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AHL Memories: Mike McKenna

Someone who spends a lifetime behind a goalie mask is bound to see all sorts of things. Through the painted metal of his many masks, VGK broadcaster Mike McKenna has seen it all.

McKenna’s hockey journey has taken him all over North America as he made stops in 13 different American Hockey League cities. He’s banked stories about teammates, coaches and everyday life from each town he represented between the pipes.

Whether it was a rookie dinner gone wrong, an awkward encounter with a Sith lord or a good Italian combo sub, McKenna enjoyed all the charms of the AHL throughout his career.

GW: What do you remember about first getting up to the AHL and where were you when you first started?

MM: Ah, the Iron League. My first crack at it was training camp with the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights. Of course, they’re no longer in existence along with about half of the teams I played for in the American League. They were Calgary’s farm team, and I went to training camp. I didn’t end up playing for them in the regular season – I was playing in the ECHL at the time with Las Vegas – but I was called up to the Norfolk Admirals that year. I went all the way across the country, stepped in the cage, played about four or five games right off the bat. Dustin Byfuglien was on that team, Corey Crawford, several other guys who played a lot in the NHL. James Wisniewski was there too. I just remember thinking: “Man, I’m being called up to the American League. This is unbelievable!” I wasn’t even on an NHL contract. I got up to the American League and I played some games and I thought that I could do this. Then I went right back to the East Coast League and that was that for the year. I didn’t make it back to the AHL full time until about my third season. I just remember looking around the room and thinking: “wow, these guys are real prospects. They’re on NHL contracts, we’ve got first and second round picks in here.” It was a stark contrast to the ECHL at the time.

GW: The AHL is such a melting pot of players at different points in their careers. When you were first coming up, were there any guys you learned the ropes from early on?

MM: Coming into that first locker room, the first person that comes to mind is Shawn Thornton. People obviously remember him from his NHL career and winning the Stanley Cup with Boston. When I got to the American League, he had already played the better part of six or seven seasons in that league. This was a time when teams he played for would only play against other maritime teams. He had about 350 penalty minutes every single year. This was even before he really made the NHL. Here I am looking at Shawn Thornton at 27 or 28 years old thinking he was the most grizzled veteran on the whole planet. The irony is that I played until I was 36. Quintin Lang is another one who people might remember from the NHL. He would lead the league in shots blocked. Those were two of the older guys there who I looked up to in a lot of ways. Thornton really set a good example.

GW: Were there any other guys your age that you came up with where you leaned on each other as you worked your way up?

MM: So, my first year in Norfolk was really a quick call up. The next year with Omaha and with Milwaukee was kind of the same way. What was really cool that happened to me in Milwaukee while I was there – if you look at my stats, I played one game, I let up three goals on four shots and that was it. But what was cool was I was there for about a month over Christmas and Rich Peverley and Pekka Rinne took me in and we had Christmas dinner together. None of us had anyone else to celebrate with. That was really cool. Rich Peverley and I were teammates in college at St. Lawrence, so I really leaned on him. Pekka I knew from Nashville’s camps when I was picked by them. Those two guys really helped. My third year, when I got called up to Portland, that was when I really got my chance to dig in a little bit. Bobby Ryan is someone there that I was close with. He and I were rookies in the American League, so we got along really well. I had a stall next to a guy named Darryl Bootland who I believe has the all-time penalty minutes record in North America. Eric Weinrich was on the team winding down his career. There’s a guy you could really learn from. He was the best. At the party we had at the end of the season, he apologized to everybody because they only had Dom Perignon and nothing better at the party. He made a joke of it because he has a very dry sense of humor. “Sorry, boys, they only had Dom.”

GW: I remember talking to you about how much you enjoyed playing in Portland. What was it about that city and that team that captured you?

MM: I think it was just the lifestyle. It was kind of east coast, Boston-like vibe in some ways. It had a super cool vibe to it where the people were super laid back but there was still this undercurrent of really cool stuff going on. A lot of people look at Maine as being just a resort place with a bunch of older people driving gold cars. No. Portland itself was actually a pretty young city. You could go into the best restaurant in town with a flannel and a backwards hat and nobody would bat an eye at you. The food was so good, and we lived right on the ocean. We’d see seals and bald eagles. Maine’s just a really unique place. The Portland fans were really cool so that was just an awesome stop in my career.

GW: How was the rink there?

MM: Well, it went through a renovation. The first time I was there it was dungeon-esque I guess you could say. It had one-and-a-half shower heads. There was a pole in the middle of the locker room where you had a peer around one side to see Kevin Dineen when he’d come in to talk to us between periods. After the renovation it definitely improved. We had a better locker room. It was unique though. It was a smaller building that was really the right size for the American League. It held 7,000-8,000 which is really your ballpark size you’d like to have. We’d get good crowds pretty regularly. The rink is on a hillside and we’d always be wondering if the visiting team coming in was going to get their bus stuck on the hill because sometimes when it’s snowing, you just can’t get those wheels to dig in and get up the hill. That happened a few times.

GW: You mentioned Kevin Dineen as one of your coaches. Who were some of the coaches you had through those years that helped you come up through the AHL? Gary Lawless told me a story where a coach of the Manitoba Moose said, ‘Brian Burke in Vancouver told me I don’t have to win a single game, as long as I’m developing the players.’ Any classic coach stories like that?

MM: The irony is that Brian Burke was running Portland that year during my first year. Kevin Dineen and his brother Gord (great name) were there my first year and they really gave me my first break. I played well enough and they rewarded me. They helped me really bring myself down to earth because I used to be really high-strung. I’d freak out and I’d snap sticks. By the end of my career, I probably only snapped one stick a year instead of several. They helped calm me down and they helped me realize it’s not life and death out there. Go out there, have fun and just play. They were critical to me. I also had a guy named Dave Allison in Peoria. This guy was the ultimate coach in terms of trying to find ways to motivate. He’d walk in the locker room and tell these stories. One game, we’re playing against Grand Rapids. It’s probably the middle of November and Grand Rapids won the Calder Cup that year, so they had a really good team. They had Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheehan, Petr Mrazek, quite a few guys. He walks into the locker room and doesn’t say a word to us. He walks in strutting and eventually goes, “Boys, tonight we are going to be winners and grinners. We’re going to take it to the Grand Rapids Griffins.” He went on this soliloquy for about five minutes with the tone and inflection of a southern general. Our assistant coach, Scott Allen, had to walk out of the room. We were looking around like, “is this guy for real?” He was trying to motivate us and get us to laugh. Well, we lost 6-1 that night so the southern general never came back. Dave Allison always had some good one-liners. “Always carry a screwdriver.” I could go on and on about this guy. One day he made a shoulder of lamb and brought in lamb sandwiches for the guys in the room. I’ve never seen lamb sandwiches in the locker room before, but good old Dave Allison did it for us. He was merciful too. If a guy had a few too many at rookie party, he’d let them off the ice early. I mentioned Scott Allen – Scott Allen I had as a coach in three different cities. I had him with the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights, the Peoria Rivermen and the Portland Pirates. He was probably the best coach that I ever had.

GW: It’s funny to hear a coach is bringing lamb sandwiches into the locker room. Shane Hnidy told a story about a coach questioning players having protein shakes rather than beer after a game. There were obviously differing views on nutrition. You see how players take care of themselves today. What was that like for you as a player?

MM: It’s all business now. It was much more laid back when I played. You watch a movie like Slapshot, and you see the team go to the bar at lunch time. That actually did happen in the early years of my career and I started in 2005. Really in the last seven or eight years, it’s transitioned into being really serious. We used to just eat soggy subs on the bus after games. It wasn’t mandatory if we had a game the next day, but if we didn’t have another game the next day, it was mandatory that there’d be coolers of beers on the bus after a game. You don’t see that now unless you get permission, or some teams won’t have that at all. We’d get soggy subs on the bus whereas now teams are getting catered meals after every single game on the road. They’re taking care of nutrition for the players. When I started, there wasn’t a strength coach. The assistant coach would post the workout on the wall and say, “Have at it.” You’d do a couple of curls and maybe a chest exercise. Now you have a dedicated strength coach who is there monitoring everything. You have a dedicated goalie coach. I never had a goalie coach in the American League until I was about 31. That’s pretty astonishing because developing goalies is one of the most important things. The amount that teams have invested into those things is why players are so ready when they jump into the NHL now. They’ve had that experience, so they know what to expect when they get there.

GW: What was your go-to soggy sub?

MM: The old Italian combo for me. Whatever variation. You’d always get your meal from whatever restaurant greased the local team’s trainer. The local equipment guy steps into a place and they say, “We’ll give you free subs if you give our menu to the other team.” That happened a lot. Usually, an Italian combo would do it for me, but I was always partial to a grease wheel after a game too. If you had a place that had subs and pizza, oh man. By the end of my career, the pizza became a weekly tradition. I couldn’t do it every night, but the last night of a road trip, you bet I’d be having some wheel.

GW: Now that we’re talking about food, were there any memorable dinners through the years?

MM: The best dinner we had was probably rookie party in Portland. Paul Bissonnette was with us in Portland and he said, “Boys, I’ve got us covered with the rookie party. We’ll do it in Boston, I’ve got this guy.” We ended up at this Asian restaurant that didn’t allow our rookies in in the first place and we had a $450 water charge because Biz said, “We don’t drink tap water!” Yes, we do, Biz, it’s the American League! So about $450 in water and like an $800 service fee to somebody we didn’t even know. We went to some weird club afterwards. It was an adventure. That was memorable for a whole bunch of different reasons. I do remember one of the best meals we had was in Austin, Texas at a rookie party. It was this place called Parkside. It was the best rookie party. Austin is such a great city. There’s so much to do.

GW: Any memorable bus rides?

MM: We caught a bus on fire one time while I was with Portland. The right rear tire blew, and it caught a hydraulic line or something. Next thing you know, flames are licking over the side of the bus. Our 6’5 tough guy Mike Hoffman started jumping over seats like George Costanza in Seinfeld. “The Flames are coming!!” So, yeah. The bus was on fire. We were on the news and everything. We ended up playing the game two hours late and we smelled like mechanical fire. By the time smoke inhalation set in during the third period, we lost. We kept it together through the first. That wasn’t fun. My goalie partner was scheduled to play. He refused, so I had to play.

Here’s a good one. One night in Manchester, Darth Vader was scheduled to drop the puck and for whatever reason, the rink staff in Manchester didn’t have a rug out for Darth. Darth’s war boots didn’t stick well to the ice. Down he went. His helmet fell off and everything. We actually heard that he hurt his knee which was like double bad. The mascot for Manchester was this lion so the lion is out there with him. He had to shuffle over, pick up Darth Vader’s head which had rolled off about 10 feet down the ice, take it back to Darth to put back on Darth. So, Darth Vader says, “Get me out of here.” I could hear him from the bench. He didn’t even drop the puck, he just got right off the ice.

By the way, one time we flew on a plane with Flo Rida to St. Johns.

GW: Why was Flo Rida going to Newfoundland?

MM: He had a two-night gig in St. Johns. It was Flo Rida and the Fly Girls. We saw them in the Toronto airport. Two of our guys, Shane Harper and Sena Acolatse, look over and they go, “That’s Flo Rida. Dude, that’s Flo. I’m telling you.” Everyone is going, “That’s not Flo Rida. There’s no way.” They pulled up a picture and we realized that was definitely Mr. Rida. Sure enough, two of our guys popped on over, got a picture with Flo Rida, and he was on his way to play two shows in St. Johns.

GW: That is a classic. Going back to the Darth Vader story, you see AHL teams coming out with all kinds of creative things during games. That includes jerseys. Were there any really memorable jerseys you had to wear?

MM: That’s actually the really cool part about the American League. They have the availability to do a lot of stuff like that and get fans involved. A lot of it is for charitable causes, too. That’s something the league is really proud of. But man, Star Wars night. I never lost in a Star Wars jersey. I think I played in four of those games and I was undefeated. They put me up on the big screen as a Sith lord one night in Portland or Texas. The Star Wars nights were fun. I think in the ECHL it got even crazier. In the AHL we’d have patriotic night which was really cool. In Springfield, we’d have these red, white and blue jerseys that looked like the American flag. The breast cancer night jerseys were always really cool and classy. We never really had any crazy Christmas jerseys. But we did St. Patrick’s Day in Peoria. They had a leprechaun with a pot of gold. They were terrible looking. I think my jersey sold for pretty good money that night, so I guess some lucky fan out there has a leprechaun Peoria Rivermen Mike McKenna jersey.

GW: You’ve had some great pad setups through the years. Did you have any AHL get ups that stand out as your favorites?

MM: I think my best overall look may have been with Columbus and Springfield the year I was there. It was that red, white and blue, American feel. It really matched my gear well. What I really enjoyed was later on when I started being able to design the gear myself. I had a contest with fans to literally design my pads. The company I wore, Bauer, could print anything on them. The ones that I had when I was briefly in Belleville, Ontario were spot on. They were so cool. I didn’t get to wear them for very long unfortunately. I always wore dark equipment. I always liked how it looked. It had more color and more pizazz. It just looked better. My most intimidating set was probably the year I was in Albany. I had a black, red and white Devils set. They were pretty dirty looking. They just looked aggressive.

GW: Tell me about some of your memorable playoff runs in the AHL.

MM: My first year when I was with Portland, we went to the conference finals and I played a handful of games because our other goalie at the time got injured. J.S. Aubin, he actually rolled his ankle playing soccer before the game. I found out about five minutes before the game that I was going in. That was my first taste, and it was crazy because we went to the conference finals. We were seriously close. I was chasing it for a long time after that. I think the teams that I was on didn’t make it out of the first round for a long time. Even my third-to-last year when I was in Portland, I had a really good first round. We lost to Hershey who went to the finals and had a really good team. I played really well, and I thought, “Man, I can do this.” It’s funny because I was 32 years old. Sure enough, the next two years I ended up going to the Calder Cup Finals with the Syracuse Crunch in 2017 and the Texas Stars in 2018. To just come that close… We lost in Game 6 in 2017. I had been traded at the deadline that year. It was a pretty wild season. We had high expectations and it was hard. Unfortunately, I left that team. I wanted to come back, but I didn’t get to, so I went to Texas. Here we are in the finals again. We were such underdogs. We just kept winning. I was playing the best hockey of my life; I know I was. We got to Game 7, and we lost to the Toronto Marlies. If it had gone nine games, we would’ve had them. There’s no doubt in my mind. Two years in a row with two different teams as a goalie hadn’t been done since like 1994 with Olaf Kolzig. That was really cool. I’m happy I was there. It was a blast. I just wish that we’d gotten over the hump and gotten a championship.

GW: When you did reach the NHL, how did you feel the AHL had prepared you for that?

MM: It really gave me the ability to get comfortable in my own skin before it happened. The first time I played NHL games with the Tampa Bay Lightning, I was up for a long stretch that season. I don’t think I was totally ready for it. I’d really only had one full season in the American Hockey League, and I was a rookie that year. I was just starting to come into my own at that level and, next thing you know, I’m in the NHL. I don’t think I performed up to my own standards. I’m sure people in Tampa would agree with that. After that, I went back to the American League and didn’t get another real taste of the NHL for about three seasons. That’s really when my game grew. I went through a couple of different cities and, by the time I got a few games with the Columbus Blue Jackets, I knew I could play. I just needed that chance. That stretch I played with Columbus and the time I spent with Dallas, I knew I could play in the NHL because I had gone back to the American League, I knew what I needed to work on to perfect everything and to truly get in the shape to do it too. It coincided with the nutrition and the training improving in the AHL during my career. That benefitted my greatly because when I got my next shot, I’d had those resources. I knew how to prepare myself mentally and physically.

GW: Favorite AHL rink… and least favorite AHL rink…

MM: I have a thing for old, awful rinks. The grimiest, greasiest, one shower head, small locker room barns. Not as the home team though. Only as the away team. I have this affinity for old school rinks. I loved Syracuse. I always loved it and I always played well there for some reason. Sure enough, I ended up getting traded there and we went on a great run. I think it coincided because I loved that rink and I love playing in it. The fans are right on top of you. If we talked to the Sicilian Soundbite, Dan D’Uva, who was the voice of the Syracuse Crunch, he’d tell you he was right on top of the ice while he was calling games. I loved that atmosphere there. As far as worst rinks, Hershey just crushed me. I never won in Hershey. It’s funny that I told you about the playoffs in Hershey. That was the only time I won a few games there and it happened to be in playoffs. It was this huge monkey off my back. The newer rinks are so generic to me. They’re all very similar to one another.

GW: Were there any guys you saw come up through the ranks where you thought, “that guy has got it going on and he’ll make it one day.”

MM: There’s usually one or two per team. I’ll just reference the teams that I was playing on. We all knew Bobby Ryan was going to be a superstar. No question about it. We knew he was headed on that track and sure enough he was. There was no surprise to him being that good to us. When I was with the Devils organization, Adam Henrique, we knew he was on a short path. He wasn’t going to take long. In Binghamton, Robin Lehner was 21 years old. He’d won a Calder Cup. We knew he had all the skill in the world, and he had that chance. We see the success he’s having now in Vegas. In Peoria, it was Jaden Schwartz. Wow. In the beginning of that season in Peoria – it was the lockout year of 2012-13 – he wasn’t great at the start of the year, but he got better and better and better. When he got to the NHL, he never came back to the AHL. He took off. Ian Cole was on that team too. There have been a lot of guys now that I look back at it. Roope Hintz was in Texas. Denis Gurianov, too. We didn’t know about him, but he’s proved people wrong. Roope Hintz we knew was going to be good. I could probably put together a big list. Yanni Gourde was a guy in Syracuse where we all went, “Yep, this guy’s going to do it.” There are usually one or two guys per team where it’s pretty obvious.

GW: Got any other classic tales from the AHL days?

MM: My best one is probably this one. It’s a case of mistaken identity. It’s when I was in Norfolk, Virginia and it was the Halloween party. I was dressed as the Macho Man Randy Savage. It couldn’t have been more apparent that I was the Macho Man Randy Savage. It said it on my bandana and on the back of my outfit. A couple of the guys got a little out of control and they decided to throw beer cans off the roof of the venue we were at. Sure enough, someone across the way saw it and one of them nearly hit a police car. Everything you could imagine that wasn’t smart. The cops come up and they say, “Alright, here’s who we want. We want the pirate, Hulk Hogan, the marshmallow man, this guy and this guy.” In this case of mistaken identity, they pointed their finger at me in this because they thought I was one of the guys throwing beer cans. No! That was the Hulkster. I am not the Hulkster. I am clearly the Macho Man. I’m sitting there with mascara in my beard and a neon pink, yellow, orange outfit with tassel everywhere thinking I’m going to jail dressed as the Macho Man. Is there any worse way to go to jail? I’ve never been to jail. Sure enough, our team lawyer – I think we were the only team in the American League with a team lawyer – he showed up and he got us all off the hook. A couple of the guilty parties got off with just a little bit of community service. I was scot-free because they figured out, I was the Macho Man.

GW: Sounds like they knew they’d need a team lawyer! When the puck drops next, there will be hockey in Henderson. What should fans be excited about with the Silver Knights?

MM: It’s not just that you have the chance to see future Golden Knights, you get the chance to see really good hockey. There’s a perception that it’s just the minor leagues and maybe it’s not as good. It is excellent hockey. The only difference that you’ll see is it’s just not quite as clean as the NHL. There’s a little bit more chaos to it. Maybe not every pass is going to get made. You’re still going to find that people can shoot the puck 105 miles per hour. They can pick corners. They can skate like Shea Theodore and they’re working on their game so they can get there. Goalies that are so close to the next step. It’s great hockey and it’s such a great atmosphere. You can do different things with the crowd that maybe you can’t at the NHL level. It’s a smaller setting with a bit more of a relaxed atmosphere. Usually, you get really good player access. One thing I think people can look forward to in Henderson is the players will be available like our guys with the Golden Knights but to a greater extent. They’ll be able to meet them, get an autograph, and let their kids walk up and say hello to a hockey player. I find that really exciting. They’re expanding the hockey footprint in Vegas. It’s going to be a treat. It’ll be really cool for Henderson to have.

GW: How are families going to get to enjoy the team? I remember taking the ferry from Long Island to Bridgeport to see the Sound Tigers play and the family atmosphere was great. What do you remember seeing in that aspect from your career?

MM: That’s the nice part about the price point, first off. It’s great to be able to go with your kids and it isn’t quite as chaotic as NHL game can be sometimes. It’s all catered to families. I think about how they incorporate the Simba Cam at games and I’m sure they’ll have it in Henderson where parents pick their child up to the sky like they’re in the Lion King as they play the song. That’s the type of thing that’s really become common. The fans get involved. Kids get to skate on the ice after games. They get to go down to the glass during warmups. Once they open the gates during warmups, you can go anywhere you want in the American League. Only when the game starts do you have to go to your seats. It gives kids a chance to really clue in on it and see things in person with their family. That’s the important part. Parents can sit down with their kids and enjoy a game together, talk about it, learn about it and ride home in the car and continue that conversation.

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