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MacKenzie Weegar’s winding path to NHL workhorse

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MacKenzie Weegar has always been a coachable sort.

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Which is why Peter Goulet will never forget this conversation, the one time this sturdy — and apparently stubborn — defenceman simply refused to heed his advice.

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Goulet was then bench boss for the Junior A-level Nepean Raiders. Weegar was on the rise. He could’ve been on the move, too. The QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads were offering a roster spot.

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“This is the character of MacKenzie Weegar … ” Goulet said, sharing a favourite story from the 2011-12 campaign. “That year, we had a championship-calibre team in Nepean, but Halifax wanted to take him at Christmas time. I’m telling MacKenzie to go. I’m saying, ‘Mac, you’ve gotta go, break into the league, see how you do, get used to what they’re teaching.’ But he refused to go, refused to leave his team. He said, ‘Peter, we’re going to win a championship. I’ll go play in Halifax next year.’

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“Most kids would have gone. My job as a coach isn’t to hold kids back. My job is to help get them to the highest level they want to get to. Of course, I didn’t want to lose him in the middle of the season, but if he is good enough to go, same with any players on my team this year, my job is to get ’em there. Most players would jump at that opportunity and be gone, but not MacKenzie Weegar. He stuck it out, won a championship with us, then went and had two great years in Halifax, won a Memorial Cup, was drafted in the seventh round by Florida …

“The story sort of takes care of itself from there.”

The story now continues at the Saddledome. Weegar arrived as a co-headliner in a summer blockbuster between the Flames and Florida Panthers, the swap that landed Matthew Tkachuk in the Sunshine State. Weegar might not match Jonathan Huberdeau’s style or star-power and certainly won’t match his scoring output, but he’s no less significant an addition.

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It’s not far-fetched to think the 28-year-old could lead the Flames in average icetime this season. He’ll be a workhorse at even-strength and on the penalty-kill and is also a candidate to quarterback the power-play.

The Ottawa-raised Weegar is a right-handed shot, same as both Rasmus Andersson and Chris Tanev, but he could potentially be partnered with either of those guys when training camp opens Thursday. As Aaron Ekblad’s sidekick in Florida, he proved comfortable on the left side.

Cam Russell figures that Darryl Sutter will love this late-blooming blue-liner.

And he’d know. Russell, himself a hard-nosed rearguard, was coached by Sutter in the minors and then in Chicago. He’s been the general manager of the Mooseheads for the past 15 years.

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Weegar attended training camp in Halifax in 2011 but struggled during that first audition with the QMJHL club. He was ultimately reassigned to Nepean, one level lower and close to home.

“It was a mutual agreement, because he just wasn’t ready to make the jump to major-junior,” Russell recalled. “But we went back to see him at Christmas time, and he was a different player. He was 100 times better. We wanted to bring him back. I think he was torn because he wanted to come to Halifax, but he’d also made a commitment to his Junior A team and he wanted to see that commitment out and finish the year with those guys, and we respected that. You have to give him props for that.”

Weegar turned out to be worth the wait for the Mooseheads.

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After helping the Raiders to a Bogart Cup as Central Canada Hockey League champs, he joined a stacked squad in Halifax that featured the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. They were seldom on the losing side, rolling to a QMJHL crown and then winning the 2013 Memorial Cup.

As a rookie, Weegar led the loop with an eye-popping plus-55 rating.

“He was one of our best defencemen every night,” Russell praised. “He plays such a solid defensive game. He doesn’t get beat one-on-one. He has a great stick. His hockey sense and IQ is spectacular. There’s zero panic to his game. He’d have the puck — he’d be the last guy back and never panic with it. His patience with it would always amaze us.

“He plays the same game now in the NHL. There’s no stress. There’s no panic to his game. He just looks like he’s out there having fun, and he makes the game look easy some nights.”

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Weegar will wear No. 52 in Calgary. Just like he did in Florida. Just like his cousin, Craig Rivet, did during his own 16-season stint in ‘The Show’.

When Rivet was patrolling the point in Montreal, San Jose, Buffalo and Columbus, Weegar was one of his biggest fans. The roles are now reversed, with Rivet marvelling at the way his younger relative — there’s an age gap of nearly 20 years — exits his own zone. As he put it: “The way he distributes the puck up the ice to the forwards, he’s one of the top guys in the league at that.”

“When he got traded from Florida to Calgary, I talked to him probably five minutes after he got off the phone with (Panthers general manager) Bill Zito,” Rivet said. “And there was some shock to it, but he was excited right away because Calgary was such a strong team in the West.

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“An NHL team, as you know, needs all kinds of pieces in order to be successful, and MacKenzie is going to be a big piece of that puzzle for Calgary this coming season to have success. As much as Huberdeau is a massive piece and (Nazem) Kadri is an unbelievable piece, MacKenzie is going to be a huge piece on the back-end. I know the coach and the players on the team are going to appreciate how he plays the game.”

Fans will appreciate his back-story, too. Weegar is one of those long-shot, took-the-long-road types, and they’re always easy to root for.

He was twice ignored in the OHL draft. He toiled for a season with the Winchester Hawks in the seldom-scouted Junior B ranks. He sometimes skated that winter as an affiliate with the Raiders. When he became a full-timer in Nepean, Goulet recalls he was so anxious to stick up for his teammates that the coach was hesitant to play him in the last 10 minutes of a lopsided affair.

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Even after logging some key shifts for a Memorial Cup winner, Weegar was still available to the Panthers at No. 206 overall in the 2013 NHL Draft.

“He was one of the last picks that year, and we all know what that means. It means your chances of making it are damn-near zero,” Rivet said. “I’m so proud of him, where he’s at now, because he had to work for every bit, for everything he’s gotten.”

Weegar was 23 when he logged his NHL debut, which is why his resumé shows only 306 appearances at the highest level. He’s so far totalled 27 goals and 94 assists, including a career-high 44 points in 2021-22. It’s over the past couple of winters that he has earned mention among some of the best in the biz. During the condensed campaign, he finished eighth in Norris Trophy voting.

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It makes sense that the Panthers were willing to part with their leading scorer in exchange for Tkachuk — this was the first trade in more than three decades to see a 100-point performer from the previous season headed in each direction — but some were surprised that the Flames were able to pry away a big-minutes blue-liner, too.

“The two things that stick out for me are the competitiveness and the brain. This is a smart player,” said Flames general manager Brad Treliving of Weegar. “You’d call him a transitional defenceman. He does all things well. There’s the ability, obviously, to move the puck. There’s the ability to, as a defenceman, we call it ‘disrupt.’ He closes plays down quickly. He kills plays. He has a really good gap. He’s always in the way, right? When you play against him, he’s in your face all the time. He has an edge to him.

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“I think he has good ability, a long wick with the puck, good poise … And lastly, he’s very unique in the fact that, specifically the last couple of years, he’s played primarily on the left side as a right shot. You don’t see that a lot. So when we’ve followed MacKenzie the last little while, those are the things that jump out — just his ability to move a puck, play very competitively against the opposition and play tight. You can’t do those things without having a good hockey brain, and he does. He reads the play well, anticipates well. Just a really solid player.”

It’s no secret Treliving and Weegar’s agent — his uncle, Matthew Ebbs — are already negotiating a contract extension. Due to be an unrestricted free agent next summer, the new guy told reporters at the Flames’ charity golf tournament last week: “Hopefully, we can get something done soon.”

Goulet, after trying unsuccessfully to talk Weegar into accepting that one-way ticket to Halifax, can vouch for his loyalty.

“You’re going to love him in Calgary, you really are,” Goulet promised. “He’s the kindest man you’d ever meet, until you cross him on the ice.”

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