Earlier this year, I was able to cover a Peoria Rivermen game against the Charlotte Checkers. Rivermen goaltender, Mike McKenna, had a very weird night between the pipes.
The Checkers had hit close to ten posts, if not more than that. McKenna himself told me after the game, “It was a weird night like that. It’s the most times I’ve had a puck the post whether it went out or off in a long time. Half of those weren’t even a shot on goal but the other half went in.”
He was involved in a tussle after being shoved into the net and took a roughing penalty for it as well. There was no question that his passion is there. He loves the game.
He was very gracious enough to give me an exclusive interview where he answers questions from Ovechkin’s hot stick to his game day rituals. I hope you all enjoy!
Randall Ritchey : This past off-season, you signed a one year, two-way contract with your home town team, the St. Louis Blues. Could you describe the way you felt when you put on the Bluenote for the first time as a member of the Blues organization?
Mike McKenna : Well, this season was a little bit different in that we didn’t have a proper training camp in September, and I was never recalled, so I didn’t really get the chance to wear the Bluenote in St. Louis. But, of course, having the patch on the shoulder of our Rivermen jerseys kept us all aware of who the parent club was. Also, despite this being my first season under contract to the Blues, I did take part in the 2007 training camp with the team and got a chance to wear the Bluenote back then. But this season was definitely special because I was officially playing for the organization I always dreamed of playing for. The Bluenote means so much to myself, along with my family and friends. Seeing it on my mask every day was a big thrill.
Ritchey : Starting the year, you were splitting time with Jake Allen in Peoria. When Allen was called up due to an injury to Jaroslav Halak, you took the reigns in Peoria and had them all year. What is it that coach Dave Allison told you when you took over as the starter?
McKenna : Dave didn’t have to say a whole lot: when I signed with the team my job description was pretty obvious: I was there to push Jake, play quality minutes when called upon, and provide a veteran presence in the locker room. When Jake went up to St. Louis, I knew that in all likelihood, the number of minutes I played would greatly increase. But even before that we had been splitting time so it’s not like I had to come in completely cold off the bench. It’s nice to have somewhat of a rhythm going and luckily I had that when Jake was recalled.
Ritchey : You’ve had two stints in the NHL, playing with both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New Jersey Devils, what would you say the difference is between facing the top shooters in the American Hockey League versus the top shooters in the National Hockey League?
McKenna : Quite honestly I don’t think there is nearly as dramatic of a difference in the quality of shooters as many fans seem to think. The American Hockey League is full of top-end – albeit young – talent that is very capable of putting the puck where they please. For me, the biggest difference is how well players think the game in the NHL, and how consistent they are. I actually wrote an article on this topic that you might find interesting, you can read that here.
Ritchey : Most opposing fans might recognize your name as being the goalie that Alexander Ovechkin scored against when he celebrated with the “hot stick”. How bad did that bother you when to saw his celebration?
McKenna : When it happened, I was pretty shocked because a celebration that outrageous hardly ever happens in the NHL. I also found it a little insulting given how tough of a season we’d been having in Tampa Bay and how good the Capitals were…they were steamrolling everyone and Ovechkin was having a mega season. But what was I going to do? I’d been in the league for a few weeks so I wasn’t going to attack the best player in the game at the time. But once the game was over and I looked back on it, I realized Ovechkin was just being himself and having fun. And even though it wasn’t the most respectful thing for him to do, I knew he didn’t mean any ill will towards us. The next time we played in Washington DC we had a quick chat after the game, laughed about it, and shook hands. But it was pretty awesome having Don Cherry defend my dignity on Hockey Night in Canada.
Ritchey : You finished the season 19-18-1 this year with a respectable 2.42 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. Why do you think you had success this season on a Rivermen team that struggled to put together consecutive wins?
McKenna : I guess it’s hard to quantify just what success is when you don’t make playoffs, but you do have to look at yourself from an objective standpoint after the season is over and evaluate what you did well and where you could have been better. In that regard, it was probably my best pro season to date: finishing in the top 10 in save percentage and top 15 in goals against average in a league with 42 goalies that played over 30 games is something I’m proud of. But really I think my numbers came in where they did because the bulk of my games were in the last 2/3rds of the season after the initial teething process left us in a bit of a hole. Every season it takes a good 3-4 weeks before things start to settle down: there’s an awful lot of high scoring games early and goaltender’s numbers tend to be feast or famine based largely on how their entire team is playing. That’s why I think it’s best to look at numbers as a macro analysis rather than micro: you need at least 20 games played before a somewhat accurate assessment can be made on performance. Our team managed to pull off a few win streaks here and there, but like you said, we were never consistently in the ‘w’ column. As a goalie, that leaves you with very little margin for error, and as such, I really had to make sure I was focused every time I stepped in the crease. A soft goal here or there can kill you when you’re faced with that type of situation. The more experience you have, the easier it is to handle. But ultimately it’s really hard to look back on a season and consider it to be successful when you don’t make playoffs.
Ritchey : With the Blues selling the Peoria Rivermen to the Vancouver Canucks and switching AHL affiliates to the Chicago Wolves, many question move. With less roster spots available, some players who finished the year with Peoria won’t be back. Do you think it’s possible you return to the Blues organization next season?
McKenna : From my standpoint it’s possible because I would love to keep playing for the Blues organization. But it has to make sense for both sides. I don’t know what the Blues have planned for next season in terms of goaltending depth. With the Wolves having the freedom to sign a few players of their own to AHL deals, it’s a very different set of circumstances than what we had in Peoria last year.
Ritchey : Everyone knows the fans are the main reason you guys play. No fans, no hockey. That said, most fans do not have a clue what goes on behind the scenes of a hockey team. Could you describe what your usual game day was like and if the coaches had any set routines for players on game days?
McKenna : My game days at home are pretty relaxed but I usually stick to some general guidelines. If there is a morning skate available, I will usually take part in it regardless of if I’m starting that night or not. Obviously if I’m backing up it’s my duty to stay on the ice as long as my teammates need me, but if I’m starting, I usually stay out for 15-20 minutes, get a feel for the puck and the rink we’re playing in, and get off. Sometimes the morning skate gets deep-sixed if we’ve already played the night before or are in the middle of a 3-in-2.5, which happens often in the AHL. In those cases, you’re usually in a rhythm from the night before and the extra pucks don’t make much of a difference in the morning. Sometimes it’s best to get your rest.
Ritchey : You’re 30 now, so I think it’s safe to say you’re a veteran and many say a leader as well. What is it that you do to help the first and second year players on and off the ice?
McKenna : There are so many things for the kids to learn coming out of junior, college, or Europe, and that’s a big reason why teams bring in veteran players for their AHL affiliates. On the ice, the biggest thing I try to get the young guys to realize is the importance of working as hard as possible during practice. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of players that were very borderline on skill make it to the NHL purely on their work ethic and dedication to the game. Scouts love a player they can depend on and there’s no better way of showing it than competing every shift. Those habits are fostered in practice. It’s even more important for a goalie. If your teammates see you slacking off in practice, only trying to save what you want instead of every shot that comes your way, it gets old in a hurry. Earning the respect of your teammates is very important as a goaltender and hard work in practice is the best way to get it.
McKenna : The equipment. Simple as that!
McKenna : My career highlight has to be my first career NHL win & shutout when I was playing with the Lightning a few years ago. It was the first home game I started and my parents made it down to Tampa Bay just in time. We won 1-0 over the Islanders and I was able to hug my Dad coming off the ice. There’s a lot more to the story but the bottom line is that I didn’t know tears of joy were really possible until that night.
As for the Blues, signing with the team was a dream come true but I haven’t had the honor of wearing the Bluenote in a regular season NHL game. Of course that’s a goal of mine and I’m sure it would be an amazing moment. I suppose I have unfinished business in that regard. But in terms of my time with the organization, I think the two awards given to me at the end of the season by the Rivermen Captain’s Booster Club are the highlight so far. They’re named after two men (Mark Olson & Pete Bardezbanian) who founded hockey in the Peoria area years ago. My Grandpa was very close friends with Mr. Olson’s brother, so receiving an award named after him was very emotional for me.
I would again like to thank Mike for taking the time to answer these questions and I hope you all enjoyed the read!