by Alyssa Dombrowski || for NHL.com
It often takes years for many professional athletes to be formally acknowledged with an individual award, if at all.
Last week, Curtis McKenzie of the American Hockey League’s Texas Stars was recognized just three months into his first year as a pro when he was named the AHL’s Rookie of the Month for December.
“Winning Rookie of the Month kind of caught me off guard,” said McKenzie. “It was a huge honor.”
According to Stars head coach Willie Desjardins, the 22-year-old forward’s mentality makes him award-worthy just as much as his on-ice productivity.
“He’s not a player that goes around saying how good he is,” said Desjardins. “He’s a humble guy that works hard at his game for the team. It’s a great league and there are so many good players that to get recognized says a lot about a player.
“The thing that’s really impressed me is his love of the game. It’s not a job for him. He loves to play and he’s always got a smile on his face.”
The Golden, B.C., native was selected by the Dallas Stars, Texas’ parent club, in the sixth round (159th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Following two seasons of Junior “A” play in Penticton, McKenzie played collegiately at Miami University, where he made four straight NCAA tournament appearances and reached the Frozen Four in 2010.
After finishing his senior season last spring, McKenzie signed an amateur tryout with Texas and made his professional debut at the end of last season. He competed with Dallas at the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., before being assigned to Texas prior to the start of the 2013-14 regular season.
“At the start of the year, I really didn’t know what to expect from him,” said Desjardins. “We lost Matt Fraser (traded to the Boston Bruins in July), and that left a big hole. We had to find somebody to step into that role. Curtis was the guy that we gave the first chance to, and we never ended up going to anybody else because he did such a good job.”
McKenzie has notched 31 points in 35 games with Texas so far this season and is one of four Stars players who rank in the top 10 in the league in scoring, along with fellow forwards Travis Morin, Colton Sceviour and Chris Mueller. He plays on Texas’ top line alongside Morin and Sceviour.
“I think a lot of it had to do with opportunity,” said McKenzie. “I felt I did well at camp and in Traverse City, and I was able to showcase myself to the staff here. When the season started, I got the chance to play with Morin and Sceviour, and we had a good connection right from the start, so I’ve been able to stick with them since then.”
Desjardins, the reigning AHL Coach of the Year, emphasized that his team’s top rookie scorer has earned his place among the Stars’ foremost offensive talent.
“I think it comes down to making the most of your opportunities, and we gave him his,” said Desjardins, who served two seasons as an associate coach in Dallas before taking over the Stars’ affiliate in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park last year. “When he went up [to our top line], he just took the spot and you’ve got to give him credit for that.
“He fits in well with Morin and Sceviour, and it’s not like they’ve carried him – he’s held his own and done his own job on that line, and has made it successful by the things he does.”
Morin, Sceviour and Mueller have all been recalled by Dallas at various points this season. McKenzie realizes the value of playing alongside teammates who have experience competing at the NHL level.
“It’s been huge just to be around those guys, who are elite players in this league,” said McKenzie. “They’ve got a lot of skill, but their intensity level is very high too. I see how hard they work both on and off the ice, and I think when you’re around players like that, their habits are going to wear off on you.”
“They’ve had a lot of players come through Texas and get to Dallas,” said McKenzie. “I think you have to look at it in a good way for myself as well, with them going up and doing so well in Dallas, because hopefully when I get an opportunity I’ll have the same success.”
Desjardins believes McKenzie will thrive when given the opportunity with Dallas, just as he has in Texas.
“I think he feels that, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to take a shot at the NHL and see where I fit in,’” said Desjardins. “I don’t think he’s going to try to be something he’s not. If he just keeps playing that way, he’ll get a chance to see how far he can step up with his game and that’s what we’ll see in the future.”