It didn’t take long for Nick Merkley to get involved with the community in the Phoenix area.
The former Kelowna Rocket, called up to the Arizona Coyotes a week ago and playing his first National Hockey League game on Tuesday against the Florida Panthers, was part of a team visit to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital earlier this week.
Merkley and his teammates brought gifts and some holiday cheer to about 60 children facing much greater trials than the Coyotes, who have lost 10 of their past 11 games.
The Coyotes have visited the Phoenix Children’s Hospital every year since they arrived in the Valley in 1996, except one. In 2014, goaltender Devan Dubnyk had the mumps, forcing the team and hospital to cancel the visit for fear of spreading the disease via other players who might have been carriers.
“The guys on our roster get to play a game for a living,” Derek Stepan said. “You come here and this is the real world. To see how tough these kids are, see how resilient these families are, it really puts a lot of things in perspective.”
Meanwhile, Merkley, a first-round draft pick (30th overall) two years ago said he felt “pretty comfortable” after his NHL debut, playing on a line with Christian Dvorak and Zac Rinoldo, in which he played 13:30.
“I thought it went pretty well for me. I thought I made a few plays and my linemates were good. It felt good to be out there, but it’s going to be tough to remember this game and the way we lost (3-2 after going ahead 2-0 and outshooting the Panthers 41-26).”
Merkley, who was second in team scoring (12 goals, 12 assists in 20 games) with the Tucson Roadrunners of the American Hockey League when he was called up, received 2:03 of powerplay time on Tuesday, including a long shift in the game’s final minute as the Coyotes were scrambling to tie the score with an extra attacker.
He said it felt good to be part of a key situation in the first game.
“That’s the kind of role I want to be playing,” Merkley said. “Obviously, I need to produce and show up in those big moments. Hopefully I can do that here in the future.
However Merkley isn’t listed as a probable starter tonight against the Washington Capitals, whose roster includes former Kelowna Rockets teammate, defenceman Madison Bowey. It looks like Merkley has been replaced by newly acquired (from Pittsburgh) Josh Archibald on the line with Dvorak and Rinoldo.
Bowey, still looking for his first NHL goal, has seven assists and is a -2 in 29 games with the Capitals. He’s expected to be paired up with fellow rookie Christian Djoos on the Washington blueline against the Coyotes.
The Winnipeg native played four full seasons with the Rockets, scoring 58 goals and accumulating 171 points in 259 games. He was drafted in the second round (53rd overall) by Washington in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.