Because of the pandemic, Jack Ahcan's parents did not make the trip to Buffalo, N.Y., for his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins because there were no fans allowed at the game on March 18.
But Ahcan was able to catch up with an old friend at KeyBank Center — Will Borgen, who spent two seasons as Ahcan's defensive partner at St. Cloud State.
"I've been keeping in contact with Borgs quite a bit, especially after I came here," he said of joining the Bruins about a month ago. "I actually did get to see him after the game. I gave him a big hug and just kind of caught up with him. I know he's coming off an injury right now and he'll come back better than ever.
"It would have been nice to play against him. I know he probably would've tried to take my head off, but I think I would've gotten him," Ahcan said with a smile. "I know he'd take a run at me, but it would be fun."
When Ahcan played against the Sabres, he became the 37th former SCSU player to play in the NHL. In his debut (a 4-1 Boston win), he played 17 minutes, 55 seconds, which included 1:02 on the power play and :23 on the penalty kill. Ahcan had three shots on goal, two blocked shots and one hit.
He said that his nervousness before the game was minimal.
"It was funny because I was expecting to get the butterflies," he said. "I didn't really feel it until I got on the bus and going to the rink. Then I started to feel it. Just a little bit of nerves. Once I got in the locker room, I felt right at home. They just treated me like just another player, not too big a deal, but still a pretty cool opportunity for me."
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So a little more than a year since his last college game, Ahcan was in the NHL. So what are the biggest differences he has noticed on the ice in the NHL?
"You've got to be more ready at all times, especially in the 'D' zone," Ahcan said. "You can't really stand up (and coast). You've got to bend your knees (and skate hard). You're focused on your body control and your positioning in front of the net.
"I know my first game, there were a few times where I can usually skate away from players or they try to hit me and I can use my body to deflect me and they just pickpocket me. I was like, 'Oh, that's something new. Usually, somebody tries to take my head off and I can get away from it.' The guys here actually want the puck and want to possess the puck. That was something that I needed to work on and I got better in my second game, moving the puck quicker and with more pace."
In his other NHL game so far (an 8-1 home loss to Washington), Ahcan played 21:24, including 3:59 on the power play and :50 on the penalty kill. He had one shot on goal, one hit, one blocked shot and was a minus-3. On the power play, he spent some time at the top of the umbrella (formation, lone defenseman near the blue line) for the first time in the NHL.
"Against Washington, they threw me into the fire again and I was up top running the umbrella with all the big guys. You don't get to think when you get told before the game that you're on the power play. You've just got to perform. So far, I think I've been doing a pretty good job."
Take a look at the score by Filipe, a redirect of a shot from Jach Ahcan: pic.twitter.com/WCIrbGanVe— Providence Bruins (@AHLBruins) March 31, 2021
Time in the minors
It has been a strange season in pro hockey due to the pandemic. The Bruins did not have their first game until Jan. 14 and there were a lot of unknowns for Ahcan going into the season.
The undrafted 23-year-old from Savage, Minn., was signed by the Bruins as a free agent on March 27, 2020. Typically, college free agents signed at that point also sign an amateur tryout contract where they will get a chance to play some pro games to finish a season.
But after a pause that began on March 11, 2020, the AHL cancelled the rest of last season on May 11 due to the pandemic. New signees and draft picks typically take part in Player Development Camps with organizations, but Boston's got cancelled. So Ahcan had to get creative in preparing for his first season as a pro.
"I love being outside. Rollerblading is one of my favorite things to do and I used to do it all the time around campus in St. Cloud," he said.
Then once the gyms and arenas began re-opening, he began working out in preparing for the season. Ahcan also took advantage of a unique situation to prepare for his first NHL camp, though it hit a road block when he got there.
"Right at the end of the summer, I got a call from my agent and he said that there's an opportunity to get some games in before (NHL) camp. Obviously, game shape is a lot different than working out. I ended up going down to Jacksonville," he said. "It ended up being a mess.
"I tested positive the first day I got down there for (COVID-19). So I had to take 2-3 weeks off and then I had to kind of get the conditioning back. I ended up playing two games and it was a good experience ... It definitely helped me out before camp."
Ahcan said that he had a cough and lost his sense of smell and taste for 2-3 days.
"It didn't really knock me out too bad, which I was thankful for because some people don't get their smell or taste back for several months," he said. "Pretty luck with that, but still bed-ridden. They wouldn't let me out of my room for awhile."
When he got better, he joined the Icemen and one of the two games he played was against the Florida Everblades. The Everblades' sixth-leading scorer is Blake Winiecki, a teammate of Ahcan's his first two seasons at St. Cloud State.
"We played them down at their rink and they're a really good team, they're pretty skilled. I saw Blake down there and he had a big smile on his face and I told him, 'Congratulations.' He just got married and had a kid," Ahcan said. "I hadn't seen him in awhile. It was nice to see him and I knew a few of the other guys on that team and they may have beat us pretty good in that game, but we don't have to talk about that."
Ahcan's goal to make it 2-1, assist to Paul Carey: pic.twitter.com/Hm7ONXigVz— Providence Bruins (@AHLBruins) February 27, 2021
Then after Bruins' camp, he was sent to Providence to open the season and he scored his first career goal on Feb. 27 against the Hartford Wolf Pack, a team on which former Huskies forwards Patrick Newell and Jonny Brodzinski play for.
"My first goal was kind of funny. I was walking the blue line and I looked up and took a slap shot," Ahcan said. "I was getting text messages after the game saying, 'I've never seen you take a slap shot before. What was that?' I think I've been taking a lot more slap shots recently here."
In 14 AHL games, Ahcan has seven assists, eight points, six penalty minutes and is a plus-6. But he won't forget how he found out he was going up to the NHL for the first time.
"After one of my games, there was a rumor that I might be going up from the trainers down in Providence. They kind of know everything down there," he said. "I had the day off the next day and they were letting me know, 'Hey, if you do go up, keep it calm tonight and maybe pack up a little bit because you might be going on the trip.' That's how I found out after a game. It's kind of a whirlwind. I didn't really know what to feel or think. I was just kind of sitting in my apartment not really knowing what to pack."
"Now I think I've got the clothes down and how much I should stuff I should bring."
Enjoyed SCSU's run
While Ahcan graduated from St. Cloud State last spring with a degree in real estate, his ties to the Huskies remain. The Huskies took second in the NCHC regular season, second in the conference tournament and took second in the NCAA Division I tournament and Ahcan did his best to follow them. He's not only reached out to some of the team's players, but also head coach Brett Larson and equipment manager Jeremiah Minkel.
"It's been pretty crazy, but I do try to text them here and there and mix in a Snapchat where they can see my face. I was talking to Lars and Minks a few times," Ahcan said. "I miss those guys so much. Seeing all the success they had this year, really, was so awesome. Every chance I got to watch a game, I was watching on my phone on the bus or trying to find a streaming site to watch them. It was pretty amazing to watch them do what they did."
Ahcan also enjoyed being a St. Cloud State alum when the Huskies beat Boston University and Boston College in the Northeast Regional. Ahcan and Bruins teammate Charlie McAvoy, a Boston University alum, were teammates for gold-medal winning Team USA at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Champioships.
The Huskies beat the Terriers 6-2 in the regional semifinals.
"There was a wager and I was pretty pumped for the St. Cloud boys because they made me a little bit more rich that day. Charlie is a great kid and there's a few BC guys around here too," Ahcan said. "We ended up watching it at the same time and it was good, clean fun.
"St. Cloud is not as big a program as BU, but in my heart I knew — I was hoping St. Cloud was going to win but I figured they were going to underestimate the Huskies. It was something I knew in my mind that Charlie was going to have to pay me."
And then the Huskies had a back-and-forth battle with Minnesota State University-Mankato and ended up with a 5-4 win to advance to the title game. To the former St. Cloud State captain, that was a sign.
"That takes a lot of guts to be up 3-1, then go down 4-3 and end up winning," he said. "That's when you really know that the team has matured since last year. That was a great win."