When the Kelowna Rockets announced earlier this month that an injury had ended Mitchell Chapman’s season, MacKenzie Johnston suddenly became the senior member of the Western Hockey League’s defensive corps.
For someone who feels like his junior career just began yesterday, Johnston’s new role has been an eye-opener—albeit a pleasant one.
“Coming into the league, you never look at being one of the ‘old’ guys, you never see it coming, and then ‘boom’, it hits you,” said Johnston, 19, a native of Swift Current, Sask. “Knowing Mitchell was gone was tough, and I knew I’d have to step it up. At first I felt some pressure, but then knowing how good our back end is, I didn’t have to take it all on myself. I’m just playing my game and really having a lot of fun right now.”
Considering how his Rockets are ripping up the WHL this season, it’s no secret why Johnston is enjoying playing the game like never before.
But the road to today hasn’t always been a smooth one for the 6-foot-2, 196-pound Johnston, who was listed by the Rockets during the 2008-09 season.
Johnston credits the coaching staff for helping him refine his game.
“As a 16-year-old I think I made some strides, but in my 17-year-old season I had some rough patches, then I kind of struggled at the start of last year, too,” Johnston said. “But the team stuck with me, the coaches really helped me worked through things and now I’m feeling a lot more comfortable about my game. It’s tough to know where you’re going to be when you come in at 16, but looking back I feel like I’m in a pretty good spot.”
Like many of his teammates, Johnston is enjoying a career season, with three goals, 16 points and a plus-26 rating in 30 games.
Since returning from a lower body injury on Dec. 27, Johnston is an eye-popping plus-22 in 15 games.
Rockets’ assistant coach Dan Lambert said Johnston’s game has come a long way since those first tentative shifts in the 2009-10 season.
“He has matured into a really steady defenseman for us,” said Lambert. “He plays key minutes for us against the other team’s top lines, and he uses his stick really well defensively. He’s not the most physical guy, but his style works well for him and he’s very effective with it.”
While Johnston may not provide the same flair or offensive skills as some of his younger teammates—such as Damon Severson, Madison Bowey and Jesse Lees—Lambert said the Saskatchewan product sets a strong example with his work ethic and leadership skills.
“Over the years, MacKenzie has gotten a lot stronger, he works hard off the ice and he’s in great shape,” Lambert added. “Because of his experience, our guys really do look up to him. The organization has stuck with MacKenzie and it’s really paid off in this situation. He’s turned into a very solid player.”
Aside from his personal growth as a player, Johnston is, not surprisingly, thrilled with his team’s incredible and unexpected run of success over the last three months of the WHL season.
And while it’s important to appreciate their current prosperity, Johnston said the club’s day-to-day focus needs to remain on the straight and narrow.
“It’s been an amazing run, it’s not something I think anyone expected,” he said. “But we can’t get too caught up in it, we need to make sure we’re working the same everyday, coming to the rink and prepare the best we can. No one is going to hand it to us, so every time we win at home, it’s kind of refreshed in our minds. As a team, we feel like the bond is getting stronger and stronger and we want to keep this going.”
Rocket Shots…The Rockets will look for their club record 22nd consecutive home ice victory Thursday when the Victoria Royals visit Prospera Place. Face off is 7:05 p.m.…The franchise record for consecutive wins at home is 24, set by the 1992-93 Tacoma Rockets…Kelowna goaltender Jordon Cooke has won a team record 20 straight games.