Athletes coming back from injury are nothing new in sports; every day the sports pages include stories of returns from torn ligaments, broken bones and pulled muscles.
But Mackenzie Skapski’s comeback story is a little different.
Skapski and his Fraser Valley Bruins teammates were on the bus headed north to Prince George, B.C., for a weekend of B.C. Major Midget League games on Dec. when disaster struck just outside Williams Lake.
“We were going probably about 100 (kilometres an hour), hit black ice and barrel-rolled down an embankment,” Skapski recalls. “I just remember that everything was numb. I couldn’t really feel anything. I remember seeing everything, water bottles everywhere, people’s blankets, seats in the wrong position. It was the typical cliché nightmare.”
While most of his teammates escaped with minor injuries, Skapski wasn’t so lucky. The goaltender suffered a broken nose and shattered orbital bone and was airlifted to Vancouver, where he underwent surgery to put plates in his face and remove a blood clot near his brain.
Remarkably, Skapski was back in the gym just three months after the accident, and returned to the ice in the summer of 2010. But the Abbbotsford, B.C., native didn’t ease back into things – his first on-ice experience came at the Team Pacific U17 summer camp, against some of the best young players in the country.
“First time on the ice was strictly movement,” Skapski says. “I actually wasn’t even supposed to be on the ice when I did, so I strictly had to do movement; I couldn’t risk getting hit in the head or falling on my head. It was a long process to really get back into the groove, and at my ‘A’ game.”
A third-round pick (57th overall) of the Kootenay Ice in the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, Skapski spent the 2010-11 season with the Ridge Meadows Flames of the Pacific International Junior Hockey League, a B.C. Junior B loop, posting a 6-11 record in 21 games.
The highlight of the season came just after Christmas, when Skapski pulled on the Team Canada jersey and represented the Pacific region at the 2011 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Winnipeg, Man., winning a bronze medal by going 3-0 with a 3.30 goals against average in four games.
The first game of the tournament was Dec. 29, just a year and 18 days after the accident.
For Skapski, the U17s weren’t the end of a journey, they were just another step. Despite all he had accomplished prior to the accident, Skapski felt like the reset button was hit on his career, and he had to re-establish himself as one of the nation’s top young goaltenders.
“It was almost like restarting your résumé,” he said. “Everything up to then was wiped out, and it was a fresh start. Re-accomplishing things and putting new things on the résumé was huge for me, and I had to catch up to the guys I was competing with. They may have a slight advantage on me, but I’m still working and one day I’m going to have a pretty good résumé.”
Skapski cracked the Kootenay roster this season as the back-up to 20-year-old Nathan Lieuwen and posted a 9-6-2 record and a 3.12 GAA in 19 games, and goes into next season as the favourite to be the No. 1 goaltender for the Ice.
But first, he is on the ice this weekend in Calgary at the Program of Excellence goaltending camp, one of 11 netminders hoping to earn a roster spot to play for his country in this summer’s Canada-Russia Challenge and possibly put himself in position to earn an invite to December’s National Junior Team selection camp.
“I think it’d be a great story,” Skapski admits. “That’s what motivates me – there were people, after the accident, who automatically put question marks next to my name, and now I find myself here, going for a potential World Junior spot, and it’d be a perfect story if I happened to crack the World Junior team and represent my country and put aside those question marks they had three years ago.”
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