CORAL SPRINGS — When MacKenzie Weegar returns to Sunrise with the Calgary Flames to play against the Florida Panthers, it will put a bow on an underdog story for the ages.
The six-foot, 210-pound defenseman was selected by the Panthers with just six picks remaining in the 2013 NHL Draft after Florida traded back in to take him.
After nine seasons in the organization, Weegar developed from a little-known prospect to one of the league’s top defensemen.
“My time here was special,” Weegar said in a talk with the media Friday afternoon which, at times, became a little emotional.
“It has made me a man. I was just a little kid who was a seventh-rounder and now here I am. I don’t even know how to put it into words because there are so many emotions going through my head.”
After spending his first three professional seasons grinding through the minors, Weegar made his NHL debut and became a mainstay ever since.
He finished his Florida tenure with 306 games played, 27 goals and 121 points, which rank eighth among defensemen in franchise history.
Weegar feels like that chapter of his life will come to a close when he skates on FLA Live Arena ice for the first time as an opponent.
“When we play this game tomorrow and we thank everybody and get the salute or a couple of boos,” Weegar said.
“I have no idea what the reception is going to be like, but at the end of the day, when the game is all done, it is kind of the end of the chapter. That is the most emotional part about it, but at the same time, we are ready to move on.”
Despite all of his accomplishments in Florida, Weegar is a bit worried the reception would be soiled a bit by a comment he made at the beginning of the season.
He called the Flames a better team than the Panthers.
“I am not even gonna get into it, but I guess we will find out,” he said.
The good memories seem to outweigh the bad for Weegar, though.
Weegar saw a meteoric rise in his final three seasons with the Panthers, jumping up to the top pairing and spending the majority of his minutes with Florida star Aaron Ekblad.
“He’s fantastic, he’s one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the league,” Ekblad said of his time playing with Weegar.
“Often times, I just pass it over to him and jump up into the rush because I know he’s not going to turn it over. We think the game very well and I just love playing with him.”
The two have developed a close friendship over the course of their six years together but Ekblad expects to receive some chirps from his longtime defense partner.
“He is non-stop talking when he is on the ice,” Ekblad said. “That is just his game.”
While Ekblad is not sure if he will get personal with his chirps, Weegar is approaching this like any other game and will be his usual vocal self despite the familiar opponent.
Although he was always like that in the locker room too.
“I would love to get under his skin,” Weegar said.
“That was one of the things that I tried to do all of the time. He did the same thing with me but I am sure he is going to put his best foot forward and I am going to try to put my best foot forward too.”
As fast as Weegar’s rise to stardom on the Panthers was, he saw the writing on the wall after Florida’s historic Presidents’ Trophy-winning season ended with a sweep by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He was due a significant raise from his $3.25 million salary when he was going to hit unrestricted free agency in 2023 and the Panthers were — and still are — in the midst of a cap crunch.
What he did not know was that he was going to be included in one of the biggest hockey trades in recent memory.
He was sent to Calgary in a blockbuster trade along with longtime Panthers star Jonathan Huberdeau in exchange for Matthew Tkachuk.
“I guess the only shock was the trade,” Weegar said.
“We were both [going to be] unrestricted free agents, so there were some rumors — a couple tweets here and there I would see — but the trade was so big. I did not expect it to be such a big trade. I thought it would be just me, maybe just Huby, but I think it worked out for both sides.”
Weegar initially thought he was heading to Alberta alone when he got the call from Bill Zito, but he felt a rush of relief when his mom gave him the news that Huberdeau was going along with him.
“To be honest with you, I knew that trades are a big thing but I don’t think I could have gotten through it without Jonny,” Weegar said.
“At first I thought I got traded alone and then my mom told me that Jonny was with me and I said ‘thank God’ because I did not know what to expect. He is a leader, he has kind of been the big mentor and he has always been there on my side and I am happy we are going through it together.”
Weegar and Huberdeau are now set to spend the next nine years together in Calgary after some aggressive negotiations by Flames general manager Brad Treliving.
“Brad did a great job,” Weegar said.
“He was really coherent and the communication was there the whole time. He said from the get-go that he wanted to sign us right away and they got a deal done. Huby and I could not be happier to sign that deal and we want to win in Calgary.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
CALGARY FLAMES AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV: Bally Sports Florida; NHL Network
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Split 1-1
- All-time regular season series: Calgary leads 22-11-3, 3 ties