Three summers ago, South Carolina Stingrays defenseman Drew MacKenzie was looking for a vacation spot and was hoping to spend a few days at the beach.
MacKenzie bumped into one of his old college buddies, Patrick Cullity, who had just finished playing a season in South Carolina with the Stingrays. The two had played together at the University of Vermont.
Cullity told him to check out Folly Beach.
MacKenzie did some research and a few days later put a deposit down on a rental house at Folly. After a week in Charleston, he fell in love with the Lowcountry and mused about the possibility of playing for the Stingrays in the future.
That future has become a reality for MacKenzie.
“That week I came down here was one of the best vacations I’ve had,” MacKenzie said. “It’s such a beautiful city and the people here are so great. Patrick told me about this place and how much he’d enjoyed playing here, so I was thinking that this would be a great place to play. There are not many places where you can play hockey and go to the beach on the same day.”
This past summer, Stingrays head coach Spencer Carbery was looking for a puck-moving defenseman that could log a lot of ice time. When he began his search he kept hearing MacKenzie’s name. MacKenzie had split the two previous seasons between the American Hockey League’s Abbtosford Heat and the ECHL with Utah and Alaska. During his rookie season in the AHL, MacKenzie had worked closely with former Stingrays head coach Cail MacLean, who was an assistant coach with the Heat.
“The consensus I got from the coaches and people I talked with was the Drew was the best defenseman in the (ECHL) Western Conference,” Carbery said. “His name just kept popping up over and over. Then I talked to Cail and he couldn’t say enough good things about Drew, so I knew he was a guy we needed to look at.”
It didn’t hurt having childhood friend Jack Downing, who grew up with MacKenzie in New Canaan, Conn., already on the Stingrays roster. Like Cullity, the two had played together at Vermont.
“Honestly, it was a pretty easy decision to play here,” MacKenzie said. “I’d been here on vacation so I knew how great the town was. Then other guys who I knew around the league talked about what a great organization it is, so signing here was a no-brainer.”
What MacKenzie has brought to the ice is a calming presence for a very young blue line. At the beginning of the season, MacKenzie, who has two years of professional hockey under his belt, was the veteran among a group of inexperienced players.
“I think the hardest transition for guys in our league is for defensemen coming into their rookie seasons,” Carbery said. “Defensemen making that jump from college or juniors tend to take a little longer to develop. I needed someone back there who would help settle everyone down and Drew has been that guy for us.”
MacKenzie won a Kelly Cup title last year with the Alaska Aces and sees similarities in that team and the Stingrays.
“I think we’re building something here,” MacKenzie said. “I think we’re getting better and better with each game. We’re starting to create some momentum. I see how hard you have to work and the sacrifices you have to make to win a championship.”
It is MacKenzie’s versatility that has made so valuable for the Stingrays. MacKenzie has a goal and nine assists in 22 games with the Stingrays.
“He’s a puck-moving defenseman that can skate and play in every situation,” Carbery said. “At any level of hockey, those are the guys that every team looks for. He can play in any situation for us and he’s good in all three zones. Not many guys can do that at any level.”