Although he is not considered an import player under CHL rules, Ray Macias (COL) did indeed follow his dream across national boundaries. The native of Long Beach, California has endured the past three winters playing major junior hockey in the Rocky Mountains. If his dream comes true, he’ll play professionally in the Rockies as well.
“I guess I’d have to say that they found me,” Macias said when asked how he came to be a member of the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers. “I had no idea what the WHL was. A scout watched me in California at a prospects camp and he told Kamloops about me. It was exciting to get an invitation and a good look at the camp. It was an important for me to move up in my career.”
While he admitted the jump from midget hockey to major junior was huge, he’ll soon play his 250th WHL game.
“Back then, it was a big difference because the players were a lot faster than in California,” Macias said. “There wasn’t as much talent back home, but that is changing by the day now. I could really tell by the speed of the game here and how smart guys played.
“It was a big challenge. And I didn’t know any of the players. Not knowing anybody made it very hard to read them on the ice. But I love the quality of play and the surroundings here.”
As a member of the Los Angeles AAA Midget Kings, Macias traveled across North America. In fact, he had played in a tournament in Kamloops before his days in the WHL. He’s played tournament hockey from Vancouver to Florida and up the Atlantic coast from Atlanta to New York. In 2001, his team won a national midget championship in Colorado Springs. Among is teammates was Bobby Ryan (ANA).
Compared to the relative anonymity in California, he has come to understand, embrace and thrive within the ‘hockey first’ mentality in Kamloops and area.
“It’s definitely different here,” Macias admitted. “It’s almost like a little bit of celebrity, we’re role models here. Los Angeles is a big place, I mean, in the hockey community people know who you are, but in Kamloops, we’re really kind of in the limelight all the time.”
On the ice, the 20-year-old Macias has become a reliable contributor on a vastly improved Blazers team. According to Shane Zulyniak, the Blazers’ assistant general manager and assistant coach, Macias has solidified his role as one of the WHL’s top offensive defensemen.
In his rookie season, Macias scored 12 goals and 17 assists. The next season, his draft year, he tallied 12 times and added 35 helpers. Last season, he managed 12 goals and 26 assists. This season, he is on pace to set career highs as he has scored 12 goals and 24 assists in 30 games.
“Ray has done an excellent job for us,” Zulyniak confirmed. “Offensively, I think he’s as talented as anyone in the WHL. You can see the way he jumps up on pucks and his abilities on the power play and in the offensive zone.”
The 6’1, 205-pounder is one of the Blazers overage players this year. Last season, his performance was viewed as indifferent by many WHL observers, begging questions about the legitimacy of his standing as a Colorado Avalanche prospect. After being selected 124th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Macias returned to Kamloops with high expectations. However, the team wound up in disarray for much of the season and ultimately missed the playoffs. Personally, Macias produced a disappointing season amid the strife in Kamloops.
“I was going back and forth from forward to defense for most of the season,” Macias remembered. “All around, it wasn’t a great year, I couldn’t concentrate on one position. I was spending time on the ice in games thinking about things rather than doing things. It was hard to always know what the coaches wanted. I tried, but it was hard and I know it showed in my play.”
Zulyniak, who joined the Blazers midway through the 2005-06 season, agrees with Macias’ take on his play last season.
“I think last year Ray was caught in between playing a bit of forward and a bit of defense,” Zulyniak offered. “That can be a very challenging mix of priorities and responsibilities. We were at the bottom of the entire CHL in goal scoring so the club experimented with putting Ray up front to try to create some offense. He kind of got bounced around depending upon who was injured or what we were looking for he went up and back.
“But he came this year and we said right from Day 1 that he is going to play defense for us. We have Ray focused on playing defense. Obviously with his abilities, we knew he would be quarterbacking the power play and he’s got the green light to go on the rushes.”
Macias knows his learning opportunities in Kamloops are far from finished. He continues to work hard to improve his strengths. He is an offensive defenseman who sees the ice well and knows how to move the puck. He wants to improve his play in the corners and in front of the net, with an eye on better establishing correct body position in the defensive zone.
Zulyniak likes what he sees in the progress Macias is making.
“As a defenseman, Ray can sit back and watch things develop,” Zulyniak explained. “He can pick his spots, when he’s going to jump up in the play. He’s done a good job with that. He’s been a good asset for us back there. He logs quite a few minutes and he can skate the puck from end to end on any given night. He’s come into his own this year.”
Playing with veteran defenseman Victor Bartley certainly hasn’t hurt Macias this season.
“At the start of the year we had Ray playing with Ryan Bender (eligible 2007) and that gave us three balanced units,” Zulyniak said. “But we’ve changed that up a bit because Bartley and Macias play the power play together and with the standard of rules enforcement changing there have been more power plays.
“It seemed as we got going this year that situation sort of disrupted the flow of the other guys. So we thought it would be good to play them (Macias and Bartley) together and try to match them up with other team’s top lines and it’s worked out very well.”
As the Christmas break approaches, Kamloops has won seven straight games and sits in second place in the B.C. Division in the WHL’s Western Conference. At 21-7-1-1, the club is only four points behind the Vancouver Giants.
“Everybody is on the same page this year,” Macias said when he explained why he feels the team and atmosphere has improved so much in Kamloops. “We’ve all bought into the system and we all like playing with each other. Last year, some guys didn’t want to work hard and maybe some guys just didn’t like each other. There is great chemistry here this year and we all work hard for each other.”
Again, Zulyniak agrees.
“Last year we had some internal issues but Ray has seen us go from last place to a 21-7 record here,” Zulyniak said. “He’s been an instrumental part of that and he knows he has to have a good year to earn a contract with Colorado. He has to be a leader here.
“Ray may not be a very vocal guy, but when he’s on his game you can really tell that everybody notices.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.