experience propelled MacEwen into his second season where he had 10 goals and 40 points in 66 games. He also continued his strong postseason play with four goals and eight points in 17 games. Despite this, he could not entice an NHL team to sign him to a free-agent contract after being passed over in the draft two years in a row.
That all changed after he was traded to the Gatineau Olympiques in the 2016 offseason. The disappointment of being overlooked yet again, this time at an NHL training camp with the Anaheim Ducks, seemed to have set a fire under MacEwen. He went on to have his best season in the QMJHL collecting 31 goals and 74 points in 66 games. His playoff dominance also continued with six goals in seven games.
As you could imagine, that got NHL teams knocking on MacEwen’s door. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, and of course the Canucks were all rumoured to be interested in the 6-foot-4 power forward. MacEwen, of course, ultimately decided to join the Canucks and continue his development in the AHL. General manager Jim Benning was ecstatic to get him too.
Zack is a physical two-way forward who plays in the tough areas and competes with a high intensity every night…He has good hands especially for a player of his size; combined with an ability to deliver hard checks and stick up for his teammates, Zack is a difficult player to match up against. We’re excited to have him join our organization.
The Big Fella Emerges with the Utica Comets
After signing his first NHL contract, MacEwen wasn’t going to just rest on his laurels. No, he continued to develop his game with an impressive rookie season with the Comets. He ended up finishing the campaign with 10 goals and 33 points in 66 games. He also won the Ian Anderson Award as the Comets’ Most Improved Rookie.
The man they call “The Big Fella” quickly became a fan favourite in Utica, and one of their best players night in and night out. His 42 points in 49 games even prompted a four-game call-up to the Canucks and the realization of a life-long dream. His debut was a memorable one too as he collected his first NHL point in a 7-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks. It may not have been a good game for the team, but it was definitely an exciting one for the MacEwen family.
Getting rewarded with an assist late in the game is definitely a bit of a relief, especially for my family to see that, it’s a great feeling.Canucks’ forward Zack MacEwen (from ‘What We Saw From the Vancouver Canucks: San Jose has their way’, Straight – 02/11/19)
After his short stint with the Canucks, he was returned to the Comets where he finished the season with 22 goals and 52 points in 69 games. That performance prompted me to include him as one of the top ten prospects on the team. That’s quite a development for a player that some saw as a waste of a contract.
MacEwen Becoming an Unlikely NHL Success Story
After his strong sophomore season as a member of the Comets, MacEwen once again started the 2019-20 season in Utica, much to the chagrin of Canucks’ fans. Many believed that he could be a good addition to the fourth line, despite the acquisition of Micheal Ferland in the offseason.
In traditional MacEwen fashion, he didn’t let his latest setback get him down. He used it as motivation and started another solid stint with the Comets with five goals and 11 points in 20 games. Those performances once again got him several call ups to the Canucks, especially when injuries struck Ferland, Jay Beagle, and Brandon Sutter. On one of those call ups, he finally got to experience the elation of scoring an NHL goal, on Alex Burrows’ night, no less.
With another unlikely NHL story in attendance, MacEwen showed everyone that he could potentially put together a similar one for himself. The next chapter continued in a recent game against the Colorado Avalanche where he started displaying the potential of becoming more than a fourth-line forward.
MacEwen’s Days In Utica Are Over
With the Canucks in the midst of a four-game losing streak and playing one of the best teams in the NHL in the Colorado Avalanche, MacEwen became the forward that everyone saw during the QMJHL playoffs. He was fast, he was physical and most of all, he was productive.
MacEwen only played 7:15 in that game but put together a stat line that included two goals, four hits and two penalty minutes. His second goal was a clutch one to boot, as it put the Canucks up by two with less than five minutes left in the game. He definitely made the most of his ice time, in one of the most important games of the season. If he can continue that play down the stretch and into the playoffs, the Canucks could have a secret weapon on their hands.
MacEwen’s continued development in the NHL is encouraging for everyone in the organization. If Ferland cannot continue his career with the Canucks, he will become even more important to the team going forward. His combination of size and physicality, not to mention his passion and determination is something that is sorely needed in the bottom-six. The impact he and his linemates, Roussel and Adam Gaudette made in the game against the Avalanche could be the difference between a playoff spot and another trip to the golf course.
All in all, MacEwen is an amazing story that is not done yet, not by a long shot. He’s already become a fan favourite in two cities, unfortunately for Comets’ fans, he won’t be back there anytime soon.
MacEwen Proves Hard Work Can Make Dreams Come True
Fans and teammates alike are starting to see what Benning saw all those seasons ago when he signed him to his first contract. Goaltender Thatcher Demko, who has been with him for most of his professional career, summed up his journey in the most perfect way possible.
I’ve been with him every step of the way…He comes to the rink every day and (is) a good pro. I’m just really happy for him…He’s been in and out of the lineup all year, called up and sent down. For him to rise to the occasion tonight and get those two is huge. I think his game has come a long way. He’s a big strong kid. He goes out there and wears his heart on his sleeve. He’ll do anything for the team.
After Tyler Toffoli was acquired, Benning even went as far as saying that MacEwen was now a full-time NHL player. If he has more performances like the one against the Avalanche, there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind about that. Consistency will, of course, be important, but he has the tools and attitude to succeed in this league. Even Benning’s bold statement did not change that fact.
I saw the quote…It was definitely a vote of confidence for me to know that they feel that way about me. It’s just good to know my game is progressing to the NHL level. I just want to keep proving that though with each game, each chance I get to play.Canucks’ forward Zack MacEwen
MacEwen has proven once again, that hard work and determination pay off. An NHL dream is never dead, even when the draft has passed you by. To sum it up, “The Big Fella” is here to stay and Canucks’ Nation couldn’t be happier.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, editor, part-time journalist, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.