📝 by Patrick Williams
Texas Stars captain Curtis McKenzie has packed a lot into 503 professional games across parts of 10 seasons.
A Calder Cup championship as a rookie with Texas in 2014. Two more trips to the Calder Cup Finals. The Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the American Hockey League’s top rookie in 2013-14. One hundred National Hockey League games, including an appearance in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Another 404 in AHL regular-season play, and 73 more AHL postseason appearances. Wearing a letter with Texas, the Chicago Wolves, and the Utica Comets. He even picked up a goal in his 500th pro game Dec. 11.
That 500th game made a particular impact on him.
“Coming into pro hockey, you never expect to get that far in, 500 games, so it was a lot of fun to get to do,” McKenzie explained. “But yeah, driving to the rink that day was just a little weird thinking about all the players and teams I’ve been able to be a part of. It was pretty cool thinking back on all that.
“I feel like it was just not very long ago that I was coming out of college [at Miami University], getting to come down to Cedar Park and meeting the team in our first practice with the guys there. You blink, and it’s nine years later now.”
And now those nine years later he has come full circle. He made his way back to Texas this past offseason with the NHL organization that began his pro journey by taking him in the sixth round of the 2009 NHL Draft. After departing the Dallas Stars to seek his NHL fortunes with the Vegas Golden Knights and St. Louis Blues organizations, McKenzie returned to Texas on a two-year AHL contract this past August.
McKenzie’s return has “made a major impact on our group,” Texas head coach Neil Graham stated.
McKenzie, of course, has delivered on the ice this season as he always does. Graham has used him at different points with top prospects Riley Damiani and Ty Dellandrea. McKenzie has 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) through 23 games, leaving him one point off the team scoring lead held by Damiani.
McKenzie has a growing fan club as well with his wife Lucia and their daughter, Lily.
“I had my daughter on the glass for pre-game warm-up,” he said of his 500th game, “so I think that was the most special part, doing it as a family now.
“I’m just so fortunate to get these opportunities in my life. Now to do it on the other side, where once you [were] the young guy and the new guy, and now being the old guy on the team and having a daughter, it makes it so much more fun and special to be around the rink and see the young guys coming up in the position that you were [in] back in the day.”
After sticking with Dallas as a regular in 2016-17, playing 53 regular-season games and finishing with 16 points (six goals, 10 assists), McKenzie found himself back in the AHL with Texas the following season. After Texas went to Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals that spring against the Toronto Marlies, he needed to chase down another NHL opportunity elsewhere.
He went to the Golden Knights organization, and while that move did not result in any more NHL action, he had a chance to pursue the Calder Cup again as the Wolves went to the Finals against the Charlotte Checkers before falling in five games.
“[The] playoff runs,” McKenzie said, “those are the best times looking back on my career. Just how close you get as a team, how much each round when you win, how fun it is to grow. So, I got lucky in that sense. I got to go to another great organization.”
After one season in the St. Louis organization, spent in Utica, the opportunity to return to Texas arose amid a shift in priorities for the 30-year-old power forward.
“We loved our time in Texas,” McKenzie said. “Having a little bit of history. The chances to win, the playoff runs, it just made this place really special for us.”
Putting that NHL dream off to the side is never an easy choice for a veteran player, but Texas provided a chance for him to blend career and family goals. With McKenzie back, and former players Travis Morin and Max Fortunus now assistant coaches, Cedar Park has become home for many team mainstays.
“I want to do my best as a player, bring the most I can to a team, and try to help the team win here. It’s a spot where I’m lucky [that] I had such great older guys that helped influence my career as a young guy. So now it’s trying to be that mentor for the young guys, watching them move up to the next level, and stay there for a long period ― that’s a new joy in my life, and I’m having a lot of fun.”
McKenzie acknowledges that it was difficult fully accepting that his days as an NHL prospect are likely behind him.
“But now that Lily was born, being a dad’s more important than being a hockey player. To have a chance to come back to a place that we’re familiar with and knew we’d have a lot of fun as a family just really made it an easy call.”
“THIS TEAM JUST DOES NOT GIVE UP”
The victories are not coming as frequently for the Hartford Wolf Pack as they did earlier this season, but the team continues to win over head coach Kris Knoblauch.
After a 12-3-2-0 start, a COVID-19 pause stalled some of that momentum. Hartford had to contend with a 15-day gap between games before returning Dec. 12 at Lehigh Valley, where the Wolf Pack erased a 3-1 deficit to earn a point in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Phantoms.
Then on Wednesday, Hartford trailed 3-0 at home to the Bridgeport Islanders before pushing back in an eventual 6-5 shootout loss. Hartford rallied from 3-0, 4-1, and 5-3 deficits to force the game beyond regulation and take another point against an Atlantic Division rival.
“This team just does not give up,” Knoblauch said afterward.
Knoblauch even was willing to look beyond that 3-0 hole.
“I just wish we would [had not] put ourselves in that situation,” Knoblauch said. “But I’d rather have a team that can come from behind rather than start strong and not finish.”
AMERKS LEANING ON MERSCH
Buffalo Sabres management brought in power forward Michael Mersch last season, and he has earned a big fan in Rochester Americans head coach Seth Appert.
To start, there is the exceptional on-ice performance as Mersch leads the AHL with 14 goals and has 25 points through 23 games this season, excellent numbers for someone who struggled to find a contract before last season.
A difficult job market had hit Mersch especially hard going into the truncated 2020-21 season. Despite four 20-goal AHL seasons and a Calder Cup championship as a rookie in 2015, Mersch had to settle for a professional tryout offer from the Amerks, hardly the sort of security that he could have expected in more normal circumstances.
But it was an opportunity.
Six months later, Mersch had himself a new two-year AHL deal with Rochester. Then two days before this season started, Appert announced Mersch as the new captain for the 66th edition of the storied Amerks franchise.
“Mersch is special,” Appert began. “He’s a really special player. I feel very fortunate that we got him last year, and I feel fortunate that we were able to show our management how important he was to what we’re trying to build.
“We’re trying to change the culture in the organization, and that starts in Rochester, because all the young prospects are coming through there. What a better way than to have guys like our captains, but in particular Mersch?
“It’s hard to describe how valuable he is to our team in his daily work ethic… in practice and how he carries himself. For me to bounce ideas off him, to ask him if he thinks that [a team] meeting was received the right way. Even when I was in COVID protocol, he and I talked every day. He’s a really special human, and he’s an incredible leader for us.”
BARRACUDA SWIM THROUGH TROUBLE
The San Jose Barracuda managed a 2-2 record on a trying four-game swing through Southern California and Colorado despite the loss of several key players.
Defenseman Nick Cicek and forwards Evander Kane and Jasper Weatherby missed the team’s two games at the Colorado Eagles due to league COVID-19 protocols. The Barracuda also went without forward Jayden Halbgewachs for the trip’s first two games while he was on recall to the San Jose Sharks. And last week forward Joel Kellman returned to play in his native Sweden.
After a 7-4 loss to the Ontario Reign began the trip, goaltender Alexei Melnichuk took the final three starts before the holiday break; he frustrated the San Diego Gulls in a 4-1 win, and then provided 34 stops in another 4-1 decision that opened the two-game set in Colorado on Tuesday. The team’s bid for a winning trip was stopped on Wednesday when Colorado’s Justus Annunen earned his first AHL shutout on 23 saves in a 5-0 victory.
BACK TO NORMAL IN MILWAUKEE
This is more like it for the Milwaukee Admirals, who have qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs in 16 of their past 19 seasons.
The Admirals had assembled a league-best 41-14-5-3 record in 2019-20 before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season. The pandemic then forced the franchise to sit out the 2020-21 campaign, and Nashville Predators prospects went to play for the rival Chicago Wolves for one season.
Finally back on the ice this past October for the first time in 19 months, a six-game winless streak in November had put the Admirals into a 3-9-1-0 hole and last in the Central Division.
But since a loss to the Rockford IceHogs on Dec. 1, the Admirals have rolled off a 7-1-1-0 record, including taking three consecutive games from the Iowa Wild. The only blemishes on the Milwaukee schedule of late have been a regulation loss and an overtime in a home-and-home set with the Chicago Wolves this past weekend. After those setbacks, the Admirals went into Rockford to start this week and took a 2-0 win behind 29 saves from Connor Ingram. From there the Admirals wheeled around Lake Michigan and snagged a 2-1 overtime win at the Grand Rapids Griffins on Wednesday. The recent run has pushed Milwaukee’s record to 12-13-2-0 and fifth place in the Central Division.
AHL TOP PROSPECTS TO CHASE GOLD
The AHL will again have heavy representation at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Wolf Pack general manager Ryan Martin, who doubles up as an assistant general manager for the New York Rangers, will be with the United States in a player personnel role.
Manitoba Moose forward Cole Perfetti along with Grand Rapids defenseman Donovan Sebrango will represent Canada. Dave Cameron, who worked three seasons as an AHL head coach for the Ottawa Senators organization between 2004 and 2007, will be Canada’s head coach.
Sweden will have Ontario Reign defenseman Helge Grans and forward Alexander Holtz from the Utica Comets. Rounding out the group with Finland will be forward Roby Jarventie from the Belleville Senators. Forward Jan Mysak, who spent last season with the Laval Rocket, will captain the Czech entry and be joined by Rockford defenseman Michael Krutil.
The tournament begins Sunday in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta.
AROUND THE AHL
🏒 Bridgeport playmaker Chris Terry has churned out 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in his past 11 games, including an assist Wednesday at Hartford.
🏒 Islanders head coach Brent Thompson had to dress defenseman Mike Cornell as a back-up goaltender against Charlotte on short notice last Saturday evening. Help came in time for the rematch the following afternoon when Ken Appleby arrived from Worcester (ECHL) to back up Jakub Skarek.
🏒 Lehigh Valley took a five-game point streak (4-0-0-1) into the holiday break after defeating Hershey on Tuesday, 2-1.
🏒 The Cleveland Monsters have been busy off the ice this month. Players and the Monsters Better Halves helped to adopt 12 local families via the Division of Children and Family Services. The Cleveland front office, Cleveland Hockey Booster Club and Physicians Ambulance provided gift wrapping, toys, and gift cards to 37 people. The team also participated in volunteer efforts for Shoes & Clothes for Kids and the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. Monsters fans also contributed 10,168 stuffed animals on the team’s Teddy Bear Toss Night this past weekend. The toys will be donated to local non-profit organizations that benefit children in need.
🏒 Milwaukee drew 8,669 fans to the club’s annual Charity Night last Friday against the Wolves. The event benefited Children’s Wisconsin.
🏒 Colorado Eagles captain Jacob MacDonald remains out of action following an apparent injury sustained while on recall to the Colorado Avalanche. MacDonald joined the Avs on Dec. 10 and had seven points (one goal, six assists) in 12 appearances with the Eagles this season.
🏒 Chicago’s Andrew Poturalski continues to lead the league in assists (22) and points (34). San Jose rookie Scott Reedy’s eight power-play goals put him first in the AHL, and Stockton Heat forward Jakob Pelletier’s 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) lead the rookie scoring chart.
🏒 Stockton rookie goaltender Dustin Wolf has won nine consecutive decisions and is up to a league-best 14 victories on the year. Since allowing five goals on 11 shots in his pro debut on Feb. 21, Wolf is 16-0-2 with a 1.80 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage.
🏒 Allowing 1.90 goals per game, Utica is the AHL’s top defensive club. Ontario’s 3.95 goals per game make up the AHL’s most productive offense.
🏒 Rochester (22-for-82) still holds the AHL’s best power play at 26.8 percent. Stockton continues to lead the AHL on the penalty kill at 90.5 percent (86-for-95).
ON THE MOVE
🏒 Hershey Bears forward Joe Snively made his NHL debut with his hometown Washington Capitals on Dec. 19, earning an assist vs. Los Angeles. Snively, who grew up in Herndon, Va., and played in the Washington Little Caps program, leads the Bears with 22 points in 22 games this season.
🏒 Kristian Reichel skated in his first NHL game on Dec. 19 as the Winnipeg Jets hosted St. Louis. Reichel has 12 points in 25 games for the Manitoba Moose in 2021-22.
🏒 Rochester Americans defenseman Casey Fitzgerald collected an assist and recorded five hits in his NHL debut for Buffalo on Dec. 17 at Pittsburgh. A total of 74 AHL players have now made their NHL debuts so far in 2021-22.
The AHL is off this weekend before resuming play Monday with a six-game slate: The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins start a home-and-home series with Hershey; the Bears have won 15 of the last 18 meetings between the rivals… Rochester welcomes Utica; the Amerks have handed the Comets (18-1-2-0) two of their three losses this season… Cleveland hosts rival Grand Rapids… In Central Division play, Rockford visits Iowa… Ontario goes to San Diego in a battle of Southern California rivals… Idle since Dec. 18, Chicago will try to set a new franchise record with a 13th consecutive win when they visit Rockford on New Year’s Eve; the Wolves (20-4-1-1) have dropped six games this season, three to the IceHogs.
“I try to focus on the here-and-now. The whole world right now [is in a difficult situation].”
— Hershey head coach Scott Allen on guiding his club through a challenging period.
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.