Craig MacEwen is a good dude, for real. He’s a salt of the earth native of Prince Edward Island, whose face beams with pride when he talks about his sons Kurtis and Zack. Craig was in town for a week to watch his youngest son, Zack take part in the Canucks training camp and preseason. I reached out to him with the hope of getting his perspective on what it is like to be the parent of an undrafted hockey player, who has beaten the odds to earn a pro contract and looks like a good bet to have an NHL future. I was thrilled when he agreed so that I could bring this article to you today.
I met with Craig at the Canucks/Kings preseason game on Thursday night before he flew back home to his wife, Juliana in P.E.I. We talked about Zack’s journey after the first, and part way into the second period before sitting down and enjoying the rest of the game together. Yeah, it was every bit as cool of an experience as you are thinking it would be.
I have always heard about hockey players being on skates at an early age, so I asked Craig how old Zack was when he started playing hockey.
“He was three-years-old when he started playing organized hockey.”
Wondering if Zack came by his love of sports naturally, I asked if either of Craig or Juliana were athletic or into sports. With a chuckle, he replied,
“Oh yeah, we’re both into sports, I’m missing my fall ball tournament right now. They won tonight, but yeah, we’ve both always played sports.”
Next up. I wanted to know if there was a certain point when Craig felt that Zack had a potential future in pro hockey.
“So, Zack told me every year of his life that he was going to play in the NHL…every year of his life, and I had no doubt about Zack after Gatineau.”
Ahead of our interview, I went over to Elite Prospects and checked out how many natives of Charlottetown P.E.I. have played in the NHL and found that number to be 19. I asked Craig how great it would be to see Zack become number 20.
“I’m surprised that’s all there are who have made it, but that would be pretty awesome. Well, I mean, that’s his dream.”
It was at this point in the interview when a convoy of catering carts came steaming toward us, so we moved to a more quiet area to continue. I asked Craig if Zack had been a multi-sport kid growing up or if the focus was always on hockey.
“Oh yeah, he’s an amazing baseball player and an amazing golfer too. He and his older brother Kurtis really like beating me and beating each other too.”
I followed up by asking if there was a certain age when Zack focused solely on hockey full time or if he kept playing other sports.
“No, he has always played another sport in the summertime. He played hockey because he loves hockey, but he played other sports for fun. He used to drive his baseball coach crazy because he didn’t take it as seriously as he took hockey.”
As I also live in a small coastal community, I asked Craig what kind of resources an aspiring hockey player has in the area where Zack grew up.
“Well, we have two major midget teams and we have a major junior team, the Charlottetown Islanders that play in the “Q” (QMJHL), so there would be scouts there, but he was never drafted to the “Q.”
This is where I asked Craig about what it has been like to be the father of an undrafted kid who has made it to the pro level and if he had any advice for parents in a similar situation.
“I have lots of advice for that kind of parent. Hockey now, even when Zack was growing up, it’s political in small towns. If your kid doesn’t make the hockey team, it might not necessarily be about talent, it might be because you aren’t friends with the coach, or for other reasons. Zack’s grandfather said to Zack as well as his mother and I, ‘don’t worry, it doesn’t matter where he is playing. If he is good enough, someone will see him,’ and he was right. That’s the way it should be with every kid.”
“Now, you were talking about NHL players from Charlottetown. Al MacAdam is a retired NHL player and he’s from my hometown of Morell. We tried to get his brother Donnie to be Zack’s agent. He told us that Zack didn’t need an agent yet, that was when he was in minor midget or major midget. He said to just make sure that Zack was on a team where he would get lots of ice time and special teams and get to develop, so he went to Amherst.”
“He had a rough first season. They had an old school coach there, Jim Bottomley, and in the Maritime hockey league, you are allowed to have 10, 20-year-olds. Zack got there as a 16-year-old and he sat the whole year, except for when his coach needed throat surgery. He got to play during those two weeks and he piled up points, but it was back to the bench when his coach got back. I actually think that taught him a lesson about earning ice time.”
“He was always majorly focused and has always had an amazing work ethic. When he was in minor hockey his nickname was “Taz” for Tazmainian devil. He loved going into the corners and coming out with it. He liked the battles, he was always good with his feet and he could come out with the puck a lot of the time.”
“He was on a pretty good team, they had two or three guys who were probably better than him and should have probably went somewhere but they either lost interest or didn’t get the opportunity. That is one thing about Zack, he is amazing at taking advantage of opportunities. You’d be amazed at the opportunities that he has gotten out of luck.”
That peaked my interest, so I asked Craig if he could share a few of those opportunities.
“So, when he got that opportunity in Amherst for those two weeks, one of the guys from Moncton in the “Q” saw Zack and told his mother and I that they were scouting him. The next year Amherst had replaced their coach with Josh Hepditch. He was a young coach who played for the Moncton Wildcats during his junior career. They traded away all of their 20-year-olds because they started rebuilding and they made Zack captain. He started getting special teams work and at Christmas time, during the World Juniors, all of the Russian players and a couple of the American players from the Moncton Wildcats were gone so they called Zack up. They had him on the fourth line and he was sitting a little bit but he ended up out with the top line somehow and he scored a goal.”
“That helped him move up a couple of lines and as it worked out, he started to get some points. They brought him back for the playoffs, and if I recall correctly, the Quebec Remparts were favoured to win the Memorial Cup, they had Drouin and Fucale. Zack played on the top line in the first two rounds and he was getting some points. They made it to the final against Quebec and got swept, but Zack picked up a couple of goals while nobody else did. He worked hard.”
“The next year he went into training camp with Moncton and he made the team. Darren Rumble was his coach and wanted him to be the fourth line centre. Zack played there until Christmas when his team suffered some injuries and he got moved up and put up around 40 points.”
“He was 19 that summer and you are only allowed three 20-year-olds in the “Q” and they weren’t keeping him. He thought he was going to go home and play Junior B in P.E.I. and then he was told he had been traded to Gatineau. He went there, not knowing if he was going to be one of their 20-year-olds, because you have to try out. They kept him and made him their top-line centre and made him the trigger guy on the power play. He’s got a wicked slapshot, he’s broken four panes of glass. If he gets time to load up, it’s crazy how hard he can shoot.”
Craig then took a moment to speak in the present tense about Zack’s commitment to improving before getting back into Zack’s journey through junior hockey.
“The game is slowing down for him now, that’s always the way it has been for him. Every second year in a league…I can’t wait to see what he will do in Utica this year. He trained with Eli MacEachern this offseason, he’s an Olympic Gold Medalist bobsledder from P.E.I. and Zack is as explosive as hell now. He really worked on his core, agility and endurence.”
“Back to his cronological story, he went to Gatineau and during preseason, he was the only one getting any points. Alex Dostie was also in Gatineau and he happened to be a draft pick of Anaheim. When they were making arrangements for Alex to head down to their camp, Richard Rackell, who was also in the Ducks system, had a hernia surgery that wasn’t healed, so he couldn’t fly, and they had an open spot. They asked if there was anyone else they could send and Zack ended up getting to go. My best friend and I went down as well, because when are you ever going to get to go to Southern California and watch your kid play in an NHL training camp?”
“He went to “Young Guns” and they were impressed with him, he got a couple of goals. They ended up keeping him for main camp, and I will never forget the look on his face when he came out after the second day of main camp and he said, ‘they just offered me an AHL contract.’ So, he called his agent and was told not to sign the deal, because he had NHL offers on the table and to tell them thank you, and that his agent would be contacting them. He had a permagrin for, I don’t know how long.”
“He went back to Gatineau and put up points. A lot of people say he was on Abramov’s line there, but he played with Del Paggio more often. He would be out there with Abramov for power plays sometimes, but Trenin and Abramov were on a line together.”
“Zack had a good playoffs that year against Cape Breton, they got to game seven and Zack was the leading scorer on the team in the first six games. He got slashed on his first shift of game seven and couldn’t move his hand and had a terrible game, but that’s hockey, and that’s Zack’s problem, he wouldn’t sit out. He’s been like that his whole life. In bantam, he got slashed and broke his hand and ended up cutting his own cast off so he could play. He’s driven.”
“His mother and I don’t push him, at all, we never did. We took him to tournaments like all parents do, but we never had to push him. You see some parents push their kids so hard that they stop enjoying the game.”
“He has a brother who is older than him. We’d have a backyard rink and Zack wanted to play with Kurtis and his friends, so he had to keep up. They would check him over the snowbanks and he’d crawl back over and get right back into the game. He was determined.”
“Kurtis was a big influence on every sport Zack played becasue they always played together. Kurtis is five years older, so if Zack wanted to play with him, he had to keep up.”
It was abundantly clear to me when talking with Craig, that the MacEwen family are a tight-knit group. Zack has had the right kind of family support to help him achieve his goals and he has dedicated himself to continue improving his craft to get to the next level.
I had remembered reading at the time that Zack signed with the Canucks, that there were other teams in the mix. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning were the two teams that I remembered specifically. I asked Craig about that, and what ultimately lead to Zack deciding to sign with Vancouver.
“The summer after Gatineau, no, he was still in Gatineau, it was March and he called me and said that he had five contracts in front of him and that he had to pick one. There was Tampa, Toronto, Anaheim, Ottawa and Vancouver, actually, there might have been six, maybe Philly? I can’t remember. He visited five of them, I actually went to the Ottawa one with him and got to have supper with Erik Karlsson, Daniel Alfredsson, and Pierre Dorion.”
I found this next part interesting. Can you imagine being in Zack’s shoes and having this happen? Can you imagine the pressure an undrafted kid must feel, along with the excitement, to know that the GM of an NHL team now wants you in his organization enough to personally reach out? That is quite a contrast from the kid who wasn’t drafted into junior or pro hockey. Can you imagine the pride that Craig was feeling for his son?
“I’ll tell you what was amazing, was sitting in Zack’s car and listening to Steve Yzerman telling him all of the benefits of playing in Tampa over the phone.”
“But he ended up visiting Vancouver and loved the city, loved the facilities, and saw more opportunity here when he compared depth charts. That’s why he picked Vancouver, he saw more opportunity.”
I had heard in the past that part of the reason why Zack wasn’t drafted into junior had to do with the fact that he was too small…Uh, are we talking about the same person that I have dubbed, The Big Fella? I asked Craig about this and he confirmed that Zack was indeed a much smaller kid until he hit around 17 years of age.
“Every once in a while you’ll see him do a move out of a corner where he slips between a couple of guys, he can be elusive like that and he learned to be that way when he was smaller. Now that he is so big, it can look a little clumsy at times, but he still thinks that he can do those moves. He’s still growing into his body, I think he’s still getting bigger.”
“He had a growth spurt when he was 17 where he went from five-foot-eight to six-foot-four. It was one Christmas morning and the two of us were bent into the fridge, I was trying to get some milk and he was getting some ketchup or something and when he stood up I thought… did you grow overnight?”
The interview wrapped up with Craig telling me that when they were in the car on the way home from hockey when Zack was young, it was always the same. He would ask his mom how he played and Juliana would tell him that he was amazing, that he was awesome, and to stay positive even if he had a bad game…then he would look at Craig and ask how he really did. Craig would tell him that he missed this, or that he turned it over there, and Zack would say, “yeah, I know.” He would learn from his mistakes. Craig said that Zack really likes the coaching staff in Utica because they coach. They tell him what he needs to work on and he works on it and says that Cull finds that thing for every player, and in his opinion, he knows hockey.
Once the interview wrapped up, I had the pleasure of watching the rest of the game with Craig and talking hockey with him. I can’t tell you what a thrill that was for me. To find out that he is a beer league goalie, just like I used to be, only gave us more to talk about.
It is pretty easy to see why Zack MacEwen is as driven as he is to make the NHL. He has moved on from being the undersized kid who had to work his tail off to keep up to his big brother and friends to earn every inch of ice that he has been given to get to where he is. He has been driven and opportunistic along the way, all the while being backed by his salt of the earth family from P.E.I.
I’m looking forward to watching The Big Fella take another step this year in Utica, and you can be sure that I will do everything within my ability to be in attendance for his first home game when he gets called up to Vancouver.
I really appreciated that Craig took time out of his last night in town with Zack to conduct this interview with me. I have been afforded the opportunity to do a lot of pretty great things since I started writing for CanucksArmy, but I feel like I have made a new friend in Craig and that pretty much tops the list.