? by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat
In a year filled with slipping back into familiar routines, Texas Stars captain Curtis McKenzie is reviving old routines in more ways than one.
After three years away from the organization, the former AHL Rookie of the Year has returned to the Stars and is ready to take the club back to the Calder Cup Finals.
The last time McKenzie donned a Texas sweater was Game 7 of the 2018 Finals. In a gutty series against Toronto — a series that no one thought the Stars had a chance at winning — the club came within one win of being the league champion. At that point, McKenzie looked outside Dallas for the first time in his career, heading to the Vegas Golden Knights organization and landing with the Chicago Wolves.
“At the time, it was the right decision, and I had some great, great times in Chicago,” said McKenzie. “It made the best sense for my career to continue in the NHL, but it didn’t go that way.”
Instead, McKenzie found himself in his third Calder Cup Finals in his career, this time with the Wolves.
“I had never seen a team as injured as we were in those playoffs. Guys stepped up and took on huge roles right before playoffs. With all the guys that were out and injured and called up, to get that much depth out of players that were coming up from the [ECHL] and the guys that weren’t always in the lineup, it was a pretty special team to be a part of.”
In 2020, McKenzie signed with the St. Louis Blues and thought he was destined for Springfield, Mass. His wife was due with their first child, so the McKenzies began researching hospitals and doctors near Boston.
But the start of the season was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in January the Thunderbirds opted out of play for 2020-21.
“So we joined Utica,” McKenzie said. “It was funny on the life side of it; it was definitely a big switch up on us.”
Looking to get closer to his family in Golden, B.C., and now with a young daughter, McKenzie looked west for his next deal.
“With the familiarity of being here before, Texas became a no-brainer, especially with the two-year option. Obviously, great teams and time here, and it was just an easy decision now having our daughter in our lives.”
McKenzie returns to Texas as one of the “old guys,” in his own words, but jokingly so. Some of his former teammates are even standing behind him on the bench. Former AHL MVP forward Travis Morin and AHL All-Star defenseman Maxime Fortunus are now assistant coaches for the Stars, tapping shoulders and drawing up plays on the same bench where they won the 2014 Calder Cup with a then-rookie McKenzie.
“I thought it would be a little weird when I signed here,” admitted McKenzie. “Those two guys had such great careers because of their brains for hockey. Now you can see that with coaching, too.”
Far from his rookie year now, McKenzie notes that he signed in Texas because of the ability to mentor such promising young talent as reigning Rookie of the Year Riley Damiani, who is on his line and power play unit. They’ve already combined on three goals in the young season.
McKenzie’s leadership style is different now in his own estimation. When he served as captain during the 2017-18 season, he led by example. Now, he wants to lead on the ice and through his experience and knowledge in between shifts and during practice.
“I try in-game and in practices [to share] little things that have helped other guys and helped me and see if that can be passed along.”
There are a million reasons why this stint with Texas feels different for McKenzie. The most notable are his wife, Lucia, and young daughter, Lily.
“Opening weekend, it’s pretty cool in warmups getting to see my daughter while skating around. Everything’s about her now, so it’s a lot of fun. You’re now playing for your family as well, not just your personal gains. You’ve got to consider all those options, so that’s why it was a no-brainer to come back to Texas.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.