Freshman forward Mackie Samoskevich has had a passion for hockey thanks to years of playing in his backyard rink. Courtesy of the Samoskevich Family

Throughout his life, Mackie Samoskevich always had hockey in his backyard — literally and figuratively.

Growing up in Connecticut, he learned to skate on a backyard rink alongside his sisters Melissa and Maddy. For the Samoskevich family, hockey is like breathing, and it didn’t take long for Mackie to take in his first gulps.

“(Mackie) wanted to play hockey before school, he wanted to practice outside,” his father Fred Samoskevich said. “It was kind of a weird obsession he had for the game at a young age. We were kind of shocked.

“All he wanted to do — by himself at a young age — is he would reenact the game. He would be in the net and you would hear ‘Ahh’ like a goalie save, making a save with his glove and stuff like that. And he would be acting the game out at a very young age.”

Those hours acting out games in the backyard gave Mackie an advantage on the ice: he had a vision for where the play would go. Using those skills, he found himself in the middle of plays — a place where he excelled.

But Mackie’s love for the game soon outgrew that fond backyard rink. The time came for him to play youth hockey, a level to take seriously in the New England region. All three Samoskevich kids played for teams that travelled far to play games. Like so many families in the area, family time revolved around hockey.

“Mackie would be in Boston. My daughter Maddy would be in Stamford or somewhere in Connecticut, New Jersey,” Fred Samoskevich said. “We had the best time, kind of a mini-vacation every weekend … It was a barrel of fun.”

Mackie loved taking the ice, and he also wanted to take on the best competition available. Satisfying both of these wants meant taking long drives throughout New England to play for various travel clubs. He started facing some of the best players his age — including future teammates.

When a young Mackie Samoskevich walked into the locker room, Bob Beniers noticed how he handled himself.

“He was the kid that was driving the long distance,” Beniers said. “Mackie was a little shy at the time.”

Mackie had driven up to Massachusetts to play some games with Beniers’ youth team, a skilled roster including the likes of Providence winger Brett Berard and current Michigan sophomore forward Matty Beniers — Bob’s son. He knew his teammates from facing them in games, but they hadn’t become close friends.

The timidity Samoskevich showed disappeared as he took the ice, because any way the game went, Samoskevich found himself in the play.

“He would give you 110 percent forechecking, backchecking,” Bob Beniers said. “Even at a very young age, he was very tenacious on the puck. I remember that distinctly … It’s a big part of staying on the puck at a young age.”

That kind of commitment to the game matters in a hockey-crazed environment like New England. Some of the nation’s top players — like Boston University and Team USA World Juniors goaltender Drew Commesso — played in those leagues. For Samoskevich, travelling hours from his Connecticut home gave him another grindstone to hone his game on.

The Samoskevich family knew the playbook for getting the most out of the sport. Mackie’s older sister Melissa played college hockey for Quinnipiac and coaches at Penn State. Maddy, his twin, currently plays for Quinnipiac.

Melissa’s journey in hockey gave Mackie a first-hand look at the places the game could take him. His future in hockey was in near reach, and the same vision that gave him an edge on the ice crafted his plan to maximize its benefits. He believed in his game enough to put himself in ever-tougher environments.

Soon, the confines of New England couldn’t offer the best hockey programs for Mackie to develop. After thriving against the best youth players in the region, the time came for Mackie to take on a new challenge. Like many young hockey players, that entailed leaving home.

In his freshman year of high school, Mackie’s family drove him to the airport as he and his twin sister headed off to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, an elite hockey prep school in Minnesota. The school’s yearbooks boast past stars — from Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, to Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon.

Shattuck also meant they would be with their older sister Melissa, who played hockey for the school. Visits to their sister showed the Samoskevich twins what the school could offer, and they loved what they saw.

Mackie played 115 games for Shattuck’s U14 and U16 programs, scoring 88 points before he was old enough to don the varsity program’s sweater. In one season wearing it, Mackie scored 74 points in 51 games alongside a young Brendan Brisson, currently a sophomore on Michigan’s roster.

Just like in New England, part of his success came from his skating and vision. Not only could he keep up with the best players in the game, but he could predict exactly where they would send the puck — something that only got stronger with every shift.

“I mean, let’s face it, you’re as good as the competition you play against, or let’s say the kids you practice with,” Fred Samoskevich said. “Playing and practicing with Matty Beniers, against him, or other kids at Shattuck, it only helped him with that skill he always had.”

Coaches like Shattuck’s Ben Umhoefer also noticed a humbleness in Mackie’s game and a willingness to show his skills on the ice. Behind the reserved nature that everyone saw lay a calculating mind, a way that Mackie weighed his options and made the right decisions for himself both on and off the ice. It’s not uncommon for a hockey player to leave home at a young age, but Mackie handled that intense environment with poise, betting on himself to succeed.

That bet paid off when Mackie finally popped up on the Michigan hockey team’s radar at Shattuck. The Wolverines tracked his progress and liked what they saw.

“He’s an effortless skater,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “ … He’s got deceptive speed. You don’t think he’s maybe going as fast as he is, but he’s got really strong legs (and) lower body.”

Pearson and his staff also noticed the way Mackie could track a play’s development.

“He’s got that poise, that patience,” Pearson said. “It’s really hard to teach players that … And that’s what the really good players can do. They already know what the next plays are, what’s available and where they’re gonna go with it.”

Those intangibles propelled Mackie to the next step in his hockey career: the USHL’s Chicago Steel. In just two full seasons with the program from 2019 to 2021, he contributed to an offense featuring the likes of Harvard forwards Sean Farrell and Matt Coronato, Michigan sophomore defenseman Owen Power and Brisson. He put up 73 points in 85 games for the Steel.

In Chicago, Mackie’s game stood out as one of the best on an elite roster. Once again, Samoskevich put himself among the best talent his age, and once again he proved he belonged.

“(Mackie’s) an elite skater, his skill set is so high, but he facilitates the play,” Chicago coach Brock Sheahan said. “The play goes through him, and whether he’s in his time or space or not, he’s able to find the right play.”

Just like his decision-making process off the ice, the way Mackie processes the game might be the hallmark of his style. He puts himself in the right positions on the ice to maximize his effect, believing in himself to deliver for his team.

The same confidence that carried him through his hockey journey reveals itself in every clean zone entry, every no-look pass and every sneaky shot in his game.

Mackie will play his first Michigan hockey game on Friday, but he’s been preparing himself for the stiff competition it entails all his life. He’s likely to see significant playing time in the top six, facing elite talent on a nightly basis. That’s no surprise considering where he guided himself along his hockey journey.

Cutting his teeth on hard teams sharpened the dual threat of his vision and skating. When Elite Prospects released Mackie’s scouting report, the skills he refined took centerstage.

“He manages space exceptionally well, constantly scanning for the positions of his teammates and opponents alike,” the report said. “And he uses that mental map of the ice to plan his every manoeuvre one or two plays ahead of the competition.”

Mackie’s mental map extends far outside of the many scattered rinks that once graced his presence. He takes ownership of his future like he takes possession of the puck — his reserved maturity giving him a picture of where he wants to be and the journey that will take him there.

As he begins his stop at Michigan, Mackie will get the chance to show off his skills at a high level. But knowing him, he’s already planned a few steps ahead of Michigan after the Florida Panthers drafted him 24th overall at the 2021 NHL Draft.

That comes naturally when you can see the bigger picture.