Derek MacKenzie has played hockey in a number of places from the minors to the majors.
When he landed with the Florida Panthers in 2014, he says he felt as if he found his home.
“The minute I got here,” he said, “and I mean that.”
Now 35, MacKenzie will enter his third season with the Panthers on Thursday as Florida kicks off its 2016-17 campaign against the New Jersey Devils at BB&T Center.
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For the first time in his NHL career, MacKenzie will skate onto the ice with a 'C' on his chest -- and the new captain of the Panthers couldn't be prouder.
“I don't know if it will get old, putting that on every night,'' MacKenzie said the day after being named the ninth captain in franchise history at a team ceremony in West Point, New York.
“For me, and I mean this, it could have gone to any of a handful of guys in the room. It was a fun summer, a good summer and a good chance for me to catch up with the guys and make sure we were all on the same page.''
MacKenzie's selection caught some in the hockey world by surprise.
With the Panthers having so much young talent they have built their franchise around, many felt someone like Aaron Ekblad, Sasha Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Nick Bjugstad or Jonathan Huberdeau could have been given the honor.
“We have some young guys," MacKenzie said, "who are going to wear it some day."
Consideration was also give to Florida's bigger-name veterans such as Jaromir Jagr (who says he doesn't want it) or even second-line winger Jussi Jokinen (who joins Ekblad as an alternate).
Goalie Roberto Luongo even famously served as captain of the Canucks a few years back.
“We have plenty of guys around here who are leaders," Jokinen said, "MacKenzie, myself, Ekblad, Jagr, Loungo; a lot of guys. Mac is a very deserving choice. He plays hard every night, is a very respected player and person around here. For me, to wear the 'A,' it's a big honor, for sure."
When MacKenzie came onto the ice for Saturday's preseason game wearing the captain's 'C' as well as the new captain patch on the sleeve unofficially announcing his captaincy, it was simply a formality around the Panthers.
“He's a defensive guy who blocks shots, does everything we ask and more,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "His teammates love him not only for his work ethic, but what he does for this team. He's a good leader, a character guy. We put a lot of thought into this, thought about one of the young guys becoming the next captain.
“We have young leaders, everyone see that. But maybe now isn't the right time for that. We just didn't want to push it on them right now."
When it comes to the Panthers, MacKenzie has been one of Florida's leaders both on and off the ice since his arrival as a free agent from Columbus in 2014.
In playing for the Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers and both of their minor league affiliates in Chicago and Syracuse over the years, MacKenzie has watched and learned what it takes to be a leader.
“I know, in the position I play, it may not be the most popular pick,'' he said. "I just hope it's what is best for our team.''
So, while MacKenzie being named captain of the Panthers may have come as a shock to many outsiders, it wasn't to those inside the organization.
“He's a hard-working guy who's just the perfect captain,'' Jagr said. "He cares about the team, knows his role on it. Every time he's on the ice, he gives you everything he has. He's a good example for everyone.''
MacKenzie will start the season on Florida's fourth line, a defensive position he takes pride in.
When the Panthers need to kill a penalty, MacKenzie will be on the ice. When they need to win a faceoff, he will be taking it.
And if a young player needs something, they know who to go to.
“Ever since I got here, this has been a great locker room," MacKenzie said. "It has been outstanding since Day 1. And I think they were truly excited for me. That means a lot.''
FLORIDA PANTHERS: UP NEXT
▪ Wednesday: Open practice at Panthers Ice Den, Coral Springs; 11 a.m.
▪ Thursday: Opening night v. New Jersey Devils, BB&T Center; 7:30 p.m. (FSFL)
▪ Saturday: Detroit Red Wings, BB&T Center; 7 p.m. (FSFL)