The American hockey dream is simple.
There are three letters. There is one league. And for hundreds of players who have caught it by chasing in skates, fighting with their fists and sacrificing their bodies regularly from September through April, life in the NHL is good.
But for the thousands of others, for whom the three letters and the one league are still very much an intangible, dangling carrot, life and the dream are a bit more complicated.
New Canaan natives Drew MacKenzie and Jack Downing, each 25 years of age and already a veteran of the minor league hockey life, know this. They've lived it. By virtue of the limited space at the top of the hockey world, they've been pushed down to its lesser, unkempt parts over the better part of three years, pursuing the game they've loved since childhood.
For after racing through the ranks of high school, prep, junior and college hockey, the long-time best friends have remained either one or two steps below the NHL in the American Hockey League (AHL) or East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), respectively. Over the last 20 months, they have bounced around the North American continent, calling each of Alaska, upstate New York, South Carolina, British Columbia, Utah and other places home at one time or another.
Presently, both are without contracts, though their shared agent has been in contact with multiple potential clubs for next season.
Meanwhile, MacKenzie, a defenseman, and Downing, a right-winger, have been preparing for their upcoming campaigns alongside established NHL stars, many of whom are close friends, at Bodytuning, an acclaimed Darien gym. There, each has been able to get an everyday glimpse of the destination he hopes to arrive at one day, while taking physically grueling, but very much positive steps to get there.
But for now, that place is a bit far down the road. And the arduous journey, one scattered with 10-hour flights, knocked out teeth, and a miniscule margin for error, is all that matters.
"The NHL is a pretty far reach right now, but that doesn't mean you're not trying to achieve something. It's the process. You just do it, and you see where it takes you," Downing said. "You do everything hard, whether it's in the weight-room or on the ice. Whether it's in Europe, whether it's here in the American League or wherever, we don't know where it's going to happen."
Of course, given the duo's tremendous efforts to prepare for 2014-15 and personal histories of success on the ice, realizing their dreams could eventually be more a question of where than when. Only time will tell, and for now, MacKenzie and Downing are going to enjoy the grind of their workouts and game shifts as best they can, just as they have their entire hockey lives.
"I think we both see the bigger picture in terms of this isn't going to be forever," MacKenzie said. "We're not going to play until we're like 40, but it's too easy to not give it a shot right now. It's something we've done our whole lives ... It's a blast, it's hard work, and we love it."
Growing up in skates
Born out of their mothers' bond as former Motherpucker teammates at the New Canaan Winter Club, the MacKenzie-Downing friendship came about sometime around the turn of the millennia, when the pair reached the fifth grade. Both had already been pushed at a young age to try numerous sports, though, largely thanks to their fathers, the only one they fell hard for was played on top of a sheet of ice.
Their first winter taking the ice together came in the eighth grade, and one year later, they dominated in their only season of high school hockey at New Canaan High. Ask Downing about that year, and he'll tell you he remembers loving it. But outside of his enjoyment, he doesn't recall a thing, except one game.
A loss, to be precise. A 1-0, double-overtime defeat that New Canaan suffered at the hands of Notre Dame-West Haven via a fluky goal and an incredible performance by opposing goalie Randy Wolcott, who later played at UMass. The defeat ended an incredible campaign for the Rams led by Downing, MacKenzie and future Montreal Canadiens star Max Pacioretty.
"We absolutely peppered them. It was like 97 shots to 17 and we lost because Wolcott stood on his head," Downing said. "I don't remember the year as much as that one game that we lost because we were supposed to roll through that tournament. We were that good."
The trio of young talents then moved to Taft prep school in Watertown, where MacKenzie repeated his freshman year and Downing and Pacioretty continued as sophomores. The year discrepancy would put Downing ahead of his now roommate for the remainder of their hockey careers. However, MacKenzie enjoyed more well-rounded athletic success (a fact that remains true to this day), most notably in tennis and lacrosse.
He would later quit lacrosse, however, when it came time to prepare for the NHL combine. As an eligible 18-year-old prep player in the spring of 2007, MacKenzie was taken in the seventh and final round of the NHL draft by the Buffalo Sabres, who would hold his rights after he graduated college.
Eventually, he narrowed his collegiate choices down to the two schools who wanted him most: UMass and the University of Vermont. But during the recruiting process, there were a few things permanently in the Catamounts favor:
Given his mother was a UVM graduate, he was already familiar with the school, the hockey program had been gaining serious steam on its return towards the top of college hockey and a recent part of Vermont's success was Downing, who had just played in every game but one game in his freshman campaign.
So, MacKenzie donned the Catamounts' green and gold. But there was one stop to make before arriving in Burlington, somewhere that would provide both a Midwest culture shock and a preview of coming harsh realities: the United States Hockey League.
"We really didn't know about the USHL," MacKenzie said. "We had heard about it as a really good league. It's the best league you can play in before college. All the top players that are going to college play there."
In turn, the newly committed MacKenzie departed Taft and headed west, where he completed his senior year of high school while also suiting up for the Waterloo Blackhawks. Simultaneously, Downing had finished a stint with the USHL's Omaha Lancers and headed for UVM.
An eye-opening experience
Located in a quiet portion of northeastern Iowa, Waterloo West High School is famous for two things.
It exists as the only school in the country with the school color of "Old Rose" and the alma mater of a former Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl running back.
More recently, it became MacKenzie's high school alma mater, after he graduated with the 2008 class. Every day of that 2007-08 winter, his focus was dedicated to school, and each ensuing night it changed to hockey, when the team often made bus trips to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Sioux Falls, S.D., Columbus, Ohio and Chicago for regular season games.
In his downtime, he stayed with one of the handful of local families, which had volunteered to host a high school Blackhawks player. While the junior hockey league is home strictly to players 21 and younger, its rules dictate a game that much more closely resembles the professional level college hockey.
Half-shield helmets are worn, fighting is allowed and players are allowed to be traded among the 16 clubs. And a cutthroat atmostphere, largely brought on by the presiding coaches, general managers and referees, most of whom are also hoping to advance to the NHL themselves, os ever-present.
"I remember in my first game I was brutal," Downing said. "The coach called me into his office after the first game and was like `I'm not kidding, I think I'm trading you, just to give you a heads up. You were brutal.' It's really not what I signed up for. And at the end of the day, he wasn't going to trade me. But it was a real threat. At 17 you're just like, `So, where am I going? I don't want to get traded,'"
Downing, who was one of three high school players on his Omaha squad, later described his initial run-in as an eye-opening experience. Eventually, both halves of the New Canaan hockey pair moved on and shared some of the best times of their lives at UVM, highlighted by a berth in the 2009 Frozen Four.
By reaching the pinnacle of college hockey, they had helped bring Vermont to a place it had not been since current NHL All-Star and New York Ranger Marty St. Louis carried the Catamounts on his back in 1996.
Over the course of an eventual 5-4 semifinal loss to Boston University, MacKenzie recorded his first collegiate goal. Later, he would finish in the top six for scoring among all Hockey East defenseman, and Downing was named an assistant captain. Though both agree the best gift from their time in Burlington was the collection of resulting friendships with their teammates, some of whom extended wedding invites to their Connecticut buddies this past spring.
"It was the best experience," MacKenzie said of his time in Vermont.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for their first steps as professionals.
Minor league life lessons
The headlines that poured out over the course of the 2012-13 NHL lockout spoke of a greedy owners group and a determined players union locked in a negotiating stalemate. What they omitted was the trickle-down effect that afflicted local businesses, families around the world and thousands of minor league players, including both MacKenzie and Downing.
While their stories may not be entirely unique in this sense, the two were undoubtedly shortchanged by both parties' inability to reach an agreement. MacKenzie's promising career start was abruptly thrown off course and Downing's progress was put on hold.
Having just completed his first professional season in the spring of 2012, playing for two minor league affiliates of the Ottawa Senators, the Elmira Jackals of the ECHL and the AHL's Binghamton Senators, Downing now aspired to play a full season at the AHL level.
In fact, he had already earned the final spot on Binghamton's roster for the upcoming 2012-132season. However, when the lockout hit and recent Ottawa addition Jakob Silfverberg, an MVP of the Sweden's elite league, couldn't play in the NHL, he was moved down a level.
And thus, in order to make room, Downing was demoted.
"You've just got to remember that you're only as good as the last shift you had," Downing said. "If I go out there the and I'm not good, it doesn't matter what I did last year ... With the workouts and the skates now, I don't want to say it's a job, but you just do it. You don't complain about it, you don't get comfortable."
The right-winger played more than 30 games back in Elmira, before returning to Binghamton for a smattering of AHL contests, over which he could only muster three goals and one assist. Last September, the self-described "big forward who can hit and score" moved on from Binghamton to sign with the Providence Bruins, Boston's AHL affiliate. He skated in 11 games there and failed to register a single point, leading to his trade to the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL, where he played out the majority of the remaining 2013-14 season.
To date, Downing estimates he has been called up and sent down between the two minor hockey leagues roughly 30 times over three years. He's also shattered a hand, blown out his shoulder and has yet to reach his goal of a complete AHL season.
"It's almost better if you're numb, and you just go out there and give your best and know that you can only control what you can control," Downing said. "But telling yourself that in the middle of the season when you've already played a ton of games and maybe you're on a bad streak, it's just impossible."
Most minor hockey players can sustain the physical grind that best embodies what it means to play a full 76-game season. And it is their toughness that serves as the biggest reason why they succeed in this sport over any other. But overwhelming mental stress can get to anyone, even those willing to sacrifice most anything to endure it.
"It's getting up for every game and then you're on a losing streak and you've just lost two teeth and the coach thinks you had the worst game ever," Downing said of his in-season experience. "And now you're not playing and he thinks you're brutal and now he's demoting you. And you just think like `this is my job'. But there's no safety. There's no security."
As Downing returned home from his first year in the minors in 2012, MacKenzie faced little security and a tremendous amount of uncertainty after leaving UVM.
Unwilling to spend money with an impending lockout, the Sabres held onto MacKenzie's cost-free rights into August and then refused to sign their newest defenseman. Left to search for other work in a shortened period of time, MacKenzie signed with the Calgary Flames' AHL affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat, in late September.
He was swiftly assigned to play down in the ECHL with the Utah Grizzlies, where he totaled 14 points in 25 games, including an assist during his pro debut. Months later, the Heat recalled Mackenzie to come back to Abbotsford, which is located a few miles outside of Vancouver. Over the next two seasons, the puck-moving defenseman played 44 games for Abbotsford, which faced incredible physical and economic strain as a club due to in-season travel.
In fact, the closest away games MacKenzie and his teammates would play took place more than 2,000 miles away in Oklahoma City. Other frequent trips included gameday visits to Toronto, Eria, Pa. and Rochester, N.Y., all of which require a 10-hour flight at the minimum.
"The grind is so tough during the year," MacKenzie said. "It's hard. The travel, the nonstop games where you're getting beat up."
During his second pro go-round, MacKenzie opened the 2013-14 winter in Abbotsford until Calgary's front office was wiped out, and its replacement staff shipped him out to another ECHL club, the Alaska Aces. Fortunately for MacKenzie, his new club, the only professional team in the state, went on a stellar championship run that resulted in his hoisting of the ECHL's Kelly Cup. He scored five goals in 11 playoff games last spring and tallied an impressive +9 for his postseason plus-minus.
Yet MacKenzie knows, as well as Downing and all others they face off with, pro hockey is a "what have you done for me lately" environment where outside forces are going to play a large role.
And that knowledge is what caused him to put down the Kelly Cup quickly in June and replace it with punishing weights every day back home. But it's also the reason why heading into the third year of his professional life, he's gained a greater understanding and peace with his appraoch and the outcomes it brings.
"Before I was probably feeling pressure like `I have to get to the NHL right now'. But being older, I have a bird's eye view of things, and I don't feel pressure at all," MacKenzie said. "It's controlling what you control. If I play well and I get called up and keep moving up, it's good. If not, it sucks. But that's life."
The drive to continue
As complicated as chasing the American hockey dream undoubtedly is, the question that posits why it must continue can often be equally as thorny.
There's money, pride, family, expectations, pure habit and fear arguing both for and against.
But for MacKenzie and Downing, they prefer to keep their motivations simple.
Professional hockey to them is a matter of love of the game, fun and friendship.
"We still love it, and all our family members support it," Downing said. "Everyone wants us to be doing what we love, and they know we love it. They know we've put our whole lives in. Whether it was prom or every, single fun high school thing--
"I missed my brother's wedding like a month ago," Mackenzie interjects.
"Ya," Downing agreed. "And every single weekend with the parties and we never went to anything. We were always together working on hockey. We would go to the rink when we were younger and nothing's changed. It's all been because we've wanted to do it. It's never been forced."
While the pair can consistently be found working out in Darien for next season, having the full summer off to enjoy themselves is a greatly appreciated perk of the job.
"It feels like you're always in college," MacKenzie said. "You have your season and then you have the summer to work out, and there aren't rules. You stick to a guideline, but there aren't any rules."
And when it comes to their relationship, the only guideline for MacKenzie and Downing during downtime is the last laugh. Whether it's ping pong, lifting or minor, petty battles that spring up from living together, the two are always ready to jump into their next competition.
"Ping pong is like us in a nutshell," Downing said. "We'll go over to my mom's, where she has a ping pong table, and next thing you know, we've been there five hours in an eighth game to 21. We're both pretty competitive against each other. It doesn't really matter what it is. But it's fun. It's always for fun."
Moving forward, the hockey sons of New Canaan plan to carry out nearly every athletic cliche so that in the end, they may accomplish something beyond cliche, something extraordinary.
MacKenzie and Downing will not look back with regrets, nor give anything less than every bit of themselves that they can.
And even as each stares back at growing professional uncertainty and down at his scars, they still unconditionally encourage others to take the same path they have for a shot at the American hockey dream.
"I would just say, if you're thinking about going pro, you should definitely do it," MacKenzie said. "I know it sounds cheesy, but just do it."