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Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018
Upcoming season will be the last for Derek MacKenzie
by Randy Pascal

Given a hockey resume that now includes more than 600 NHL games to his credit, it might be easy to forget that Sudbury native Derek MacKenzie did not exceed the 20-game plateau, in a single season, until he was close to celebrating his 30th birthday.

Yet despite his relatively late start in cracking the highest level of hockey on the globe, the Florida Panthers' captain is not about to extend his stay unnecesarily. Quite comfortable with his lot in life, MacKenzie enters the 2018-2019 season, the final year of his current contract with the Panthers, knowing full well the upcoming campaign will be his curtain call.

“I'm going back for one more season, and my last game will be at the end of next season,” said the 37 year-old former Sudbury Wolves' captain, displaying the typical candor that has always made him such an engaging interview. “I'm looking forward to what comes next. Certainly, there are some fortunate guys that get to play past 38. But I think if you would have asked me when I was 26, if I could play past 38, I probably would have laughed and thought it was great, but that it would never happen.”

With any luck at all, MacKenzie will be able to call it quits on the heels of one last trip to the playoffs. Florida failed to advance to the post-season, last year, despite finishing with 96 points, the first time in fifty years that a team has reached that level and not made the playoffs.

“The way our season played out was probably to be expected, given the changes that we had made,” said MacKenzie, spending his summer back home, just as he has done each and every year of his professional hockey career. “A new coach, new staff, a bit of a slow start – typically, that will bite you and it did. At the same time, it was fun to watch us kind of evolve.”

“At this point in my career, I'm there because I'm competitive and want to win, but at the same time, I'm starting to wind things down. It's fun to watch our young group grow. It's a great group of guys. I sometimes forget that I was one of the young guys, and I remember what the older guys meant to me, so hopefully, down the road, it's the same for them.”

“If you look back at the start of my career, the game has changed, usually for the best. I think there were still a lot of good qualities that were part of the game back then. I can take those good qualities and share those with these younger guys who may have never been around that type of game, just make them aware of it.”

In so many ways, MacKenzie is the consummate captain, capturing so many of the leadership qualities that hockey teams covet. “I come to work every day, working to be a professional,” he stated. “These guys are so young and they make a lot of money, and there's a lot of different pressures, reasons not to be at your best. If I can help get them focused and playing 82 games on the right page, that would be something I would take a lot of pride in my career.”

With previous NHL stops in Atlanta and Columbus, MacKenzie senses a very special appreciation for his time in the Sunshine State, finding a near ideal balance of hockey and personal and family satisfaction these past few years. “My kids have the opportunity to play sports all year round, which is something that's a little tougher to do up here,” he said.

“It's probably the furthest I have been away from family, but at the same time, it's probably the most I have seen family and friends, because everyone comes to Florida. I don't think there's more than five home games a year where there isn't someone from Sudbury at the game that I know.”

As for life beyond his playing days, it's long been assumed that MacKenzie would be a natural in the coaching ranks, his father (Ken) still the all-time coaching victories leader with the Wolves, his role with the Panthers akin to having an extra coach on the ice.

“People will ask me what I want to do next and I really don't know,” he began. “Until someone kid of presents me with a job and I can assess how much it's going to take me away from my kids and my wife, then I can better decide what I want to do next. I'm looking forward to hopefully doing something on the other side, such as coach.”

Little to no surprise that MacKenzie is not about to rule out a return to northern Ontario as host to the next stage of his hockey journey.

“My wife's from here, all of our family is from here,” he said. “I love Sudbury, my dad has been involved with the Wolves for I don't know how many years. I think it would be pretty neat to be part of the organization. If nothing else, it would be nice to spend some time together, whether it's on a bench or in a back room. That would be something that would make it pretty easy for me to leave Florida.”

Still, his affinity for his Florida home and the Panthers' organization is not easily concealed. “My hope is that Florida will make it pretty hard for me to leave as well,” said MacKenzie. “It's a year away, so I'm trying not to think about it too much, trying not to be too presumptuous. But if I had a magic wand or a genie, that might be something I would wish for, for sure.”

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