By John Lachmann
OXFORD, Ohio – Curtis McKenzie is not the typical college hockey player.
His ultra-tough, physical and edgy style epitomizes the western Canadian brand of hockey, yet the Miami senior plays in a league with mandatory suspensions for fighting.
One of his teammates used an unprintable word to describe him as a practice opponent, yet another said the 6-feet-2, 209-pound left wing was one of the most courteous and respectful people he has ever met.
He bucked regional tradition by leaving British Columbia to go the U.S. college route instead of remaining somewhat local and playing major juniors, becoming the first Canadian from west of Ontario that coach Enrico Blasi has brought to Miami.
He looked like he would set the college hockey world ablaze early in his career and did not live up to his freshman campaign his middle two seasons.
But the rejuvenated McKenzie has saved his best season for last on a Miami team chasing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
And McKenzie has enjoyed every minute of his experience as a RedHawk.
“My whole life I had it in my head that I wanted to come to college,” McKenzie said. “Once I came here there was nowhere else I wanted to go. This place is perfect.”
McKenzie is from Golden, B.C., a town of about 4,000 near the Alberta border and Banff National Park. He also played soccer and golf growing up, and his sister was also a hockey standout, starring on her high school team.
McKenzie moved in with a billet family in Penticton, B.C. – about 25 miles north of the Washington border – at age 16, and he played for that city’s Junior A team in the British Columbia Hockey League, which allowed him to retain his college eligibility.
Most western Canadian hockey prospects play in the WHL, and McKenzie was selected by Red Deer, Alta., in the fifth round of that league’s 2006 draft, but he would not have been able to play NCAA hockey had he chosen that route.
McKenzie played in 49 games in his first season with Penticton, but recorded just three goals and seven assists and a lone helper in seven postseason games.
In his second season with the Vees, he led the team in goals (30), points (64) and penalty minutes (90) despite being one of the younger forwards on the team.
He also tied for the team lead in playoff points with 10 in 10 games as Penticton won the BCHL championship.
“My first year (in Penticton) I didn’t play as much, but the development I learned from other players and Coach (Fred) Harbinson, it was pretty amazing how much I learned that year,” McKenzie said. “Next year when the opportunity was there – we had a lot of turnover – I was able to take advantage of it.”
That summer, McKenzie was selected in the sixth round by the Dallas Stars in the NHL draft.
From Penticton it was on to Oxford, 2,034 miles from hometown. Miami assistant coach Brent Brekke was instrumental in getting McKenzie to join the RedHawks, still having British Columbia connections from his days as a Cornell assistant.
Miami head coach Enrico Blasi also had contacts in that region, having spent ample time there as an assistant at Denver prior to accepting the head coaching job at Miami.
When he dressed for his first game in fall of 2009, McKenzie was the first western Canadian since 2000 graduate Dustin Whitecotton to put on a RedHawks sweater.
Next: A change of pace
A change of pace
McKenzie’s family is only able to come to his games about once a season because of the traveling distance.
“It was definitely a change of pace, being this far from home and not being able to see the family at all,” McKenzie said. “There’s no easier place to go than here with the family environment, and all the guys here brought us in right away.”
On the ice, McKenzie made the transition look easy. He scored Miami’s first goal of the season in the team’s opener vs. St. Cloud State, set up by Andy Miele and Jarod Palmer in a 3-2 win. He also took his first penalty for holding the stick.
McKenzie recorded two goals and three assists in his first four games and led all RedHawks freshmen that season with 27 points on six goals and 21 assists.
Miami senior captain Steven Spinell said that McKenzie earned the nickname “King Midas” that year because everything he touched turned to gold.
“We had quite a team that year, even to play and to have success with all the guys around me…I was a lot ahead of where I thought I’d end up being after that year,” McKenzie said. “It was a good first year.”
He also finished that campaign with a team-high 88 penalty minutes.
“It was a veteran team, right, so he had to come in and find his way, and I thought he did a pretty good job,” Blasi said. “He had good numbers and played the physical game that we needed and that’s exactly why we recruited him.”
Miami also went to the Frozen Four that season after winning a CCHA regular season championship.
Unfortunately for McKenzie, his sophomore season was not as lucrative. He scored seven goals – two of which were game winners – but only notched five assists to finish with 12 points.
“I think I had too high of thoughts for myself and didn’t come in where I needed to be,” McKenzie said. “It kind of spiraled down on me and I put way too much pressure on myself, and the season didn’t turn out how I wanted it to, sophomore year.”
His points total from his second season was well under half of that in 2009-10, and the RedHawks were bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the first round.
As a junior, McKenzie was asked to play more of a defensive role on a team laden with offensive talent. He rebounded to 17 points in 40 games on five markers and 12 helpers, but again Miami fell in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
“He still scored some big goals for us in those years, but overall I don’t know that he played his best hockey, night in and night out,” Blasi said. “But I think one of the things you find when you’re maturing as a player is that consistency, and I think this year he’s found that.”
Said McKenzie: “I think I played a lot better my junior year over my sophomore year. If you look at numbers it wouldn’t be a good season but I was happy after the season. It wasn’t where I peaked as a freshman but it was definitely a big step coming back from that sophomore year.”
Next: On top of his game
On top of his game
Although his numbers may not reflect it, this season has been McKenzie’s best. He has scored a career-high nine goals and has dished for 13 assists.
His four game-winning goals ties him with sophomore forward Blake Coleman for the team lead.
“It’s the greatest thing to see someone pull themselves out of a rut, or whatever you want to call it,” Spinell said. “Curt’s made the right decisions and he’s really re-committed himself to playing at his top level, so he deserves everything that’s coming his way.”
While he is still five points shy of his freshman total, McKenzie has been a key penalty killer and a physical force on a team that is smaller and faster than most in recent history.
“I kind of looked in the mirror this summer and said, this is a make it or break it year that’s going to determine my future,” McKenzie said. “So I came back in and really tried being a leader on the team…tried to help out that way and I think the confidence kept coming from that, and it was able to translate on the ice and elevate my game.”
Playing on the top line for much of the first half of the season with sophomore Austin Czarnik and freshman Riley Barber helped jump-start his offense.
“Up there with Barber and Czarnik, oh man, those guys can play hockey,” McKenzie said. “They’re a lot of fun to play with. Just give them the puck and offensive points are going to come just by being out there with them. That kind of gave me a little confidence to see some numbers back on the board again this year.”
On March 2, Miami captured the second CCHA regular season title of McKenzie’s career. The first was his freshman year, which the RedHawks clinched on the road in blowout fashion.
This one – which Miami clinched in its last regular season game at home vs. Ohio State – was much more enjoyable, McKenzie said.
McKenzie skated around the ice for several minutes after the win, whipping his newly-acquired league champions T-shirt around and firing up the Cady Arena crowd.
“It was special,” McKenzie said. “It was cool to win (freshman year), but to win it at home and the last game of the year, you couldn’t write up that script. And a great crowd – too much fun.”
Because of his in-your-face style of play, McKenzie does not have a favorable on-ice reputation among many CCHA players. Former Miami captain Tommy Wingels predicted when McKenzie was a freshman that he would be the most hated player in the conference by the time he was a senior.
McKenzie has jumped into the glass after scoring in opponents’ rinks to taunt opposing fans and he constantly chirps on the ice. He is the first to step in when his teammates are being pushed around and somehow manages to end up entangled with opposing goalies on a regular basis.
He has 279 penalty minutes in his Miami career, ranking him fifth on the RedHawks’ all-time leaderboard.
Next: Irritant on the ice, mellow everywhere else
Irritant on the ice, mellow everywhere else
Defenseman and classmate Joe Hartman has had the pleasure of practicing against him for the past four years.
“His compete level’s always off the charts, and if you go against him you know you’re going to get hit,” Hartman said. “That’s one of his attributes. If he dumps it in on the rush and you go get the puck you can expect he’s going to lay the body on you.”
But as much of an irritant as McKenzie is on the ice, he is a totally different person away from the rink.
“He’s completely mellow,” Spinell said. “He’s always, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ – he’s one of the most courteous and respectful guys you’ll ever meet, but on the ice he’s a wild man.”
Said Hartman: “He’s a bastard to play against, but off the ice he’s one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met. Very friendly, very nice, cares about everyone...I’m thinking, you’re a little (jerk) to play against. I’ve never played against him myself, but I’ve played against guys like him and that’s what I usually think.”
Those two sides of McKenzie’s personality clash during practices, when he still wears his game face while skating against teammates and friends.
“It’s almost funny, if he does something like lays a hit, he’ll come up to you later, like ‘hey, are you all right, man?’, you’re like ‘it’s alright, I’m good’,” Hartman said. “You can just see the mix when you’re playing against him in practice: From that (jerk) to that really nice guy.”
From freshman year as an 18-year-old to now, McKenzie has grown up significantly, both on and off the ice.
“I don’t think you want to mess with him off the ice...(but) he’s always been a great kid, he’s always been a team player, he’s always had a lot a heart and now he knows how to channel those things in a positive way,” Blasi said.
Looking back, McKenzie sees how much he has matured since coming to Miami.
“I think I was a bit of a loose canon, coming into college hockey, definitely played with a lot of emotion, I’d say,” McKenzie said. “There were times where it got the best of me, so I tried to reel that in and tried to mature…since then.”
Blasi said that as a coach, obviously he wants to see all of his players develop, both in hockey and in life, and McKenzie has done both in his time at Miami.
“You want (players) to come in and mature and grow and get better every day in all aspects of their life,” Blasi said. “When you see that – we’re obviously very proud of him and after he’s done with us I feel like he’s ready to go to the next level and make a shot at it.”
And whether pro hockey works out for McKenzie or not, he has made lifelong friends in his time in Oxford.
“Three years, especially this time in our life, everyone matures a lot, but Curtis not only has matured, he’s just a great guy, on the ice, off the ice," Spinell said. "He’s one of the best team guys I’ve ever played with and one of my best buddies I’ll have forever outside the rink.”
In the classroom, McKenzie is a business management major on pace to graduate on time. He has nearly a three grade-point average.
“I don’t think you can fully put into words how much this program means to me,” McKenzie said. “The time that I’ve had here has been four awesome years. A lot of fun, a lot of great players that I’ve played and great friends I’ve made along the way. It’s been too great to have this opportunity to come here for these four years.”