McKenzie going Wild for Widnes

The Beatles’ song ‘The Long and Winding Road’ would be a fitting theme tune for Scott McKenzie’s career in British ice hockey.

Bitten by the hockey bug during Tony Hand’s time at Murrayfield Racers, McKenzie went on to enjoy prolific spells in the EPL with the likes of Chelmsford Chieftains and Romford Raiders, before heading back home in 2009 to join the Elite League’s Edinburgh Capitals.

He returned to the EPL in 2010 with Telford Tigers to start a five-year journey, briefly split by an unsuccessful switch to Manchester Phoenix, which ended with the forward winning the first trophies of his senior career as the Shropshire team clinched the league and cup double.

McKenzie says that Tigers’ financial situation when he first joined made life difficult.

“The first couple of years at Telford were a struggle, but I made a lot of good friends,” he said. “It was good to see the changes when Red Hockey came in – the whole club just took off. By December of their first season we started moving up the table, but it did feel a bit bizarre.

“Last season we knew everything had changed – when you’ve got Jonathan Weaver, Jason Silverthorn and Max Birbraer in the dressing room alongside you just know it’s different.

“I liked the professionalism they brought, but although they were better players the atmosphere didn’t change – it was still a group of lads trying to win hockey games. It was great to win trophies and they’re memories that won’t leave me.

“The ‘buying the league’ thing was a bit annoying, but if you look down the league there’s clubs like Guildford who’ve had outstanding teams for years now – it doesn’t mean they win it every year.

“It takes a great a coach and guys who want to play for each other. We brought in some great players, but we still had to gel.

“We won a lot of games by one goal or in shoot-outs, but beating Guildford every time we played them was probably the key. We had depth and that helped us through.”

After the season ended McKenzie considered stepping away from the sport to become a care worker, but he received an offer to lead the hockey programme at Widnes Wild and quickly accepted the position.

In addition to his role as Player/Coach for the NIHL2 North team, McKenzie leads the junior set-up and has also gained additional experience as bench coach for Manchester Storm in the Elite League. He admits the new role was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“I wanted to afford my own house and live more comfortably,” said McKenzie. “Sometimes the life of a hockey player isn’t as glamorous as it seems, especially during the summer when you can struggle to get by.

“My main focus now is on the juniors where I’m aiming to get as many youngsters as I can into our sport.

“With regards to the senior team, I’m fortunate that I’ve got some excellent backroom staff who take a lot of weight off my shoulders. I’ve got a lot more on my mind during the games, but they really help me.

“I still try and make smart plays and be defensively responsible, but my team looks for me to score so I have to try and do both, while making sure they’re responsible and accountable for what they’re doing.”

“I’ve enjoyed playing and working as bench coach for Storm, but Wild come first every time.”

Off the ice Widnes have been extremely pro-active building up their brand via social media and the local press. While acknowledging there’s always scope for improvement, McKenzie said the key to their success is simplicity.

“We try and make sure everyone is aware of the brand, but also aware of what you’ll get when you come here,” he said.

“Our match night announcer does a great job of getting the fans behind us and we have some great volunteers who support what we’re trying to do – they all do a fantastic job.

“Our aim this year is to win the league. We have to make sure we beat all the teams below us to give us ourselves a chance in our games against Deeside Dragons and Nottingham Lions.

“Our last game is against Deeside, so we’re looking to get to that game ready to play for a championship.

“The guys always give me everything. We have to remember it’s amateur level. No-one gets paid – they all have jobs and families. They might not make practice every week, but they all give everything they’ve got when they play for the team.

“We lost some players during the summer, but we only want guys who want to play for us. Talent only gets you so far – if you don’t have guys that are playing for you, you’ve got nothing.

“Everyone in that rooms buys in – there’s no backchat, no bad attitudes – it’s a really positive dressing room. If players have the opportunity to go elsewhere and get paid we can’t fight with that, so good for them.”

With a wealth of higher-level experience to call upon, McKenzie is inevitably viewed as Wild’s go-to player, but he says what he picked up during his time in the game will help shape his future as a coach.

“My past experiences haven’t changed me as a person. Everything I’ve learnt is from my previous coaches. I’ve played under guys like Doug Christiansen, Jesse Hammill and Tom Watkins, who’ve all given me the knowledge I need to give back to my players and the kids I coach now.

“In the long-term I’m looking to make Widnes sustainable. The junior club has to grow – ideally we want to get to 100 kids in the next five years.

“If we do that we can get them playing in leagues which they don’t have at the moment – that would be a massive boost for the club.

“For the senior team the realistic target is NIHL1. Maybe in time the EPL will be on the radar, but the problem we have in the North West is a real shortage of players able to play at that level.

“If we can fill the rink every week and put a good team on the ice then the club will grow. If we do get promoted there’s scope for installing more seats which would help with finances.

“Later this season we’ll be able to see how we match up against D1 teams, as we face Blackburn Hawks, Solway Sharks and Billingham Stars in the Northern Cup.

“It’s a big step up, but the games will give us the chance to generate some extra revenue and also give our fans the opportunity to see where we’re aiming to progress to.”

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