Millarville goalie keys Bears turnaround
Hockey: Aaron Mackay a steadying force for red-hot Banff Academy
Wednesday, Jan 29, 2014 06:00 am
A Millarville teenager is riding shotgun for a historic season with one of the rising powers in the Heritage Junior Hockey League.
Precocious netminder Aaron Mackay is playing with poise beyond his 16 years of age to help the Jr. B Banff Academy Bears enjoy a breakthrough season on the precipice of its first-playoff berth in nearly a decade.
“A large part of it is the group we had from last year so we didn’t need to build chemistry at the beginning.,” said Mackay, a Grade 11 student at Banff Hockey Academy and the youngest goalie in the league.
“We came in a pretty solid group and knew what we were doing from the get-go.”
Riding a nine-game winning streak, Banff (19-11-1) is nipping at the heels of the first-place Okotoks Jr. B Bisons and is poised for its return to the post-season for the first time in nine seasons.
“It’s been a ton of fun. Every game is a close one that you have to be prepared for and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Mackay said. “We’re definitely making that push for first-place, that would be phenomenal for us, but we’ve said all season we wanted home-ice in the playoffs.”
The Bears allocate a minimum of 25 per cent of starts to Mackay and goalie partner Michael Lenko with the other half going to the hot-hand in between the pipes. This season both netminders have provided excellent cover on the last line of defence and are among the major reasons for Banff’s push from basement dwellers to second-seed in the South.
“Both of them have been playing extremely well so it’s made it easy because we know whatever choice we make right now it’s a good choice,” said Bears GM Bill Doherty. “Aaron had a great year last year (in Varsity) and we were really excited about having both Aaron and Michael back.
“We felt last year had we had more consistent goaltending we probably would have made the playoffs.”
The ascension of its upstart goaltender was very much forged in the foothills.
Mackay rose through the ranks of Okotoks Minor Hockey and went out with a bang by finishing the 2011-12 season with the top save percentage in the South Central Alberta Hockey League as the clear-cut team MVP for the Bantam AA Oilers.
He’s since enjoyed the unique experience of lining up on the visitors bench at his old stomping grounds of the Murray Arena against Bisons coaches Blake Wildeman and Trevor Snodgrass, who coached Mackay with the Okotoks Peewee AAs.
“It almost felt weird, like I was on the wrong side,” Mackay said of playing in Okotoks. “It was a really cool experience to play the team you grew up watching your entire life.”
In pursuit of an elite hockey stream close to home and a taste of the Junior hockey lifestyle, the former Oilfields High School student gazed his eyes westward to the Banff Academy where he played a year of Varsity before jumping to the Prep team ranks.
Now the 16-year-old is a key contributor as a rookie for the Bears Prep team who compete in both Junior B and at the Midget AAA-level in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League.
Mackay, currently an affiliate with the defending RBC Cup champion Brooks Bandits, is looking to make the jump to Junior A hockey next season with the ultimate goal of college hockey very much at the top of his mind.
“From my mom and dad’s point of view (Banff) being close to home was a huge factor and from my personal (view) it was more getting into what would be coming next,” Mackay said. “As in Junior hockey and college and the whole being away from home and responsible for yourself and for the hockey, how high a level of it is and how early I got into it.”
Mackay suited up for eight games with the Jr. B Bears last season, highlighted by his first-league win over High River at the age of 14, while spending most of the year with Banff’s Varsity club.
“It was a huge change from anything I’ve played before because I came straight from Bantam,” Mackay said. “It was a whole new speed and technique that I hadn’t quite faced before.
“At times it does get a little much, but the older guys on our team usually do a good job of keeping the young guys intact.”
Through 17 games in 2013-14, Mackay’s posted a 9-8 mark and 3.66 goals-against-average and a .906 save percentage, good enough for eighth in the loop.
“Last year I felt he wasn’t as aggressive around loose pucks around his net. This year much more aggressive and there’s a calm in him,” said Doherty. “Him coming back that confidence is more thorough and more consistent. His playing the puck and his hockey IQ, when to play it, when to freeze it, has really improved.
“When you watch him, how he plays under some big games, his demeanour, his mannerisms is solid and it’s comforting. And you can see it in the players, the guys know there’s somebody really reliable back there.”
Amidst the season long logjam in the South Division standings, the Bears parlayed their winning streak into the second-seed and are knocking at the door of their first playoff berth in nine seasons.
A potentially massive accomplishment for the Bears, composed largely of first-year international players and 16 rookies overall, should they complete the mission.
“I’ve got nine different countries represented in our program this year and a lot of the kids don’t understand the calibre and the intensity of Junior tier III brings in Alberta,” Doherty said. “Most nights we’re going in there with a part Midget lineup. We shoot for playoffs we don’t allow size, age, to be an excuse for our guys.
“We’re striving to get home-ice advantage and that second spot, which would be huge for us.”