McKenzie adapts and shines in Texas

Texas Stars

by Stephen Meserve AHL On The Beat

It wasn’t the start to the season that Curtis McKenzie had hoped for. After 53 games with the Dallas Stars last season, he was prepped and ready for another year in the Dallas lineup in September. However, free agent signings and emerging young talent put the former AHL Rookie of the Year in Cedar Park for the season.

“I didn’t have any plans to be back in Texas or expect that to happen at the start of the year,” said McKenzie. “You can’t control everything. I ended up here, and I wanted to enjoy playing hockey and be the best player I could be. I went back, and we have a great setup with some good players on our team.”

McKenzie, who won the Calder Cup as a winger on the Stars top line in 2014, has been scoring at a point-per-game pace since October. His net-front presence has earned him 14 power play goals on the season, second in the league. He’s also found his way in an official leadership capacity, being named Texas’s fourth captain in team history in the fall.

Texas Stars

“Getting to be named captain of any team is pretty special, but it was pretty cool it being the first team I played for.”

Having a letter on his chest doesn’t change the way he plays, but it does change the way he approaches coming to the rink every day.

“When you have a letter like that you have to make sure you’re ready to play every night and you’re working hard every practice . Players are going to be following you, and you have to set the tone.”

Leadership by committee has been the mantra as Texas has stockpiled former captains from all levels among their ranks.

“The one thing that’s great about our team is that we have so many former captains on it, and all the young guys work hard and take care of themselves. It’s not a whole lot of work because there are so many players who could wear the C.”

With his point-per-game pace well established in January, McKenzie was selected to the AHL All-Star roster. A freak injury in the final game before the All-Star break meant he wouldn’t make that trip and ended up missing six weeks of the season.

“I was diving in on one of their players with the puck, and I didn’t see [Justin] Dowling was on the back side of him. Their player moved out of the way, and I didn’t see Dowling until the last second. I tried jumping out of the way of him and clipped my knee. It was fluky catching it on my teammate. It wasn’t what I had planned.”

McKenzie had many former teammates and friends headed to the All-Star game, and he was excited to play with them. Those plans evaporated. “I had never been named to the All-Star at this level, and it was a huge honor. I was disappointed I couldn’t be there.”

Extended time on the shelf is difficult for any athlete, and McKenzie was no different, “You have to let the healing take place and be ready as you can. The frustrating part is that you want to get back and play right away, but it takes time.”

Texas Stars

Being captain and on the injury list at the same time presents a unique leadership challenge. How do you lead and guide the team when you can’t take the ice with them?

“I tried to stay around the guys as much as possible. A lot of times you’re already done with your rehab by the time they arrive at the rink. Just trying to stick around and hang out with them, take in what I can see up top and pass it along to the guys.”

McKenzie returned to the lineup on March 9. He didn’t have a point in his first contest back but collected three in his next two. His play and some injuries in Dallas earned him a recall to the NHL for several games. Since being interviewed, McKenzie was reassigned to the AHL. If Texas holds on to a playoff spot, McKenzie will surely be a key part of any playoff run they make.

“Right now, I’m just staying ready and conditioned so that I can be right where I was when I left Texas.”

Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.