Wednesday, July 2, 2014

This is Just a Tribute

Standing in line for my press pass at the media luncheon prior to the 2011-12 NHL season is one of the strongest memories I have of my experience as a hockey writer. Most of the banners on the walls bore the images of players no longer with the team, otherwise Nationwide Arena appeared the same as it does today. The general feeling about the team was optimistic and exciting. General Manager Scott Howson had acquired two big new pieces to play alongside Rick Nash. Free agent defenseman James Wisniewski was a generally unknown player among Blue Jackets fans having spent most of his career in the Eastern Conference. What fans did know is they were now paying him a king's ransom to employ his cannon of a slapshot. The other addition was center Jeff Carter, acquired in a now infamous trade with the Philadelphia Flyers to be the center Rick Nash never had. New Head Coach Scott Arniel was an ex-NHL player who had success as a coach in the AHL. Fans, even the stalwart Howson detractors, seemed to be optimistic that perhaps this team could make it back to the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. As both a fan and the owner of a brand new press pass I was especially hopeful that I could be covering a team on the rise. I remember sitting at the Q&A session for Howson and Arniel thinking these could be the men responsible for raising the franchise out of also-ran status.

Obviously that did not happen. Fans were quick to look past the fact Carter was a shooter not a playmaker, and that he obviously did not want to be in Columbus. If you have to send a contingent of players to go drag your new acquisition out of hiding that's a truly worrisome sign. Wisniewski is a hell of a power play quarterback, but his defensive lapses have probably left a permanent red mark on some fans foreheads. Scott Arniel's disastrous tenure was highlighted by his implosion at a press conference. Asked a simple question by Lori Schmidt about the team's struggles in 4-on-4 play Arniel seemed flustered and had no answers, instead lashing out at Schmidt and other reporters accusing them of piling on. Scott Howson did yeoman's work fixing the awful state of the roster and organizational depth Doug MacLean had left behind. Unfortunately for every good move Howson made, he made just as many that didn't work out and eventually the bad moves caught up with him.

I spent many nights in the Nationwide Arena dressing room listening to players toe the line and speak in platitudes about playing hard and just not getting breaks. I had never spent time around professional athletes, and after getting over the initial fan reaction it actually became tiresome. Most of the players would answer a couple questions with rote answers then go off to shower, especially after losses. Some players would rarely grace the media with their presence. There were exceptions though. James Wisniewski loved to talk and was a great quote, Cam Atkinson was very approachable and would answer lots of questions. The one player that always stood out to me though, and unfortunately wasn't always available was Derek MacKenzie. I specifically remember after a particularly tough loss. MacKenzie was one of the few players made available for us to speak to. If you've never interviewed a player after a loss, you learn quickly to ask a few questions and let them be on their way. MacKenzie though was different, he would stand there as long as people were asking questions, and he would answer each one thoughtfully and honestly. He would look at you as he spoke to you, and you felt that he cared that you were there. I could tell he was gutted by the loss, you could see it in his face, yet he stood there answering questions for a solid fifteen minutes. It was truly impressive to me as a new reporter to see a player so approachable and accommodating. After speaking to him a few times I started paying more attention to his play on the ice. I quickly began to appreciate MacKenzie's game as much as the person. Tenacious, good defensively, good penalty killer, great hockey sense, and a demon in the faceoff circle. MacKenzie was a fourth liner, but he always seemed to make smart plays and do the little things right in his 11 minutes a night. 

I understand why the Blue Jackets are moving on from MacKenzie. He's on the wrong side of 30 for a professional athlete, probably wanted more term than Jarmo Kekalainen was looking to give out,  and there are prospects hungry for playing time. Perhaps MacKenzie wanted out and the thought of playing in sunny Florida and not paying state taxes was appealing, but I doubt it, MacKenzie won't enjoy the losing. Columbus is not just losing MacKenzie the player, they are losing MacKenzie the professional. His contributions on the ice will be missed but his leadership and professionalism will be missed more. I hope there is another Derek MacKenzie in the glut of prospects filling out in Springfield or juniors, but I doubt it.

2 comments:

  1. I dislike this move a lot. A LOT. D-Mac's play was exactly the style this club professes to desire, and I think we'll miss him more than management seems to think. He's versatile. Hard working. Good on face-offs. A solid penalty killer. Good checker. Good in the room and in the community. Tropp is no D-Mac, regardless of age. Boll can't do what MacKenzie can. Letestu is solid, but plays a different game. This move will hurt.

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  2. I really REALLY REALLY!!! hope fans aren't looking at this move in, say Dec. or Jan. and saying "if only MacKenzie was back there" or over there or checking HIM . For his time on ice, he could always be counted on to give 100% of what he had that night. Of the comings and goings over the last couple of seasons the 2 Derricks are the players I most regret losing, and that's Dorse not Brass. We lived another day losing D.D. because D Mac was still there. I hope the brain trust doesn't regret this one getting away

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