McKenzie a mucker, a grinder… and a winner

American Hockey League

by Lindsey Willhite | AHL On The Beat

When Curtis McKenzie created his Twitter account in September 2010 — early in his sophomore year at Miami (Ohio) University — he wanted his bio to explain his brand of hockey.

Accordingly, he typed “Mucker, grinder, loose puck finder.” He simply was being self-aware -– not self-deprecating -– when he authored those words.

“I’ve always been more of a worker in my career,” McKenzie said. “How I find success for myself is just working hard. Maybe I’m going a little harder to the net than other players and going to the corners to find pucks. That’s something I’ve always prided myself on – being the best on the ice at these things.”

The Golden, British Columbia, native has never changed those words on his Twitter bio, even though he has accomplished far more in his professional career than you’d expect from a mucker/grinder.

As the 28-year-old Chicago Wolves forward begins this season, his resume shows 99 career games in the National Hockey League with 10 goals and 13 assists.

He also has piled up 112 goals and 142 assists during five-plus seasons in the American Hockey League — excellent numbers that don’t do justice to the value McKenzie provides for his team.

Here’s what we mean: There’s only one player who participated in each of the last two AHL Calder Cup Finals –- McKenzie. He captained the Texas Stars to the 2018 Finals, then joined the Wolves last year and led the team in playoff goals on the way to the Western Conference championship.

There’s also only one player who has competed in three of the last six Calder Cup Finals. Yep, McKenzie. During his rookie year, he played an important role on Texas’ 2014 Calder Cup champs.

Basically, he ought to add “winner” to his Twitter bio –- only he’s not egotistical like that.

Photo: Ross Dettman

That leaves Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson, who watched McKenzie lead the Wolves in scoring while guiding the team to last year’s Calder Cup Finals, to do the bragging for him.

“He’s a winner!” Thompson said. “He’s a guy who has won championships and been big parts of those teams. He’s just one of those players who, when you play against Curtis McKenzie, you know that he has been on the ice. He’s a player that the opposition will talk about because he’s so difficult to play against.

“He plays hard every single game. Every single practice, he wants to be better. He’s leader. He cares about his teammates. He cares about the group first.”

The Wolves didn’t have an official captain last year, but any players who had a concern or a worry seemed to confide in McKenzie. Then he would take the steps necessary to solve the issue. McKenzie believes the foundation for this role starts on the ice.

“My leadership style is to make sure I’m the hardest-working guy on the ice and the other guys will play that hard, too,” McKenzie said.

But playing so hard -– and playing all the way into June two seasons in a row — has its price. While McKenzie led the Wolves in postseason goals (8) and shared the team lead in points (15), he played through a painful injury that required extra time to heal during the offseason.

Fortunately, he and his bride, Lucia, found the perfect place to recuperate: Greece.

GREECE IS THE WORD

Eight years after meeting briefly at Miami University, Curtis McKenzie and Lucia Carr were wed on Aug. 18, 2018, at gorgeous Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada.

Because that was too close to the start of last season to embark on their honeymoon, they saved their trip for late June and early July. While Curtis was busy pursuing the Calder Cup, Lucia made all the arrangements for their 12-day adventure that began in Athens before heading to three of Greece’s 6,000 islands.

“She did a ton of research into places to stay, places to check out, restaurants to go to,” McKenzie said. “It was an awesome trip. We had so much fun. I don’t think there was anything that went poorly.

“The first day we were there, we went to the Acropolis and that’s the main thing we wanted to see in Athens. Then we got on a ferry and started going to the Islands. We went to Mykonos, Milos and Santorini, and all three were pretty spectacular in their own ways. It was nice seeing three different styles of islands and all of them were so beautiful.”

Curtis and Lucia decided Milos was their favorite stop, in part because Lucia found the perfect place to stay.

“We stayed in a little boathouse right on the water,” McKenzie said. “You’d open the door, take two steps and you’re in the Mediterranean. That was a pretty cool spot.”

“The water is so blue there,” Lucia said. “We went out on a couple of catamaran rides. We went snorkeling. There were a lot of fish, but nothing you don’t want to swim with.”

“It was great to completely shut everything off and see other parts of the world,” McKenzie said. “I’m sure we’ll end up back in Greece at some point.”

BACK TO THE GRIND

After returning to North America, McKenzie gave his body one more week to rest, and then he jumped back into his comprehensive routine to prepare for the season.

As you might imagine from a young man who prides himself on his work ethic, McKenzie doesn’t do anything halfway. A typical summer day found him at Fortius Sport and Health gym by 8 a.m. for a two-hour workout, then off to physiotherapy, then headed to a rink in North Vancouver for 75 minutes on the ice for skills work with Jon Calvano, the director of Elite Skills Development. He’d cap his days with a trip to the chiropractor.

“This summer I switched up my routine a lot,” McKenzie said. “I haven’t lifted any heavy weights at all. I’ve moved my workouts to more of a movement base, where it’s lighter weights and more movement and just improving my flexibility and range of motion.

“I’ve found it helps quite a bit and I feel really good on the ice this way.”

Photo: Ross Dettman

McKenzie took part in a new 4-on-4 league called The Boys of Summer that was modeled after Da Beauty League in Minnesota.

“There are tons of NHL guys and AHL players in the area,” he said. “It’s fun to catch up with all the buddies you might run into just a few times during the season -– or maybe not see at all. They’re good skates to go to and it’s a good league. It keeps you in the game -– and it’s a lot of fun while doing it.”

Now it’s just a matter of playing for keeps, and helping his team go as far as it can.

“I always find I play my best hockey in the second half of the year, probably from January-February on to the end of the playoffs,” McKenzie said.

“Players like him become so effective in the playoffs and usually end up leading your team in points -– which he did for us,” said Rocky Thompson. “Those guys always end up being the guys who push through and become a big reason why their team has success.”

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