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Wednesday, Mar. 20, 2019
Derek MacKenzie enjoys breakthrough season
by Randy Pascal

The world of professional sport is ripe with "feel good stories", but few hit closer to home last year than the season that was enjoyed by former Sudbury Wolves' captain Derek MacKenzie.

Over the span of a 10 year career in professional hockey, MacKenzie had dressed for but 64 total NHL outings prior to the 2010-2011 campaign.

By contrast, his resume in the American Hockey League (AHL) had expanded to include more than 500 games in the minors. His patience was rewarded over the past twelve months as MacKenzie not only established a new high-water mark in games played, suiting up in 63 encounters for the Columbus Blue Jackets, but also set career highs in goals (9) and assists (14) while leading his team in plus-minus.

By every standard imagineable, this was his best year. By no small coincidence, MacKenzie's breakthrough performance coincided with the arrival of new head coach Scott Arniel.

"Deep down somewhere, I think he's a guy who knows what it's like to be in the minors, to be battling every game to try and get to that next level," MacKenzie said before a recent workout at Raymond Plourde Arena.

"If it wasn't for him, we might not be talking about the year I had in Columbus." And though he acknowledges that his game likely hasn't changed that much in recent years, MacKenzie looks back philosophically on his early ventures into the world of the game's greatest players.

"When I was drafted and first came into the league, I certainly wasn't ready to play at the NHL level," MacKenzie said. "I wasn't strong enough, fast enough, good enough."

It is an assertion that few OHLers who achieve the kind of success that MacKenzie enjoyed in his junior days, donning the Team Canada jersey and representing the country at the World Jr Hockey Championships, are likely to make in their early twenties.

"Maybe in my own mind, I felt like I was a pretty well-rounded player when I played junior, but there's so much to learn," he said. "Going into the league (AHL), I was a power play guy. Three or four years later, I'm a penalty kill guy."

"It was just a matter of adjusting and finding my niche," MacKenzie said. "I think the key is realizing that I enjoy doing this and this is something I've got to get really good at, and having the confidence to do it night in and night out."

To be sure, there were moments of self-doubt. "When you consistently don't make hockey teams coming out of training camp, you start to second guess what you're not doing right."

Validation came in spades last year. With limited ice time, MacKenzie finished fourth in hits for the Blue Jackets. His determination and tenacity earned the Columbus forward the team's nomination for the Bill Masterton Award.

But the intensively competitive local product still fell short of his one true goal. "For me, with the kind of pressure that we're under there to make the playoffs, if I could have had all those stats and they helped lead us to a playoff berth for our team, that would have been what I would have considered as the most important thing," MacKenzie said.

Now married with a two year old daughter and four month old son at home, MacKenzie enjoys a different perspective from the carefree introduction to the professional ranks that would see him win a Calder Trophy as a rookie with the Chicago Wolves.

"You always hear that family comes first and it really does," he said. "Little things like leaving for training camp, which used to not be such a big deal, now becomes a matter of shipping up everybody and moving them down, because it's just too long to be away from them. They get so big so quick."

With the summer acquisition of first line centre Jeff Carter and the continued improvement of young netminder Steve Mason, MacKenzie is hopeful the Blue Jackets can reach the final sixteen, though he fully understands the arduous road that lies ahead.

"The first 20 games last year, we were good," he said. "It's kind of the next 40 after that where teams get lost in the shuffle and we struggled. Hopefully come the last 15 games down the stretch this year, we're going to be in a great position rather than in a position where we know that we're out on April 6th."

Through all the ups and downs of the past decade, MacKenzie has never lost touched with his roots, nor his appreciation for how blessed he is.

Constantly giving back to his community, MacKenzie recently undertook the challenge of helping organize a Hats for Heroes campaign in Sudbury, with a golf tournament aimed to raise funds for children on the local cancer ward.

His is a feel good story, all the way around.

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