On July 3rd, the Winnipeg Jets announced that they had signed 1998-born forward Skyler McKenzie if the Portland Winterhawks to a three-year entry-level contract.
The five-foot-eight, 158 pound native of Sherwood Park, Alberta was drafted by the Jets in the seventh round of the 2017 draft, 198th overall.
His recollection of signing a piece of paper that signifies the start of his professional career is one filled with excitement.
“It was a whirlwind of events really. It was very exciting. I could not be more honored to sign that NHL contract. Your hard work goes in since you were a little kid and finally signing is a dream come true,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie had to be pleasantly shocked as he was a late draft pick and the Jets were not under any pressure to sign him. They had until next June before they faced a deadline to sign him, else he become a free agent.
“I was a little surprised. I had a good couple of seasons these last two years and I guess they felt that it was time to move on. My time in Portland has been amazing but I’m excited to move on with my career.”
McKenzie was passed over in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft after putting up eight goals and 17 assists for 25 points in 68 games.
“It was disappointing in my first year – not getting drafted but I just stuck with it and came in with a sense of confidence. I believed in myself and in my capabilities and it worked out for me in the end. I prided myself in trying to make sure I was the hardest working guy on the ice every day. It did pay off so I’m grateful for this opportunity and excited to move on.”
McKenzie did just that as he went from eight goals to 42 in 2016-17 and earned himself a call from the Jets on draft day.
His linemate that breakout year was center Cody Glass, who found himself getting selected sixth overall by the Vegas Golden Knights in the same draft. The two then teamed up last year, along with New York Islanders first round pick Kieffer bellows to be one of the most potent lines in the WHL. McKenzie had 47 goals and 40 assists for 87 points in 72 games.
He thinks that the individual successes that he, Bellows and Glass have collected, owe a little to what each of them did for each other last season.
“Those guys in Cody and Kieffer – they are both elite level hockey players. Those guys helped me evolve my game and I think I did the same for them,. All three of us playing together, I’m confident that we will do well at the next level and junior hockey helped us prepare for that next level.”
McKenzie got a taste of the AHL during the Calder Cup Playoffs last year and he stepped up in a big way – notching his first professional goal in the playoffs. He had help from two fellow former Winterhawks, Nic Petan and Chase De Leo.
“I came into the Winterhawks training camp at 15 and right away those two guys took the initiative to take me under their wing and it was the same in Manitoba. They would always help me with anything I needed so I looked up to those guys and getting a chance to play with them at the next level was absolutely amazing. They did it again there – they showed me the pro hockey and they walked me through. It was a great time to be there and scoring the goal was an unbelievable experience as well.”
Now that he is not coming back to Portland, McKenzie thinks back on his four years with the Winterhawks organization fondly.
“I don’t think it will ever sink in until I play my first pro hockey game in the regular season. My time in Portland if you were to sum it up in one word it would be – unbelievable. From the fans, to the statff to the teammates, I could not speak highly enough of the organization. With the guys that I played with , the coaches I played under. When we say that Portland fans are the best in the league, they really are. They have supported us since day one. I can’t speak highly enough of the organization. It’s going to be bittersweet in moving on.”