June 16th, 2024

McKenna caps off rookie season in golden fashion

By James Tubb on May 18, 2024.

JUSSI NUKARI LEHTIKUVA VIA AP Gavin McKenna of Canada celebrates his 6-4 empty net goal and hat trick during the 2024 IIHF ice hockey U18 world championships final match between the United States and Canada in Espoo, Finland, May 5, 2024.

jtubb@medicinehatnews.com

An already spectacular rookie season for Gavin McKenna was capped off on a winning note.

The Medicine Hat Tigers forward had already earned himself a summer break after a 34-goal, 97-point debut season in the Western Hockey League. The 16-year-old instead added to his already growing hockey resumé, winning gold for Canada at the U18 men’s hockey championships, breaking a national record in the process and being tabbed the WHL’s rookie of the year.

McKenna’s 10 goals and 20 points in seven games snapped a Canadian record for points in a single U18 men’s tournament. Looking back on the experience as a whole, the Whitehorse product says it was a couple weeks he’ll never forget.

“It took me a little bit to take it all in, but it’s pretty cool to look back on that tournament,” McKenna said. “It’s tough coming from losing in the playoffs, it could be tough to go into a tournament like that. But I got to play with some good linemates, the whole team is a bunch of superstars so playing with those guys was pretty cool. Just being on such a good team, you know, it brings you momentum and it’s a tournament I’ll remember for a lifetime.”

McKenna and Canada trailed the United States 3-2 heading into the third period before they rattled off four goals, the young Tiger scoring to tie the game, getting an assist on the eventual game winner and finishing the game with an empty netter from his own end. He had three goals and the helper to clinch the gold, an effort that stood out but was no surprise to Tigers head coach Willie Desjardins.

“The encouraging thing for him is, when they got behind, he was a guy that they went to, and he’s the guy that responded, I think it’s always important,” Desjardins said. “There’s enough challenges, but it’s important to recognize inside yourself that the game was on the line, you were there and you played well.”

McKenna’s efforts brought even more attention to the young forward, drawing praise from NHL prospect experts like Craig Button TSN’s director of scouting and the play-by-play announcer for the tournament.

“If (Gavin McKenna) was in this year’s draft, he would go first or second. That’s not a criticism of Macklin Celebrini … that’s how good Gavin McKenna is,” Button said after McKenna tied the Canadian scoring record with a power play assist in a 4-0 win over Latvia on May 2.

McKenna says Finland, where the U18s were held, reminded him a lot of his home and was brought back to Whitehorse seeing snow during the first week they were there.

“In Europe, it’s probably the closest thing to Canada,” McKenna said. “You’re driving on the right side of the road, the temperature forecasts, but it was a super cool place. Our hotel was in a mall, so it was pretty cool to just walk around there and see all these new places.”

He found a Finnish candy store that satisfied his sweet tooth, with a variety of skeleton candies getting his seal of approval.

While he was winning gold with Canada and snacking on European candies, McKenna received his rookie of the year win from the WHL. It’s an honours he says came with a lot of help.

“I had lots of support the whole year, from teammates, staff, coaching and then my family as well, it’s a pretty cool thing,” McKenna said. “Obviously that whole year I was kind of working towards that and had that in the back of my head. So to accomplish that, it’s pretty cool feeling for sure.”

He says it checks off a box for him in what he wants to achieve while wearing the orange and black. His most desired box to check is still to come in winning a championship. McKenna says that is his sole focus with any other accolades that do come being a byproduct of that.

“The main focus every single year if you’re on a team that has that mindset, you really want to win a championship and all the awards will come along with it,” McKenna said.

Getting that gold medal and the WHL rookie of the year caps off a season that ended too early for McKenna and Tigers fans. He says those victories only add fuel to the already burning fire moving forward.

“It’s pretty nice to come off a win like that going into summer,” McKenna said. “But you know going into next year with the Tigers, we’re obviously all going to be really hungry. We want to win that championship really bad. So it’s motivation for next year, but to be able to play in a tournament like that and get the opportunity after you lose, it’s pretty cool and pretty amazing.”

Looking back at the season of his youngest star, Desjardins says he can’t put words to what McKenna has done and he prefers to leave it up to him.

“His actions do his own talking, he doesn’t need me to talk for him,” Desjardins said.

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