In an era when the chances of a collegiate hockey player making it to the NHL were slim to none – let alone a goaltender – Saint Thomas, Ontario’s own Bill McKenzie was the exception to the rule. An undrafted netminder, McKenzie would go on to play 91 games in the NHL across six seasons.
Electing to go the US collegiate route, he played three seasons for Ohio State University beginning with the 1969-70 season. As the starting goaltender for the Buckeyes, the team assembled a combined record of 63-21-1 during McKenzie’s tenure, including a 24-5 record in 1972. He backstopped the Buckeyes to their first Central Collegiate Hockey Association championship in 1972. McKenzie was named the 1972 CCHA Tournament MVP and named to the 1972 All-Tournament Team.
Having graduated from OSU following the 1972 championship, McKenzie still ranks within the top-3 in program history for season shutouts (four in both 1970 and 1972) and career shutouts (10). He was the school’s career wins leader until 2004 with 54 victories to his credit. McKenzie also still holds top-10 marks in the program for single-season goals against average of 2.25 in 1972, and for a career (2.74).
Though not selected in the draft, it is clear to see why McKenzie would garner interest from NHL clubs. A school record achieving goalie with solid numbers and a championship to boot? Taking a stab at the netminding scholar simply made sense.
Debuting in Detroit
On Oct. 4, 1972, McKenzie was signed as a free agent by the Detroit Red Wings. Though an “Original Six” team and ultimately the winners of 11 Stanley Cup championships, the Red Wings of the 1970s were rather abysmal. The club failed to make the playoffs for seven straight seasons from 1970-71 through 1976-77, and only made the postseason once during the entire decade.
McKenzie certainly at least had the potential to be a diamond in the rough.
The Red Wings assigned him to their IHL affiliate for the 1972-73 season, the Port Huron Flags. McKenzie assumed the starting goaltending duties on a primarily veteran club. He backstopped the team to a winning record of 41-31-1 and a berth in the Turner Cup Final. Unfortunately, McKenzie and the Flags would lose to the Fort Wayne Komets in four straight games. McKenzie in turn was named the IHL’s Rookie of the Year.
Proving his worth within the organization, McKenzie would see his first NHL action during the 1973-74 season. He would split the season between two other clubs – the AHL’s Virginia Red Wings and the independent London Lions – but earned himself a call-up to the parent club in December of 1973.
McKenzie made his NHL debut on Dec. 18 and earned the Red Wings a tie against the visiting Los Angeles Kings. He remained with the team for the rest of the month, all of January and into February. McKenzie earned a record of 4-4-4, and pitched his first NHL shutout on Jan. 12, 1973 in 6-0 win over the Kings.
When the 1974-75 season came around, veteran goaltender Jimmy Rutherford handled the bulk of the Detroit netminding duties while the team utilized three young prospects – McKenzie, Doug Grant, and Terry Richardson – as revolving backups. McKenzie would begin the season in Virginia, but would be called up in the back half of the season as Grant and Richardson were sent down.
McKenzie went 1-9-2 in 13 games for Detroit from January 1975 into April. He would play his final game in a Red Wings uniform on Apr. 5, 1975 on the road against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Traded to Kansas City
On Aug. 22, 1975, McKenzie and veteran defender Gary Bergman were traded from the Red Wings to an equally struggling club – the Kansas City Scouts – in exchange for goaltender Peter McDuffe and centerman Glen Burdon.
In terms of finding a successful hockey club, joining the Scouts likely put McKenzie in a worse situation. But going with the notion that every cloud has its silver lining, the Kansas City/Colorado franchise afforded McKenzie his fullest NHL action and his longest tenure with an NHL organization.
In what would be their final season in Kansas City, McKenzie assumed the full-time backup duties for the Scouts in behind starting netminder Denis Herron. McKenzie would see his fullest amount of NHL action to that point by playing 22 games in 1975-76.
Unfortunately, amid a woeful Scouts lineups, he assembled a rough record of 1-16-1. The only victory McKenzie earned for Kansas City was an Oct. 22, 1975 4-2 victory over the Washington Capitals.
Never truly catching on in Missouri, the Scouts would relocate to Colorado in July of 1976 and became known as the Rockies.
The Minors and the Rockies
During the club’s first season in Colorado, McKenzie’s appearances were few and far in between. The main goaltending duties for the Rockies fell to veterans Doug Favell and Michel Plasse during 1976-77, while McKenzie made just five appearances for a record of 0-2-1. He made one appearance in October, two in November, and one each in December and February.
This would signal the beginning of a continuous bouncing around for McKenzie. From 1976-77 through 1979-80, he played for eight different teams across three different leagues. He would suit up specifically for the Rockies in 1977-78 and 1979-80.
But there were three particularly positive things that happened to McKenzie during this range of seasons.
First, during the 1976-77 season he suited up for four different teams – the last of which was the Kansas City Blues of the Central Hockey League. McKenzie manned the Blues’ net for all 10 of their playoff games, and backstopped them to the Adams Cup championship. McKenzie was additionally awarded as the CHL’s Playoff MVP for his heroics.
Secondly, McKenzie did his part to help the Rockies make the playoffs for the 1977-78 season – the only time ever that either the Scouts or Rockies version of the franchise made it to the postseason. McKenzie played 12 games that season and went 3-6-2. For a Rockies team (19-40-21) that sneaked into the playoffs by a mere two points, McKenzie’s three wins and two ties were imperative to ensure the club’s playoff appearance.
Lastly, in what would be his final professional season, McKenzie played his fullest amount of NHL action in 1979-80. Led by head coach Don Cherry and firepower from the likes of Lanny McDonald and Rene Robert, the Rockies went 19-48-13.
A less than impressive record, but McKenzie was one of their few bright spots. He set career highs in games played (26), wins (9), and saves (528). McKenzie was also the only Rockies goalie that season (of which there were four) to record a shutout when he whitewashed the Pittsburgh Penguins on Mar. 28, 1980 by a score of 5-0.
Post Playing Career
Following his retirement after the 1979-80 season, McKenzie returned to his alma mater. For 18 seasons he served as an assistant coach at Ohio State for both their men’s and women’s hockey programs. In 2001 McKenzie became only the second hockey player inducted into OSU’s Hall of Fame.
With his curly red hair and mustache, McKenzie donned the nets for some of the NHL’s least desirable teams. Bottom line though is that he kept those teams relatively competitive during his tenure when perhaps they had no business being such. In an eight season professional career, McKenzie compiled a record of 18-49-13 to go with a 4.10 GAA and a .858 save percentage.
We remember Bill McKenzie’s career so that it does not go down as being forgotten.
General Manager of the Buffalo Beauts (NWHL). Hockey history writer “The Hockey Writers”. Credentialed media for the NHL Combine and 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships in Buffalo, NY, USA. Born and raised in Buffalo, NY. Lifelong hockey fan for over 40 years. Proponent of the women’s game.