As a kid, on those memorable trips to Bell Centre in Montreal, MacKenzie Weegar could hardly believe that was one of his own relatives — his cousin, Craig Rivet — patrolling the blue-line for the home team.
He idolized No. 52.
Now, as a workhorse defenceman for the Calgary Flames, he wears it.
“I think every time I put the jersey on and see No. 52, a little thing goes in the back of my head — ‘Oh, that’s Craig,’” Weegar told Postmedia before the Flames departed for a three-game trip that concluded with Tuesday’s matchup against the Canadiens in Montreal. “It’s cool to get reminded every day that the reason I’m here is because of him.”
Rivet, who is closer in age to MacKenzie’s dad, played 16 NHL seasons from 1995-2011, including a dozen winters as a rock-solid rearguard for the Canadiens.
On special occasions, Scott Weegar and his son would make the two-hour drive from Ottawa to attend a game at Bell Centre.
MacKenzie was, by his own admission, star-struck. It wasn’t the same fearless approach that you see now when you watch the 29-year-old in a top-pairing role with the Flames.
Heading into Tuesday’s tilt with the Habs, Weegar ranked second on his team with 32 blocked shots. (To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Chris Tanev is Calgary’s current leader in that category).
“You’d always hear about the Bell Centre and whenever we got to go there, it was a blast,” Weegar reminisced. “For me, it’s probably the No. 1 arena in the league. Just so much tradition and so many memories. It’s a special place.
“I remember there were some times after the game, because my dad would want to see Craig, so we’d go up the players’ lounge. I’d be tired. I would sometimes be sleeping under the table while they were having a drink. But there was Jose Theodore, Saku Koivu, all these guys … I remember seeing them and thinking, ‘This is unbelievable!’ I’d always be so scared to go ask for their autographs.”
That part stuck with Weegar, too.
He knows it can be intimidating to find yourself face-to-face with one of your hockey heroes. He has been on both sides of those interactions.
“If I see a little boy and I know he’s scared, I’ll go right up and I’ll say, ‘Hey buddy, you want me to sign that for you?’” said Weegar, who is now in his eighth NHL campaign and reached the 400-game plateau Friday in Toronto. “Because I was that kid. I’d be sitting there with their cards and I’m like, ‘Dad, I can’t go. I’m too scared.’ So my dad would go over and say, ‘Hey, do you mind if my son gets an autograph?’
“So now if I see a kid, a boy or a girl, I just go up and say ‘hi’ and maybe we’ll take a photo. Those are the memories that maybe that one kid will you remember, and maybe you’ll be interviewing them in 15 years. Those little things can go a long way.”
As a youngster, Weegar would often pester Rivet — a fellow right-hander — for sticks. As he recalls, “I’d look so cool, because I’d always have the best of the best.”
When he made the switch from forward to defence in his early teens, he would ask for tips on positioning.
He remembers admiring the gold medal that Rivet won with Team Canada at the world championship in 2003. This past spring, in his first national-team appearance, Weegar earned one of his own. (He was also voted the top defenceman at the tournament).
He’s not just wearing Rivet’s old jersey number. He’s following in his skating strides.
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“It’s cool. It’s surreal, in a way. It gives me goosebumps,” Weegar said. “I never really thought it was going to happen. I just had so much passion for it as a kid, watching all the time. But you know, I always focused on where I was at. I never really thought about the future. I don’t know if that helped. And then it starts to get closer and get closer and then when it’s right there, then that’s when you start really thinking about it. You want to reach out and grab it.
“But he had a big influence on me playing hockey as a kid and really growing a passion for it and we still keep in touch all the time. So it’s pretty cool.”
Rivet, who is now living in Buffalo, where he spent three campaigns as captain of the Sabres, totalled 923 appearances on NHL ice. Weegar should eventually claim the family goal-scoring record — he arrived in Montreal with a career count of 33, while his cousin finished with 50 — but 1,171 penalty minutes will be tough to top.
“It’s a weird feeling because as a kid, you’re his biggest fan, and then you start playing and the roles kind of reverse,” Weegar said. “Now, he’s a fan of mine.”
Wes Gilbertson and Danny Austin have been covering the Flames for years and know what makes the team tick. Have questions? They have the answers – or the contacts to track them down. Send your questions to email@example.com