By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
When Adam McKenzie was flying around the Redwood Empire Ice Arena as a 5-year-old, he never imagined the heights he would reach in competitive ice hockey.
From those first days putting stick on puck, the one-time All-Empire baseball standout from St. Vincent has developed into one of the nation’s premier defenseman with the Air Force Academy.
A trip with the Falcons to the NCAA tournament this season would add to the highlights of a sterling amateur career.
“This is awesome. It’s obviously more than I imagined as a kid,” McKenzie said.
Captaining the Air Force squad — ranked 25th in NCAA Division I — is the latest of McKenzie’s honors, which includes being named an Academic All-American and the league’s Defenseman of the Year.
“He’s arguably our most valuable player. He wants to win,” said longtime Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “I’d take 20 more Adam McKenzies.”
Hockey absorbed McKenzie’s focus as an athlete when he first laced up a pair of skates for the mite league at Redwood Empire Ice Arena. Already a strong skater after weekend outings on the ice with his parents, McKenzie soon took to hockey’s basic skills and was captivated by the game’s speed.
“I loved wheeling around and going fast on skates,” McKenzie said. “I loved playing up there. The rink was great.”
After six years of playing increasingly competitive hockey for Redwood Empire teams, McKenzie wanted to test his abilities on the best teams in Northern California. McKenzie joined a Vacaville club for two years. The increase in competition helped McKenzie gain greater confidence.
His upward trajectory continued early in high school, when he was selected at a tryout for the San Jose Jr. Sharks club. What followed was a journey to the far corners of junior hockey.
“I wanted to keep playing at higher levels,” McKenzie said. So he did. The top Sharks teams are college prep squads.
Playing for the Sharks demanded sacrifices of time and money during a three-year stint.
During the six-month Sharks season, McKenzie and his parents, Tom and Cynthia, would make the 180-mile roundtrip trek three times a week to late-night practices at the rink where the San Jose Sharks train. Weekend tournaments followed across California and states in the West and Midwest.
What homework McKenzie could not complete after school was done on those long road trips.
The family even purchased a new van so they could watch movies and shows on DVD to pass the time on trips to and from the South Bay. “It was tough,” McKenzie said. “My parents always supported me. They just encouraged me.”
Not even the weeks of overlap with the beginning of prep baseball seasons slowed McKenzie. He had played both sports since the age of 5 and continued to excel at both.
A two-time All-Empire small schools baseball player, McKenzie helped lead St. Vincent to a North Coast Section top seed as a junior. St. Vincent won the NCS title the following season, when as the catcher he led the Mustangs in batting average, hits and runs scored.
“That was awesome. It was great to win my senior year,” he said. “Then I hung up the mitt and spikes.”
Also a top student, McKenzie graduated high in his St. Vincent class and was accepted to the Air Force Academy. But he delayed entering after discovering most major college players spend some seasons in juniors honing skills and learning the game’s systems and subtleties. The Air Force coach found found a spot for McKenzie on the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in the North American Hockey League.
The NAHL is the oldest USA Hockey-sanctioned junior league. McKenzie played two seasons, staying with a sponsoring family and traveling the league’s circuit of cities across a dozen states.
“It’s not easy. His commitment is great. He loves to play the game,” Serratore said.
Traveling was a grind at times — one road trip covered eight games in 10 days through Alaska — yet McKenzie thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing hockey full-time.
“I wanted to keep playing hockey. I’m glad I went the route I did,” he said. “Skating ability was kind of my main strength. The nuances of the game take awhile to develop.”
McKenzie’s talent and ability was evident. He won a pair of All-NAHL awards while playing juniors.
“He’s fast and he’s tough and really can skate. He can dance on those skates,” Serratore said. “He comes every day and gives it everything he has. He lays it on the line.”
McKenzie became an Air Force mainstay his first season with the Falcons. He made the Atlantic Hockey Association all-rookie team and helped Air Force win the league. The Falcons fell to Yale in the NCAA tournament.
Air Force won another AHA title the next season before losing in the tournament to Boston College, which went on to take the NCAA title. “That’s what you play for. Those were a lot of fun,” McKenzie said.
As a junior, McKenzie was selected AHA Defenseman of the Year, but the Falcons missed the playoffs.
“That’s been kind of a motivating factor. We’re set up to have a good run this year,” McKenzie said. “Just getting to the tournament at this point is not really enough.”
McKenzie has matched his success in the college game with accomplishments in the classroom. He carries a 3.89 grade point average as an aeronautical engineering major. McKenzie is set to graduate in May and will leave academy with the rank of Second Lieutenant.
From there he expects to enter graduate school. McKenzie earned one of those coveted spots based on a combination of grades, athletics, character and leadership.
“He’s a true, elite student-athlete,” Serratore said.
While not done with school, McKenzie could be completing his hockey career.
Training with a minor league team to stay sharp during graduate school is an option if McKenzie wants a shot at working up the professional hockey ranks.
But he also must serve a minimum two years of the five-year commitment required of Air Force graduates.
At age 23, McKenzie is prepared for the next stop in his well-traveled adventures.
“The opportunities and experiences I’ve had in hockey have definitely prepared me,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or email@example.com.
Sport: Hockey, baseball
High school: St. Vincent
College: Air Force
AIR FORCE ACADEMY
Hockey, senior, defenseman
Notable: Atlantic Hockey Association All-Rookie team 2010-11 … AHA defenseman of year 2012-13 … NCAA Division I 2013 Capital One Academic All-American … NCAA Preseason watch list 2013-14 … Falcons won AHA titles and reached the NCAA tournament in McKenzie’s freshman and sophomore seasons.
WENATCHEE (WASH.) WILD
Notable: North American Hockey League All-West Division Team … NAHL Robertson Cup All-Tournament Team … Wild finished second in NAHL in McKenzie’s first season and reached tournament in his second campaign.
ST. VINCENT HIGH SCHOOL
Notable: All-Empire baseball 2007, 2008 … All-Empire St. Vincent Athlete of the Year 2008 … St. Vincent won North Coast Section baseball title in McKenzie’s senior season, when as the catcher he led the Mustangs in batting average, hits and runs scored.
ROAD GAME: MCKENZIE’S TRAVELOGUE
Former St. Vincent star athlete and current Air Force senior Adam McKenzie has logged many miles pursuing his dream of playing amateur hockey at the highest levels:
Air Force Academy: The Falcons play in the Atlantic Hockey Association, one of six NCAA Division I leagues. The AHA has 12 colleges in its ranks located in five states — Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
North American Hockey League: Oldest USA Hockey sanctioned junior league. McKenzie played two seasons for the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild. The NAHL has 24 teams in both traditional and emerging hockey markets. Teams are located in Alaska, British Columbia, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.
San Jose Junior Sharks: College prep hockey program. McKenzie played three seasons while attending St. Vincent High School. The Sharks top teams play at state, regional and national levels. McKenzie played across California and in states including Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.