Matthew Highmore had his best girl riding shotgun Monday when he got the call every young hockey player dreams of: The time for his NHL debut had arrived.
The Rockford winger, who’ll take the ice with the Blackhawks on Thursday in San Jose, California, pulled into a grocery-store parking lot and tried to catch his breath.
Then he looked over at his mom, Janice, who just happened to be visiting from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
‘‘Overwhelmed,’’ he said, describing them both.
They got dad David on speaker phone and, for 15 minutes, had the conversation all three had long dreamed of having. Tears? Oh, yes. And then Highmore — who turned 22 on Tuesday — did the only thing a man in his position could do.
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‘‘Gathered myself, and I got [into the store],’’ he said. ‘‘I had to pick up a couple of things for dinner, so I didn’t have a choice.’’
These are strange times for the last-place Hawks, with Ryan Hartman and Tommy Wingels going — and scoring goals Tuesday in their first games with the Predators and Bruins, respectively — and Highmore coming aboard to help play out a season-ending stretch of 19 games that means what, exactly?
Some would say the answer is nothing.
‘‘It’s not fun,’’ defenseman Duncan Keith said Wednesday at the Hawks’ practice facility. ‘‘It’s frustrating. But it is what it is now.’’
The Hawks aren’t laying down their sticks and calling it a season. Coach Joel Quenneville is emphasizing the importance of playing ‘‘the right way’’ and the opportunity to play spoiler against 17 remaining opponents that are in the postseason hunt.
‘‘It’s on all of us to be more competitive, regardless of where we’re at [in the standings],’’ winger Brandon Saad said. ‘‘That’s the standard we have to have coming in every day.’’
It’s not much of a rallying cry, but it’s pretty much what the veterans on the team have to work with.
But for Highmore, an undrafted player who logged five years with the same junior-hockey team in Quebec before reaching the American Hockey League this season and leading Rockford in goals (21) and points (35) through 56 games, what’s left of the season means everything. Whatever the Hawks look like a year from now — contender or pretender — Highmore is one of the young faces who hopes to be in the picture.
‘‘I definitely wasn’t expecting this,’’ he said. ‘‘But it’s one of those things you work your whole life for. It’s just very special for this to happen. Initially, you’re extremely happy, but then you realize — whoa, you’re going. And then you want to do the best you can do and have a chance to live your dream for a long time.’’
Highmore, only 5-11 and 181 pounds, has his new locker at MB Ice Arena right next to that of another smaller guy, superstar Patrick Kane. He has friendships born in Rockford — or in Hawks training camp before that — with Vinnie Hinostroza, Erik Gustafsson, Tomas Jurco and Carl Dahlstrom.
In his first practice after joining the team, Highmore skated on a line with Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz. During breaks, he chatted on the bench with rookie center David Kampf, who perhaps shared the story of scoring his first NHL goal in January on his 23rd birthday.
Highmore had a celebratory dinner Monday in Rockford with a friend who shares his birthday. After a restless sleep, he arrived in Chicago of a mind to stay awhile. A meaningless March? Hardly.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.