When Derek MacKenzie was named the captain of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, the start was less than optimal.
October 15, 2005 was supposed to be a day of celebration for the team and its new leader, with the reigning Western Conference champs raising a banner to mark the achievement in their first home game of the season.
Just moments into the contest against the Manitoba Moose, MacKenzie rushed into the offensive zone and crashed into the net. X-rays later confirmed that he’d broken his ankle. He eventually recovered and returned in January of 2006, scoring a hat trick in his first game back and leading the Wolves to a 7-3 win over the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights, the 500th in franchise history.
Over ten years later, MacKenzie is once again assuming a captaincy role, just as he’s done in the minors and in juniors with Sudbury of the OHL, though the stage is quite bigger this time around. He’ll be at the helm for a young, burgeoning Florida Panthers team that made serious waves last season and is expected to continue trending upward.
“It wasn’t something that just happened overnight,” he says. “But, until it happened, it didn’t seem real.”
The move, announced on October 9, was met with a fair amount of skepticism, even by MacKenzie himself, but the 35-year-old center with over 450 NHL games over 13 seasons in his career oozes calmness and his locker room “model citizen” demeanor is immediately apparent.
“There’s always been a real good line of communication between [head coach] Gerard Gallant and the team,” he says. “You know exactly what he wants and he knows how to get things out of us. This was no different. He wanted to make sure that I was comfortable and that things were all in line. I just wanted to make sure that everyone was thinking the same thing. We have such a good locker room that the last thing I’d want to do is ruffle 20 feathers.”
Easily the most decorated Panther and a former captain with the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers, nobody would’ve second-guessed the organization for choosing Jaromir Jagr. MacKenzie sought the approval of all his teammates, but it was ultimately Jagr’s blessing, and endorsements from other veterans on the team, that convinced him to accept the captaincy.
“Jaromir Jagr’s gonna be a Hall-of-Famer, and [Roberto Luongo] will be right behind him,” he says. “They were both super supportive and felt like it should be me. Obviously, I had my doubts, but when you have a couple of guys like that in the room backing you up, you certainly feel like you can do the job.”
In an era that has spawned younger captains and seemingly breaks NHL captaincy age records on an annual basis, MacKenzie is a unique entry in the genre, something he admits to.
“If you look around the league, obviously the more popular pick is to go with your younger, best player on the team in a lot of cases, and I’m certainly neither of those,” says MacKenzie. “Every situation is different.”
That’s not to say the Cats won’t pass the torch to an Aaron Ekblad or Aleksander Barkov down the road, which likely renders MacKenzie a stopgap, but even still, he’s thrilled to be aboard.
“One of our young guys is going to wear the ‘C’ for a long time,” he says. “I’m just honored to be a part of that process, and when that time comes for them, I’m gonna be just as excited.”
That abundance of youth is precisely why MacKenzie was chosen for the role. He’ll never raise eyebrows by scoring goals or racking up points—he has career totals of 42 and 95—but he makes up for it on the ice with quiet but effective sensibility in all three zones.
He also knows what it’s like to bounce back and forth between the minors and the NHL, something many younger players experience early in their careers. The benefits of having a veteran to lean on and look up to in the locker room are easily discernable.
MacKenzie understands his role, but he also wants his teammates to know that they’re just as much a part of this as he is.
“The guys are what drive our team and, if it wasn’t for them, I know I wouldn’t be here,” he insists. “If there’s little things along the way I can help with, that’s great. But, in my opinion, there’s not a whole lot that’s gonna change.”
Some captains embrace the cliché-driven stereotypes; delivering movie-esque motivational speeches, always maintaining a serious facial expression and so on. Others are quieter, preferring to lead by example in the rink. MacKenzie says he’s not really sure which of these two categories he falls into, but also that he’s not particularly worried about it.
“We have a lot of vocal guys in the room, and we all take turns depending on the situation,” he says. “With the group of guys that we have, it doesn’t seem to be a difficult task. On a day-to-day basis, these guys are constant professionals.”
This is a Panthers team that has not forgotten how the 2015-16 season ended. A last-minute tally by New York Islanders superstar John Tavares tied Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, who then sent the Cats packing with a double-overtime score.
“We were certainly disappointed,” says MacKenzie. “With the mentality of the guys in the room, and the fact that these young guys wanna prove they’re the best, we were all disappointed.”
Emerging from that cloud of disappointment, MacKenzie now sees opportunity.
“If you look at where we were this time two seasons ago, we had six free agents come in, we weren’t sure what kind of team we were,” he says. “In some ways, I think we’ve gotten to where we got last year quicker than most people expected. We all understand it’s not easy to replicate what we did, but our goal is to get ourselves back to the point where we were last year and then hopefully draw on our experiences to take it to the next step.”
MacKenzie’s first days on the job were not easy. On Oct. 6, Florida learned it would start the season without forward Nick Bjugstad, sidelined for four weeks with a broken hand, and then days later, the Panthers learned they’d be without budding star forward Jonathan Huberdeau for at least 3-4 months due to an ankle injury. He didn’t mince words when asked how this would affect the team.
“I think all the guys understand that losing [Huberdeau] for that amount of time and losing Nick Bjugstad to start the season, those are two huge blows to our team,” he says. “I mean, those two guys are premiere players in this league, guys that we rely on heavily.”
Despite the overwhelming news, MacKenzie immediately shifted his focus, looking straight ahead.
“Management and ownership have done a great job adding depth to our organization, young talent and guys knocking on the door,” he explains. “In a lot of ways, it was worst-case-scenario going through training camp and having those two guys injured the way they were, but we’ve gotta move forward here and fill some of those holes with young talent while we can, and keep our fingers crossed that these guys will come back when they can better than ever when they do.”
Even without Huberdeau and Bjugstad, the Panthers are poised to compete for a playoff spot and, potentially, another Atlantic Division crown.
“We’re a fast team, there’s no doubt about that,” MacKenzie says. “When you look at our back end, you’ve got six or seven guys that can move the puck, and move it fast and move it efficiently. And then we added some offense up front, too.”
That having been said, MacKenzie knows what has become an all-too-familiar reality for the Panthers and many teams over the years: potential does not always result in performance.
“I think you can look and say we’re better than we were last year on paper but, at the end of the day, it starts now,” he iterates. “We were a good team last year and I think we’re going to be again this year. We just now have to find a way to get used to each other and play fast and play hard. It’s a great group of guys, we should be fine.”