Post-To-Post: Fan Favorite McKenna an AHL FixtureJan 13, 2017
For the grand majority of hockey players, the narrative of “chasing the dream” has the same focal points.
It begins with a youngster growing up skating on frozen ponds, learning to skate practically before he can walk. He grows up idolizing his favorite team’s star player, hoping to one day have a chance to emulate his hero. Most of all, he dreams of doing something that some of his favorite players never get a chance to do: win championships.
It is this narrative that frequently stands the test of time for swarms of budding hockey prodigies.
Springfield Thunderbirds goaltender Mike McKenna’s narrative carries with it a completely different plot – one that, given his polarizing figure, is a story that holds few parallels to the usual hockey tale.
And Mike McKenna has never been, nor will he ever be confused for being an ordinary hockey player or ordinary personality.
GATEWAY TO THE GAME
Born in 1983 in St. Louis, Mo., McKenna grew up with many more ties to hockey than others in the Gateway to the West.
“I was always around (the game),” McKenna recalls, citing his father, Terry, and his grandfather, Bill, who each worked as off-ice officials for the Blues. Terry McKenna is still the official scorer to this day at the Scottrade Center.
One part of McKenna’s story that resonates the same as many of his AHL and NHL cohorts is how quickly he became immersed in hockey.
“It always felt like the natural thing to do to play, but I was one of the rare kids that had some family history with hockey in St. Louis,” he remembers.
McKenna started playing organized hockey almost 30 years ago, at age five. A scar beneath his brown beard serves as a reminder of the early stumbles every hockey player must endure before the skills are second-nature.
“Thankfully, my dad and grandpa had the foresight to know that I needed to learn how to skate first before I could play goalie,” McKenna reflects, “even though I knew that (playing goalie) is what I always wanted to do.”
McKenna spent his youth honing his craft by firing pucks in the basement of his childhood home, where polished concrete floors served as the shooting slab in the McKenna family. By age eight, McKenna had his wish, stepping into the nets full-time.
IT’S ALL IN THE EQUIPMENT
Goaltenders are, by all indications, a unique breed. After all, there is something inherently insane about having a desire to stand before slap shots coming at upwards of 100 MPH at the professional ranks.
McKenna believes that goaltenders fall into three categories that describe their desire to step inside the crease. One is the sheer necessity of an older sibling wanting a goaltender to shoot at, either on the pond or in the driveway. Second is the notion that the crease is reserved for the worst skater, a trend which McKenna thankfully believes is no more.
Then there is a third inspiration, one that the 33-year-old McKenna still speaks about with the wide-eyed curiosity that absorbed his life for the first time three decades ago.
“It’s the equipment for me.”
It would not take long for McKenna to locate a hobby and a desire that has never left his side.
“I’d see the other team coming in, and I’d check out the goalies’ gear, then I’d go home and pick up the USA Hockey magazines and get every catalog I could find under the sun,” he vividly describes.
From that moment, reading up on equipment, drawing paint jobs for goalie masks, and observing the artistic patterns of gear became just normal parts of McKenna’s routine.
A picture with Blues goaltender Greg Millen at the St. Louis Arena in the mid-1980s is among the earliest tangible goaltender memories in McKenna’s archives.
“I was really, really young, so I can honestly say that I don’t have active memories of (Millen) playing,” said McKenna, “but I remember he was who turned me onto playing the position.”
“NOBODY HAD EVER MADE IT BEFORE”
By age 15, with high school on the horizon, McKenna’s career was on the verge of major steps, but the Thunderbirds’ goaltender did not share the same all-knowing prophecy common with burgeoning future stars.
“(Playing hockey for a living) did not click in until way late because nobody from St. Louis had ever made it before; it was completely uncharted territory.”
Instead, McKenna was one of the many St. Louis area players who had a completely different perspective and passion: playing for the fun of it.
“We didn’t even know how to get to (college hockey), really.”
McKenna’s formative seasons saw him play two seasons of high school hockey, interspersed with AA and AAA youth hockey at age. Following his sophomore year, the North American Hockey League’s Springfield (Mo.) Jr. Blues came calling.
By age 18, McKenna had secured himself a Division I commitment at St. Lawrence University. Yet even after advancing to college hockey, in itself a grand achievement, McKenna was reluctant to dream greater.
“I don’t think I truly thought in my head that this could be a profession even until the end of (my time at St. Lawrence),” McKenna humbly remembers. “It just was a far-off dream that I hoped would happen, but I never knew how far it would take me.”
After being drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2002, and even in the midst of playing for five different ECHL and AHL franchises in just four years, McKenna’s personal objectives never deviated.
“My only goal was to play as well as I could and let that take me where it would,” he said. “If I had played two years in the ECHL and had the time of my life and then nothing came of it, that’s just what it was going to be, so I tried to control what I could.”
THIS NHL DEBUT BROUGHT TO YOU BY SUNOCO
True of many goaltenders, McKenna’s path to the NHL was not a short one. However, for McKenna—who had yet to sign an NHL contract by January of 2009, his fourth pro season—there was no carefully constructed itinerary.
“The NHL wasn’t at the forefront of my mind at all,” he admitted. “It wasn’t something where I had this grand plan that ‘I’m going to make it by 26, do this and this.’ I didn’t set any of those goals.”
However, with Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig both injured for the Tampa Bay Lightning, McKenna would be able to check off the achievement of signing his first NHL contract.
McKenna’s first night as a dressed NHL goalie, Feb. 3, 2009, took place at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. The then-25-year-old reminisced as strongly as the snowstorm that ravaged the island that day.
“There were more fans in Hershey (for an AHL game) a couple nights before,” McKenna stated.
Continuing with his story’s theme of not expecting the NHL to become his reality, McKenna watched as the Islanders potted three quick goals. From his spot in the runway, almost 100 feet away from his teammates, McKenna got the magic signal from head coach Rick Tocchet.
“Three goals go in, and all of a sudden I look down there (toward Tocchet) and I’m thinking, ‘Man, this might actually happen here.’”
And happen, it did. McKenna was pressed into action, faring admirably in making 11 saves on 11 shots in 28:26 of game time in his NHL debut, just two days after signing his deal.
The very next night, the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh— “The Igloo”— was the site for a St. Louis kid to live out a dream he once never knew he had. For the hockey and pop culture history buff, the stage was perfect for his first NHL start.
“The Igloo was incredible with all the history there, and of course, the filming of Sudden Death with Jean-Claude Van Damme; who could forget that?” he quips.
The progression was so rampant and unexpected for McKenna that the man so in tune with his equipment was suddenly the sore thumb in the arena.
“Because I had been on an American League deal, I had pads that were Norfolk colored, whose primary colors were blue, red and yellow,” he describes. “So here I am playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning, with equipment that looks like it’s sponsored by Sunoco.”
Longtime NHL veteran and future Stanley Cup champion Pascal Dupuis’s immediate recognition and perfunctory “nice pads” remark signified the first “welcome to the NHL” moment for McKenna.
The next one, in McKenna’s own words, was his very first save, a denial of Sidney Crosby on a 2-on-1 rush. Perhaps the cruelest irony of his first start was the result, a “sudden death” defeat in overtime.
CONNOISSEUR OF SOCIAL MEDIA
To know Mike McKenna is to know the effervescent personality that has followed his career outside the arena. It is an energy that has created a following on Twitter and Instagram (nearly 17,000 followers between the platforms) that would fill almost three MassMutual Centers.
A single child, McKenna describes himself as the “classic introvert-extrovert,” but despite enjoying his solitary time, he takes a greater enjoyment out of interpersonal connections.
“If you go through life without meeting people and finding out about them, you’re missing out,” he says. “Whether it has been broadcasters, equipment managers, or bus drivers, not just teammates—you try to find everybody in the whole organization and try to find out what makes them tick.”
In a world where critics of professional athletes are quick to point out rule one of Twitter as being “Don’t tweet,” McKenna insists that ownership, not avoidance, is the most worthwhile usage of the medium.
“At some point, you’re going to screw up and you’re going to have to own it; you can’t run from it,” he implores. “But it’s such an important way for us to show the human side of the game, who we are, to grow the game. It has led to so many cool opportunities because you see these people outside of sports, and it’s so easy to reach out to people. You can foster these relationships with people you never expect.”
The goalie doubles as a food guru and music maven thanks to the advent of Twitter, but one other title stands out.
“I’M GOING TO FIND IT, AND I’M GOING TO BUY IT”
Like many celebrities, working people, and students alike, McKenna has dictated a seemingly mysterious descriptor in his social media biographies—coining himself as a “connoisseur of fine reptilian pottery.”
Just what exactly is reptilian pottery, and what secret does he hold?
“It’s probably as much of a secret as (Florida Panthers goalie) Roberto Luongo having a Twitter account. Everybody knows it, but you don’t know it, but you know it,” he articulates eloquently.
The story all traces back to McKenna’s time with the Peoria Rivermen in the 2012-2013 AHL season and a team road trip in San Antonio to face the Rampage.
“I told my wife when I went down there, ‘I’m getting a rattlesnake coffee mug,’” McKenna details fondly.
When Rachel McKenna, befuddled, had little clue what her husband was describing and proclaimed he would never find one, Mike made a declaration.
“I’m going to find one, and I’m going to buy it!”
The rest, as the goaltender spells out, is the birth of a locker room legend.
“We’re touring around downtown (San Antonio) by the Alamo, in one of those trinket shops, and sure enough, there it is, a coffee mug—a rattlesnake, with the rattle as the handle.”
With the prophecy becoming a reality, McKenna could not resist, and almost instantaneously, the legend of “Henry” was born.
“It comes from my grandma and a rat snake in her backyard. I guess it bit her when she was gardening, and she had named it Henry prior to that. In a twisted way, I thought it was funny to name (the mug) Henry.”
In the immediately aftermath, McKenna would face criticism that his ceramic treasure was merely mimicking late-night TV host Craig Ferguson, who possessed a similar mug.
“Everybody thought I was copying him; I had no idea.”
Today, Henry is in his fifth pro hockey season, having seen locker rooms in five different U.S. states, all while remaining under the care of the 33-year-old netminder every step of the way.
MILES OF MEMORIES
15 different professional stops in the ECHL, AHL, and NHL are enough to overwhelm even the most unattached of athletes, but for McKenna, perhaps one of the greatest rewards of his career has been the constant companionship of his wife, Rachel, and two daughters.
“As you get older and have kids, you really have to think about things, like how many years I can do this, what cities would we potentially want to do this in, and what do we need when we get there for housing, schooling, and those things,” McKenna spells out.
The travel path, while vast and widespread, has only strengthened the veteran’s appreciation.
“(Their support) has been integral to my career. Everyone says family comes first, but it’s really true. I really rely on (Rachel) to make sure the kids are in order.”
That bond has allowed McKenna the opportunity to experience his dream, which now is in its 12th professional season and second stint in Springfield.
In the nearly 15 years since being drafted, McKenna’s recollections range from the sublime—his Portland Pirates franchise record 33-win season and subsequent ceremony with his family on the ice last year remains a highlight of his career—to the ridiculous—witnessing a costumed Darth Vader tumble onto the ice in Manchester, losing its head in the process.
While the goaltender will never be accused of taking himself too seriously, McKenna does hope that, when the time comes to exit his crease for the final time, his impact was profound on fans, teammates, and coaches alike.
“I hope they remember me for being someone who played with a lot of passion and tried to help the guys around him as much as he could. I know that’s always kind of what you’re shooting for, but it really means a lot to me to try to leave a lasting impression.”
Mike McKenna’s journey was born in the Gateway to the West. Where it ends may not be known, but what is known is his indelible impression will not easily be duplicated.