May 26th, 2024

McKenna committed to getting even better

By JAMES TUBB on May 1, 2024.

NEWS FILE PHOTO Medicine Hat Tigers forward Gavin McKenna looks for a shot after deking through two Red Deer Rebels in the third period of a 5-4 Game 1 loss to the Rebels on March 29 at Co-op Place.

Entering the Medicine Hat Tigers season, head coach Willie Desjardins wasn’t sure how Gavin McKenna would duplicate his first 20 games in the orange and black. A mere 97 points later and a franchise record broken, Desjardins says he duplicated it and more.

“He’s a pretty exceptional player, his numbers were unbelievable after Christmas,” Desjardins said. “It’s not very often you get a 16-year-old leaving your team, he was on the ice for like 45 per cent of our chances the second half of the year. So that’s a pretty high number, I have lots of respect for him.”

The Tigers’ young star provided some excitement while playing as an affiliate player in the 2022-23 season. He took that level and blew past it in his rookie season, with 34 goals and 97 points, breaking the Tigers franchise record for points by a 16-year-old and setting himself up for a convincing rookie-of-the-year case. He added another two goals and six points in their first-round series loss to the Red Deer Rebels.

It was a season Desjardins was amazed by but says McKenna, like the rest of the roster, will have to work to improve upon.

“He has to take big steps this summer if he’s gonna keep it up,” Desjardins said.

“He’s going to have to work at it because to be able to keep the pace he is at, it’s a pretty exceptional pace.”

As for what he’s looking for from McKenna as next steps, rise to the ultimate level.

“I think it’s winning championships, it’s leading a team that is a winner and being a leader on a team like that,” Desjardins said. “Setting the tone of what we have to do. And that’s young for a 17-year-old, I’ve never had a 17-year-old in that position before but he deserves it.

“What he’s done for our team, he deserves the label as a leader and I expect him to be one of the guys who takes that role next season.”

McKenna reflected on his own rookie season with a similar sense. He was proud of his ability to find another level in the second half after declaring his start to the season as not up to par. Heading into the offseason, beyond getting bigger and stronger, the Whitehorse product says he wants to become a better leader.

“We have a young group, so I just want to lead this team to few championships,” McKenna said. “You can learn a lot with leadership, obviously it takes time and it takes work, but I think that’s one thing people don’t really focus on as much. So that’s one thing I want to focus on as much as I can.”

McKenna has worn letters on his jersey before, captaining Team Yukon at the Canada Winter Games and serving as an assistant captain while playing for Canada at the U17s. Leadership goes beyond a letter sown onto a jersey, it also involves setting a bar for others to follow, something Desjardins says the young star has done.

“He’s getting more comfortable too with being a leader with the young guys, everybody respects him so much,” Desjardins said. “When you see how hard he works, you talk about all the great teams, their leaders are the hardest working guys, so that’s big.”

McKenna enjoyed his first full season as a Tiger and being in the community as a member of the orange and black. He’s lived in Medicine Hat for two seasons now, playing at the South Alberta Hockey Academy in 2022-23 while practising with the Tigers. He still gets a little shocked when he sees fans in the stands with his name on their back.

“Looking at the stands and seeing McKenna jerseys, it’s pretty surreal, never would I expect to see that so soon,” McKenna said. “It’s super cool all the attention, it keeps you grounded knowing you have all this spotlight on you, don’t want to get in trouble or anything. All the support the Tigers do giving back to the community, it’s super cool, it’s the least we can do for all the support we get from the fans. It’s unbelievable and I can’t wait for the years to come.”

He’s slowly getting used to the routine of consistent media requests while on the road that will only increase as he gets closer to his NHL draft year in 2026. McKenna says he’s learned a lot from players like Connor Bedard and Connor McDavid and how they fulfil media obligations.

“I try to learn as much as I can from them, they’re so humble,” McKenna said. “You can learn a lot from them and that’s what one day I hope to be.”

He will have another unique experience next season, as the rest of the Tigers’ 2007-born players start worrying about their NHL draft stock and where they will rank come the big day. For McKenna, that worry is still another full season away.

He tries not to think about his draft year and is amazed every time he remembers players he’s grown up with will get to live out their NHL draft dreams as soon as this next season. McKenna says he’s looking to take advantage of the extra year he has before he can hear his name called.

“Just build my game, there’s a little bit of pressure getting better every single year and I want to get obviously get better every single year and build off this year and the next year,” McKenna said.

His summer is headlined by playing for Canada at the U18s and will wrap up with some fishing and golf before he returns to Medicine Hat for his sophomore year in the WHL. When he does return, McKenna says he’s looking forward to getting back to work with a large returning core that he sees a lot of potential in.

“The sky’s the limit for us,” McKenna said. “If we have every single guy bought in next year, there’s no team that can stop us. We have so much depth and young talent, we can win a championship next year and for years to come.”

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