Derek MacKenzie put ink to paper, sat back and thought about his family.
Five years ago, he and wife, Sarah, did not really know where the road ahead was going to take them. Derek’s two-way contract with the Atlanta Thrashers was set to expire and the looming idea of unrestricted free agency was, at best, unsettling. He played most of the 2006-07 season with the Chicago Wolves – the Thrashers’ top farm club – and had a solid year, scoring 14 goals and 37 points in 52 games.
But in order to continue pursuing his NHL dream, the phone had to ring. He waited, and patience paid off.
Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson contacted MacKenzie in early July 2007 to see if he would be interested in a leadership role with the Syracuse Crunch, the team’s AHL affiliate at the time. MacKenzie, sensing there could be an opportunity in Columbus, accepted the Blue Jackets’ one-year, two-way contract offer and began the next chapter of his career.
Now, five years later, MacKenzie and his growing family call Columbus home. He signed a two-year contract extension this week, solidifying his place in the NHL and within the Blue Jackets locker room. He and Sarah have two children now, and they have embraced the idea of raising them in Columbus.
“I’ve dragged them around a lot, and have never been able to give them any kind of definite answer,” MacKenzie told BlueJackets.com. “My wife tries to look at things from the positive side, and say ‘don’t worry about us, just do what you do,’ but in the back of my head, I knew the contract I had could lead to things that are out of your hands.
“Signing this deal, I can look at my wife and kids and tell them we’re going back to Columbus and that’s where we’re going to be. This is where we want to be.”
The career trajectory for MacKenzie, who turns 31 next week, was not traditional by any means, and Howson acknowledged that. He was brought to the Blue Jackets as a 26-year-old AHL journeyman who never got an extended chance to cement himself in the NHL, but in working with Ken Hitchcock and later Scott Arniel, he earned the trust of his coaches and saw responsibility grow as a result.
He started as an energy player that could spot-shift higher in the lineup and play in the vicinity of 10 minutes per game. That amount grew as he started to take hold of the fourth-line center job, and before too long, MacKenzie was an anchor on the Blue Jackets penalty kill.
For as much as MacKenzie brought on and off the ice – and with what he can bring in the future – Howson knew this was a player he needed to have in the fold.
“He cares about the right things,” Howson told BlueJackets.com. “Hopefully now that he’s got a little more confidence in his place in the NHL, he can start to assume some more ownership and leadership in the team. We need lots of people to lead this team.
“He pushed his way on to our team. Once he pushed his way on, he proved he belongs in the NHL. He’s taken a different path, and usually you know these things a lot earlier in someone’s career, but Derek wouldn’t be denied. He’s earned it.”
MacKenzie knew all along he wanted to be in Columbus and get his family settled in the community, but he also struck up a close bond with assistant coach Dan Hinote, who was in charge of the Blue Jackets’ penalty kill following the mid-season coaching change. The two are close in age and with Hinote recently removed from playing in the NHL himself, they found a lot of common ground – including how they want to play while shorthanded.
The high-pressure penalty kill that the Blue Jackets used in the second half of the season fit MacKenzie perfectly, and he knew it right away.
“You have to do things that aren’t necessarily fun or that you get a whole lot of credit for, but in the NHL today, those are the teams at the top,” MacKenzie said. “That started with Dan and Richie. There may have been a time five years ago when teams used the penalty kill to spread guys’ ice time around, but Dan has made it clear we need 6-8 guys to commit on a nightly basis.
“It took a while to get everyone on the same page, but we had a new system in place and he did a great job of getting a total buy-in from the players. I wanted to continue to be part of that.”
The hiring of Todd Richards as head coach played a significant role in his decision to re-sign with the Blue Jackets, as well. MacKenzie echoed the words of many teammates: that Richards made the game enjoyable for them during a difficult stretch, and the even-handed approach was both appreciated and embraced by the club.
“You want to do your best for the guy next to you, and for the coach, too,” MacKenzie said. “He did a good job of keeping it simple for us and explaining the way things are, whether it’s good or bad. Plain and simple, he’s a guy you want to play for.
“Coaches have to get guys to buy in, and I think the end of the year was a great example of that. Todd’s a real smart guy; he has a great outlook on the offensive and defensive zone. It’s one thing to know the systems – a lot of guys out there know their stuff – but it’s another to be able to teach it to the guys and I think you’ve got a good mix there with him.”
MacKenzie would rather be playing than talking about offseason moves, but he’s going to take the summer months to rest and recharge for an important upcoming season. He and the family are hanging out in his hometown of Sudbury, Ontario until it’s time to get settled in central Ohio again – and that’s something his young children are starting to get excited about.
“It’s all worthwhile when I see how excited my three-year old daughter is,” MacKenzie said. “She’s already talking about going back and watching her dad play, and seeing some of her friends that she has met in Columbus.
“My wife has found friends, and my son is to the age now where he’s excited about going to the arena. We love Columbus because of the city and how passionate our fans are. We’ve lived in places like New York, Chicago, and Atlanta at different points in time, and Columbus has opened our eyes and we’re excited to get back there. It’s home.”
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