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Canucks’ Zack MacEwen on why he’s never letting go of No. 71

VANCOUVER – They don’t ask you what number you’d like in the National Hockey League when you are an undrafted free agent out of junior facing years of development time in the minors.

Generally, you take whatever late-century digits you are issued at training camp, are grateful to have an NHL logo on the other side of the jersey, and don’t ask about a real hockey number until you earn one.

Zack MacEwen was given No. 71 by the Vancouver Canucks. Now, he’s never giving it up without a fight.

“That’s going to be the number I’m going to keep,” the winger from Prince Edward Island says over the phone. “My dad was born on Aug. 17, 1971, so that number really resonates with me now and that’s the number I’m going to keep. Everything happens for a reason.”

MacEwen’s dad, Craig, died in Halifax on May 5 from the complications of a massive stroke. He hung on long enough on life-support for Zack to travel from Vancouver to say goodbye.

Craig MacEwen was 48 years old. Zack is 23.

There’s a lot of hockey stuff in the news this week: overblown debates about hub cities for the NHL playoffs during the summer of COVID, a draft lottery, draft rankings, haggling over escrow and the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

None of that matters compared to losing your father, which, incredibly sadly, three Canucks players have endured this season.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

While the MacEwens were coming together as a family last Sunday in Stratford, P.E.I., to help each other through Fathers’ Day, Vancouver defenceman Troy Stecher was learning that his dad, Peter, had died suddenly here. Goalie Jacob Markstrom lost his father, Anders, to cancer last November in Sweden.

Troy Stecher is 26 years old, Markstrom 30. They’re not kids, but these players are awfully young men to be mourning the loss of their fathers.

“I don’t know how well you know Troy Stecher, but he’s just a really good human being, a character kid,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. “He got that from his dad. This has been a really hard year. Their fathers are a big part of these guys turning into NHL players, supporting them.

“I know Zack’s dad would go into Utica (in the American League) with his mom, and they’d visit Zack and get to know his teammates. When we heard what happened… even all the players in Utica were upset because they were close to his dad.”

Craig spent 20 years working for the Department of Veteran Affairs and helped develop a call system to help Canadian veterans access by phone the information they need.

“He was always my biggest supporter,” Zack said. “He’d get pretty fired up if he heard anything negative about me, and he’d want to go all nuts talking to people on Twitter and I’d have to calm him down. It was just the way he was. He was so passionate about hockey and he just loved coming to see me play. If we had a homestand for a week, I’d say, ‘I’ll fly you in, come stay.’ And he’d drop everything so he could do that and come spend time with me.

“It was a very fluke thing. It was a clot that started in his heart and worked its way up to his brain. He went in for initial surgery to remove the clot from his brain. Coming out of it, there were complications and there was a bleed in his brain, and after that there was just nothing they could do. They said it was like a one-in-a-hundred-thousand thing.”

Zack and his brother, Kurtis, their mom, Juliana, relatives and friends were able to hold a small celebration of life for Craig outdoors at Lakeside Beach on P.E.I., next to Craig’s favourite golf course, Crowbush Cove. That’s where the family reunited on Fathers’ Day, the boys playing nine holes like they always did with their dad on Fathers’ Day.

“We scattered his ashes at his favourite beach and golf course; they’re right beside each other,” Zack said. “We spent the whole evening there, just kind of telling stories, and spread the ashes and I think it was kind of the perfect sendoff for my dad. That night was just what everybody needed.

“(Mom’s) got a lot to figure out, but she’s an incredibly strong woman. She’s so smart and really just a salt-of-the-earth woman who would do anything for anybody. She has a good support system around her with my family and her friends and even my friends. Me leaving and going back to Vancouver to play, that gives me comfort that she has that. I know she’s going to be OK, but it’s definitely going to take some time.”

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At least Craig MacEwen got to see his son develop into an NHL player.

After 2 ½ seasons in the minors, Zack, undrafted out of bantam hockey, undrafted out of the Quebec League in Moncton and Gatineau, was promoted from Utica on Jan. 30 and a month later was declared a “full-time NHL player” by Benning. The Canucks looked at adding toughness before the February trade deadline, then realized MacEwen could fill that need.

On a team full of young greyhounds, MacEwen is the pit bull who hits and checks and, when needed, fights for his teammates. And in the nine games he played before the NHL closed for coronavirus on March 12, the six-foot-three forward also scored four goals.

“I think so many areas of my game improved so much with my time in Utica,” MacEwen said. “It’s great to be able to play the physical game. But if you can contribute something offensively and be safe defensively… that’s going to, I hope, go a lot further in my hockey career than just being that physical grinder.

“If you had asked me when I was 15, I probably wouldn’t have been too confident that I would be playing in the NHL. But I used to tell my parents all the time when I was younger that’s what I wanted to do. They let on like they believed it.”

MacEwen is excited about the possibility of the Canucks playing again this summer. He said he’ll never forget the support he received this spring.

“The outreach from everyone, from the team to the staff to the organization of the Canucks, has been just amazing,” he said. “They probably don’t understand how good that was here, to know that whatever you need, there are people to help you. I want to say thank you to everyone who reached out with love and support. It was truly amazing.”

He’ll be reminded of his dad every time he pulls on that No. 71.

“He was like the life of the party, the guy people would go to to cheer them up,” MacEwen said. “He just had this easy-going, no-worries way about him. It’s going to be weird to play games without him, but I think I’ve got someone looking over me now, maybe give me a couple of assists down the road.”

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