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Curtis McKenzie brings the grit

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

Dallas Stars prospect Curtis McKenzie is a guy who doesn’t mind dropping the gloves and mixing things up when it’s necessary. But he didn’t get a chance to do that during his four years of college hockey, where there are stiff penalties for fighting. So, once he started playing professionally, it didn’t take him long to get into the swing of things.

In his first pro game with the Texas Stars, McKenzie squared off in a spirited bout with Kyle Hagel of the Hamilton Bulldogs. McKenzie believed it was his first scrap since his junior days with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League.

“I never found a taker in college hockey,” McKenzie said. “It’s been quite a while, so I was looking to get it out of the way. It’s an aspect of my game that I think I need to do when the times arise.”

That ability to drop the gloves when necessary is one reason that McKenzie believes that the pro game is more suited to the style he likes to play.

“That’s why I was excited to move on from college,” said McKenzie. “The four years were great. I improved my skills and my skating while I was there, and I learned a lot. Turning pro, I feel it’s more tailored to my style of game.”

The Dallas Stars don’t disagree.

“He’s gritty and he likes to get involved. He’ll probably be able to do that more at the pro level than he did in college,” said Dallas Stars Assistant General Manager Les Jackson. “He’s a kid that works, is really competitive and is engaged physically. He endears himself to his teammates because he is a tough kid, and he plays for the team.”

The 6-foot-2, 209-pound McKenzie, Dallas’ sixth round pick (159th overall) in the 2009 NHL Draft, is one of more than 30 prospects taking part in the Stars’ development camp in Frisco over the next week.

There’s nothing fancy about McKenzie’s game. He has size, likes to play a physical game and enjoys getting under the skin of his opponents.

“I’m a guy that just works hard and likes to go to the corners and the dirty areas,” said McKenzie. “I try to play as hard as I can every night and make life difficult for the other team.”

The 22-year-old Golden, British Columbia native joined the Texas Stars late last season after a four-year career at Miami University in Ohio, where he had 80 points (29 goals, 51 assists) in 158 career games and helped Miami win two CCHA titles and earn four trips to the NCAA tournament. He ranks fourth in Miami history with 285 career penalty minutes.

Last season, in his senior campaign, he scored a career-high 11 goals in 39 games. His 24 points were his best since he put up 27 (6 goals, 21 assists) in his freshman season.

“I thought I had a good season, definitely a lot better than the two before,” McKenzie said. “I thought I ended well. We had a strong team. We ended up winning our league, got a ring out of it again this year. We went to the NCAA tournament again. I think we got there all four years, so that is pretty special.”

There was the education aspect as well for McKenzie, who received his degree in business management.

“You get a little more worldly,” he said. “It’s a nice life accomplishment and a nice life experience to get while at college. It was a great four years.”

After his college playing days ended, McKenzie signed an amateur tryout contract with the Texas Stars. He played five regular season games, picking up one assist and two fighting majors. He also played in two Calder Cup Playoff games, registering no points.

“He has an edge to his game, he plays hard and he’s a good skater,” said Texas Coach Willie Desjardins. “He loves to get in the face of other guys and get them upset, and he doesn’t back off. You need those guys. I think he’s going to get better as time goes on.”

Overall, the brief AHL experience was a good taste of what it will be like as a full-time pro and what the adjustment to the pro game will entail.

“There was a lot more structure and probably every level you go up it’s going to be that way. You have to think the game a lot more is what I’ve found, it’s not just running around everywhere,” McKenzie said. “It was definitely a big turnover from college hockey, a lot faster, higher tempo and smarter. Everybody is bigger and stronger. It was a nice transition coming in, a lot of fun.”

Dallas signed McKenzie to a two-year entry-level contract last April. This coming season will be his first full one as a professional and he’s expected to play with the Texas Stars of the AHL. The hope is that the short time he spent in Austin last spring will pay dividends this fall.

“I think that short period in Austin last year will help him. He’ll know what to expect coming in during the fall, and that will be good for him,” said Jackson. “The coaching staff liked him. He did all the things you have do coming in as a young guy to impress the coaches. That set him up for next fall. I think the American League will be a good challenge for him, and I think he’ll meet it.”

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