American Hockey League

McKenzie driven to chase another Calder Cup

📝 by Patrick Williams

Curtis McKenzie has represented many things to the Texas Stars through the years.

But he has been a winner above all else.

McKenzie won the Calder Cup with Texas in 2014, also capturing the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the American Hockey League’s outstanding rookie that season.

Nine years later, McKenzie is removed from his days as an NHL prospect. Like Max Fortunus and Travis Morin were back then, McKenzie is now being looked to as a mentor for today’s young would-be Dallas Stars. In 2013-14, Fortunus was Texas’s captain and Morin was AHL MVP; today, McKenzie wears the “C” while Fortunus and Morin serve as assistant coaches to head coach Neil Graham.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is McKenzie’s desire to chase the Calder Cup again. Texas advanced to the Central Division finals with a three-game sweep of Rockford, and will next meet Milwaukee beginning Friday night.

“Every game you win is just a little stepping stone,” said McKenzie, who has totaled 25 goals and 30 assists in 78 career Calder Cup Playoff outings. “It’s all that hard work you put in through the whole season, the lessons, and how much it comes together.”

But for now, Game 1 against the Admirals is all that matters. It’s another rule that he has taken through the years and one that he imparts to his younger teammates.

“You have to have a short memory whether it’s good or bad,” McKenzie explained. “It’s how much the momentum swings within games and from game to game. Whether you do something great or you do something poorly, you’ve just got to move on and be ready for your next shift.”

In addition to winning the Calder Cup as a rookie, McKenzie finished his first stint with the Stars in 2018, captaining the team all the way to a Game 7 of the Finals before falling to Toronto. He signed with the Vegas Golden Knights that summer and had a return appearance in the Finals with the Chicago Wolves in 2019.

After two seasons with the Vegas organization and one with the St. Louis Blues, McKenzie took a look at his options.

At 30 years old then and with a young family, a move back to Texas fit both on and off the ice. He signed a two-year AHL contract with Texas in 2021, returning to a place that has become home. And McKenzie continues to produce, logging his sixth AHL campaign with 20 or more goals in 2022-23 and missing just two games all season despite employing his time-tested physical game.

Texas went into the Calder Cup Playoffs in good shape. They finished the regular season with 92 points, outpacing Milwaukee to secure their first division title since that 2013-14 championship season. They went 9-3-2-0 over the final month, including back-to-back wins over a Coachella Valley team that finished second in the entire league, proving to themselves that they can compete with any of the AHL’s heavyweights.

“It’s a very driven group,” McKenzie said of this year’s Stars. “Guys care about their careers, the benefits of playing well, and playing well as a team. Guys understand that winning is very important.

“You look through our lineup, every player, and how much they’ve given to our team. Everyone’s found ways to contribute at such a high level for us. You don’t get that without a very driven group.”

When he skated with the Calder Cup in 2014, McKenzie was a 23-year-old rookie out of Miami University trying to run down his NHL ambitions with fellow Dallas prospects like Radek Faksa, Jamie Oleksiak, Brett Ritchie, Patrik Nemeth and Jack Campbell. Now he wants his young teammates to experience that same feeling.

“I just remember how much fun we had along the way,” McKenzie recounted. “I’m still great buddies with a lot of guys on that team, and that’s just the coolest part about it.

“Winning a championship bonds you.”

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