Meet the Rangers’ new hockey boss
Mike McKenzie has been preparing to be general manager his entire life
Waterloo Region Record
By Josh Brown
KITCHENER — Five years ago, Mike McKenzie was one of three assistant coaches with the Kitchener Rangers.
His duties included booking hotel rooms for road trips and ordering postgame meals for players to eat on the bus.
Now, he's calling the shots.
McKenzie, who turns 31 later this month, was named general manager of the Rangers last week.
But don't let his baby face fool you.
The Whitby native has been preparing for the job his entire life.
McKenzie was on skates before his third birthday and playing soon after.
As a kid he spent hours drawing pictures of hockey players, fervently filled his Panini sticker books, wielded a mean mini stick and couldn't get enough of Tom Cochrane's shinny classic "Big League."
Being the son of sports journalist — and current TSN hockey analyst — Bob McKenzie meant he had a backstage pass to the sport's elite events.
He stood in awe as he met some of his hockey heroes. But he also studied relationships and had a front-row seat to the behind-the-scenes action few people get to experience.
McKenzie was a fine player, too.
He was a small forward with an offensive touch that shook off the attention associated with being the son of a famous man to forge his own successful path that saw him ultimately reach the American Hockey League and get invited to two Carolina Hurricanes training camps.
And he did it with a healthy mix of confidence and humility.
As a player he was accessible to supporters, once saying: "When I was little my goal was to be a professional player. And I always made a promise to myself that if I made it that far I'd be generous with the fans and treat people with respect."
McKenzie lives in Breslau with his girlfriend Andi and now calls Waterloo Region home. Here is a glimpse into the Rangers' new hockey boss.
•I guess it all started at Duffins Creek in Ajax?
"I can barely remember it because I was so young (two years old). My aunt and uncle lived down by Lake Ontario in Ajax. There was kind of a little area where you could access the lake when it was frozen. My whole family would go down there and skate in the winter. My dad took me out and it wasn't good enough just to skate so he put a stick in my hand and threw a puck out there to make sure there was hockey. That was my first time on ice. It was more falling than skating.
•You dissed Gordie Howe when you were four years old?
"My dad took me and my mom to Boston when the Bruins were playing the Oilers in the Stanley Cup final (1990). We were at the hotel and Gordie Howe happened to be staying there. My dad introduced me to him. He was talking to him in the lobby after we got out of the elevator. I guess I was getting antsy to get to the rink because I wanted to go see hockey players. I kept asking my dad and was tugging on his arm. My dad said, 'Mike, this is one of the greatest hockey players that ever lived,' and I said, 'Yeah, that's fine, but I want to see some real hockey players.' Gordie was good about it and he just laughed."
"Yeah, I don't know why I liked him. I think my dad might have had a Canadiens jersey and I watched him play and he was good. I had a few different players growing up that I liked. As I got older, Paul Kariya was my favourite. I didn't cheer for teams so much, I cheered for players."
•What was it like to be one of the subjects in your dad's book, "Hockey Dad: True Confessions Of A (Crazy) Hockey Parent"?
"He asked my permission to use everything in there so I didn't get blindsided. It's different meeting people for the first time and they know just about every single detail of your life. It happened to me this year talking to a family of a kid in the (OHL) draft. I was at a hockey rink and I introduced myself and we talked a little bit, and five minutes into the conversation he said, 'By the way, I know a lot about you, I read your dad's book."
•What kind of a hockey dad was your father?
"He was great. He let me go to a lot of things and events when most other dads would say it's work. I tagged along everywhere he went. We were talking the other day about how it's funny that it has come full circle. I'm in charge of the OHL draft (for the Rangers) and he said when I was a couple of weeks old he took me to the OHL draft in person at the North York Centennial Arena back when they used to do it live. That was my first hockey event, basically. I've been to nine or 10 world juniors, a bunch of Memorial Cups and five or six Stanley Cup final games."
•With your dad at TSN and your younger brother Shawn a reporter at Sportsnet, where do you go for your sports news?
"I'm still loyal to TSN. It has been ingrained in me since I was little, so that's my first instinct."
•You, your dad and brother are consumed with hockey. What's your mother Cindy like, and what kind of an influence has she had on you?
"She's the glue. We have three guys in the family and she keeps everything together behind the scenes. She doesn't like being in the spotlight. She is selfless. She has given up a lot of time for me, my brother and my dad. Growing up, my dad travelled a lot so she was responsible for us and got us to places we needed to go. She's just as big of a support for me and my brother as my dad is, just in different ways."
•What is the hardest lesson you learned growing up in hockey?
"The highs and the lows — specifically, the lows. Hockey is a great game but there is a lot of heartbreak. Unless you're one of the high-end elite players in the world, then sooner or later you're going to go through some sort of adversity that you're going to have to deal with, whether it's a scoring slump, an injury, a coach that doesn't like you, a teammate you don't get along with, or not playing enough. There are so many things in hockey on the negative side that you really have to find ways to be mentally tough. For me, it was always managing those things and finding ways to get through them."
•You were drafted by the Saginaw Spirit (seventh round, 2002) but chose to play for St. Lawrence University in the NCAA. How come?
"For me it was an easy choice. I wasn't in that top echelon of players for my age. I was physically immature and weak. I wasn't the quickest skater. I knew to be successful I couldn't go and play at that level at that age. I needed time to develop. I was a bit of a late bloomer. I think if you're an elite player that this (OHL) is the best league. I just wasn't good enough. It was awesome at St. Lawrence. I made a lot of good friends that I still keep in touch with."
"He was the goalie on my first AHL goal. I was playing in Florida (ECHL) and got called up to the Charlotte Checkers. I was there for a few weeks and played a handful of games, fourth-line minutes. Another guy (Cedric McNicoll) who was with me in Florida was also called up and he made a great play. He found me cross-crease backdoor. It was just automatic and I banged it in. I thought it was cool because it was the year after the Philadelphia Flyers had lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup finals. They had goaltending issues in Philly, and Michael Leighton ended up being their starting goalie. I always get to say I beat a guy that was in the Stanley Cup finals."
"I was No. 12 (in the AHL) but No. 11 is my favourite number. I got 12 because 11 wasn't available. Sometimes when you're a pro they just give you whatever. I just took it and said, "Thank you sir."
•What does the tattoo on your left shoulder/bicep stand for?
"There is a Canadian leaf. I'm pretty proud to be Canadian. There are hockey sticks in there and my date of birth. It's just a mix of the hockey-Canada type thing."
•You like to read about and study other coaches and general managers. Who is one from another sport that you admire?
"Bill Belichick (coach of the NFL's New England Patriots). He's just so detailed. It would be easy for a team and a guy like that to say we've won so many times so this year is not a big deal, but he always pushes for more. He outsmarts everyone he coaches against."
•You've scouted north of 380 hockey games this season alone. What do you look for when you're scouting players?
"When you're first watching you look for the obvious things — can he skate, does he have skill, is he big, is he strong on his skates. Then I dive into the little things. There is such little separation between average, good, great and elite players. I really try to watch closely for little things … like are their eyes up, where their stick is, what do they do with the puck, and did they make the right play. There are guys you see just once and you know. Other players you need to see 15 times to figure out."
•The Rangers haven't been to an OHL final since 2008. What is your plan to get the team back there?
"I think just stay the course. I understand that Rangers supporters are starving for playoff success and a top team. We also have to stay true to what we believe in here and make sure we're doing the right things. There is definitely a time and place for trades. But I really don't believe you can build a team strictly through just trading and manufacture a team. I think there needs to be pieces in place. Drafting players is free. If you make the right choices in the first three rounds, you're going to have a really good team. On top of that you take some educated risks on some American players and you can recruit them. Once you're ready, you can look at making trades to complement those guys."
•When you look at next season's Rangers squad, what do you see?
"I see younger players that are going to be very good and some 19-year-olds that are already very good. I think we have a nice mix. I see a good team that can be a great team with the right amount of spices thrown in there. I think we can continue to add to those good players to help improve the team but also make those guys better by putting additional good players around them."
•What is your ultimate goal in hockey?
"When I was young I knew I was going to be involved in hockey. I didn't know what it would be, whether it was coaching, managing, an agent or reporting. This was kind of a goal when I decided the management side was for me. Being a general manager is something I've always thought of. Maybe the NHL is in the cards later but right now I'm happy with where I am, and I have work to do here in Kitchener."email@example.com