It takes years for many professional athletes to be acknowledged with an individual award, if at all.
Last week Curtis McKenzie of the Texas Stars was recognized just three months into his first professional season when he was named the American Hockey League Rookie of the Month for December.
"Winning Rookie of the Month kind of caught me off guard," McKenzie said. "It was a huge honor."
According to Stars coach Willie Desjardins, the 22-year-old forward's mentality makes him award-worthy just as much as his on-ice productivity.
"He's not a player that goes around saying how good he is," Desjardins said. "He's a humble guy that works hard at his game for the team. It's a great league and there are so many good players that to get recognized says a lot about a player.
"The thing that's really impressed me is his love of the game. It's not a job for him. He loves to play and he's always got a smile on his face."
McKenzie was selected by the Dallas Stars in the sixth round (No. 159) of the 2009 NHL Draft. Following two seasons of with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League, McKenzie spent four seasons at Miami University, where he made four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and reached the Frozen Four in 2010.
After finishing his senior season last spring, McKenzie signed an amateur tryout with Texas and made his professional debut at the end of last season. He played for the Stars at a prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., before being assigned to Texas prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
"At the start of the year I really didn't know what to expect from him," Desjardins said. "We lost Matt Fraser [traded to the Boston Bruins in July] and that left a big hole. We had to find somebody to step into that role. Curtis was the guy that we gave the first chance to and we never ended up going to anybody else because he did such a good job."
McKenzie has 31 points in 35 games with Texas this season and is one of four Stars players who rank in the top 10 in the league in scoring, along with forwards Travis Morin, Colton Sceviour and Chris Mueller. He plays on Texas’ top line alongside Morin and Sceviour.
"I think a lot of it had to do with opportunity," McKenzie said. "I felt I did well at [training] camp and in Traverse City and I was able to showcase myself to the staff here. When the season started I got the chance to play with Morin and Sceviour and we had a good connection right from the start, so I’ve been able to stick with them since then."
Desjardins, the 2013 AHL Coach of the Year, emphasized his team's top rookie scorer has earned his place among the team's top offensive talent.
"I think it comes down to making the most of your opportunities and we gave him his," Desjardins said. "When he went up [to the top line], he just took the spot and you've got to give him credit for that.
"He fits in well with Morin and Sceviour, and it's not like they've carried him. He's held his own and done his own job on that line and has made it successful by the things he does."
Morin, Sceviour and Mueller have been recalled by Dallas at various points this season. McKenzie realizes the value of playing alongside teammates with NHL experience.
"It's been huge just to be around those guys, who are elite players in this league," McKenzie said. "They've got a lot of skill but their intensity level is very high too. I see how hard they work both on and off the ice, and I think when you're around players like that their habits are going to wear off on you."
"They've had a lot of players come through Texas and get to Dallas," McKenzie said. "I think you have to look at it in a good way for myself as well with them going up and doing so well in Dallas. Because hopefully when I get an opportunity I'll have the same success."
Desjardins said he believes McKenzie will thrive when given the opportunity with Dallas, just as he has in Texas.
"I think he feels that, 'Yeah, I'm ready to take a shot at the NHL and see where I fit in,'" Desjardins said. "I don't think he's going to try to be something he's not. If he just keeps playing that way he'll get a chance to see how far he can step up with his game and that's what we'll see in the future."
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