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Whitehorse's Gavin McKenna a 'special player,' says coach

Medicine Hat Tigers coach and general manager Willie Desjardins, who's worked with some of the best as a former NHL coach, calls Whitehorse's Gavin McKenna one of the "top players that I've ever worked with."

Willie Desjardins considers McKenna, 14, among the top players he's worked with in his career

Medicine Hat Tigers coach and general manager Willie Desjardins, a former NHL coach who also coached Canada's 2018 Olympic men's hockey team, said the way Gavin McKenna, 14, sees the ice places him among the top players Desjardins's ever worked with in his career. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

As a player who will only turn 15 next December, Whitehorse's Gavin McKenna will only be allowed to play five games with the Medicine Hat Tigers next season.

But one of those games is very likely to be the team's season opener, said coach and general manager Willie Desjardins.

"Our fans need to see that, you know, we have a special player coming up," Desjardins said.

McKenna played in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League's U18 division last season and was drafted first overall in last week's Western Hockey League draft.

"I certainly put him in a category of top players that I've ever worked with, the way he sees the ice," said Desjardins, who spent eight years coaching in the American Hockey League and the National Hockey League before returning to the Tigers in 2019, where he also coached from 2002 to 2010.

'That's pretty incredible'

Desjardins explained that on a couple of occasions when he saw McKenna play, he noticed the young player not make a pass to an open teammate as quickly as he would make other plays.

It didn't make sense to Desjardins who thought at first that McKenna hadn't seen the open teammate.

But now Desjardins thinks Mckenna saw the open teammate but also looked at two or three other options he could have taken, and decided to go back to making the pass to the open teammate.

"So, you know, if that's his mindset and what he's running through his head, that's pretty incredible," said Desjardins.

McKenna, from Whitehorse, was chosen first overall by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the 2022 Western Hockey League draft last week. (Submitted by Krystal McKenna)

He added he thinks McKenna has a good shot and the rare ability to get faster when he has the puck.

"There's a lot of things in his game that make him elite," he said.

Challenges 

Desjardins' biggest challenge with McKenna will be making sure he puts the young teenager in positions in which he can succeed.

He explained that McKenna is coming to the team with so much confidence in his abilities that he'll want to do everything right away.

"He's never reached a level yet that it hasn't worked so there's no reason to think it's not going to work going ahead either. But we have to make sure that he's physically ready," said the long-time coach.

The other issue with players, especially younger ones, Desjardins said, is keeping them grounded, focused on hockey and not letting distractions get in the way of their development.

Desjardins said it begins with family.

"Gavin … has been brought up right," he said.

The other part is having respect for the game.

Desjardins said hockey is a hard game and the minute a player thinks they're above the game, it has a way of putting them back in their place.

"And Gavin is certainly respectful of the game," he said.

Desjardins expects that if McKenna continues to develop as a player as he has until now, "then you'd expect him to have a big career."

The schedule of the 2022-23 regular season hasn't been announced yet but the season typically starts in late September or early October.

Written by Michel Proulx with files from George Maratos

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