By Glae Thien
Special ToThe San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO – Aaron McKenzie watched the Gulls of the old International Hockey League as a youth with a certain wonder of what it would be like to be a pro player, particularly a goaltender.
While he grew up playing roller hockey, McKenzie looked forward to competing on ice. Three years ago, he put his ambitions on the fast track when he switched almost exclusively to ice hockey while competing in a San Diego youth program.
Today, his vision has become reality – and with his hometown team no less.
McKenzie joined the current version of the Gulls, now playing in the ECHL, just before the start of the season as the first San Diego native on the club since its rebirth in 1995-96.
“I dreamed about playing in the NHL,” said McKenzie, 21, an alum of Monte Vista High. “That’s kind of a far shot right now. There is a lot of stuff that I need to work on, to learn about ice hockey.”
Just making it this far might be considered a long shot. Over the last two years of junior hockey in Canada, McKenzie recalls receiving plenty of questions about someone from sunny San Diego seeking a career on the ice.
“Yeah, not many people know that San Diego has a pretty good (youth) ice hockey organization. It’s getting bigger and bigger,” said McKenzie, who played for the San Diego Gulls youth team at the San Diego Ice Arena in Mira Mesa, where the ECHL Gulls often practice.
The 5-foot-11 and 180-pound McKenzie came to the Gulls as their No. 3 goalie, ready to fill in should there be a recall or an injury affecting Tyler Weiman and Tom Lawson, the team’s main goalies, each on assignment from the Colorado Avalanche, the Gulls’ NHL affiliate.
As the Gulls resume play Friday, McKenzie is on the active roster while Lawson is with his wife for the impending birth of their child. The same arrangement was in place when the Gulls (1-2) opened the season last weekend at Alaska, although McKenzie didn’t see any action behind Weiman.
McKenzie looked to turn pro this year after two seasons of junior hockey with the South Surrey Eagles in the British Columbia Hockey League. During the summer, he took part in workouts with the Roanoke (Va.) Vipers of the United Hockey League, but then he answered the call from the Gulls.
San Diego assistant coach Jamie Black coached McKenzie in the summer of 2000 on a local roller hockey team. At the time, Black was playing for the Gulls in the old West Coast Hockey League. In the intervening years, he kept periodic track of McKenzie.
“Absolutely, I knew he’d be a great goalie,” Black said. “He’s got great reflexes, and he’s improved over the years.”
The main question was how McKenzie would adapt to the ice after years of roller hockey at the old La Mesa Skate Center. He did well enough in youth hockey to merit the chance with South Surrey following his graduation from Monte Vista.
Over two seasons with the Eagles, McKenzie compiled a 32-22 record with a 3.45 goals-against average.
“It was an obvious decision (to play juniors) if you want to go anywhere in hockey,” McKenzie said. “I loved it. It was fun. It’s all we did, play hockey.”
Although McKenzie should receive limited playing time with the Gulls, he sees benefits from being with the team this season.
“This year is basically getting in the flow of things,” he said. “Being with these two goalies, I’ll learn a lot. It’s going to be a good year for me to improve.”