By MIKE ASHMORE
Special to ECHL.com
Johan Hedberg had no problem piling on the praise when asked about fellow ECHL graduate and Devils goalie Mike McKenna.
"He’s an NHL-caliber goaltender. He can play, there’s no doubt about that," Hedberg said.
"He’s a little bit different than me and Marty (Brodeur), he’s more of a modern-style goaltender. Me and Marty are more old school. I think it gives guys in practice two different looks. He’s working really hard and he’s keeping a really great attitude. He’s done everything you can ask for."
Since McKenna was kind enough to spend about ten minutes with ECHL.com during a recent visit to the Prudential Center, the 27-year-old native of St. Louis, Missouri has since been sent back to AHL Albany, where he’s held down the fort as the number one goaltender for New Jersey’s top minor league affiliate.
McKenna made two appearances for the Devils, including a start against his hometown Blues, and would seem to be New Jersey’s first option if a call-up is needed. Here’s how the conversation went down between McKenna and ECHL.com…
ECHL.com: You first got on the map of sorts when you were drafted by the Nashville Predators back in 2002 after your first year at St. Lawrence. What are your recollections of that day?
Mike McKenna: "Well, going into the draft, I was projected probably somewhere between the fourth and the sixth round, they thought. So my agent at that time felt it would be appropriate for me to go to the draft. It was in Toronto that year, and with it being just such a big hockey market, that was really a special thing. So I went to the draft, and my parents went to it. We didn’t know anything, there’s no guarantees at the draft. But I remembered that right before me, I can’t remember which goaltender was drafted (Note: It was current ECHL’er Bobby Goepfert), but somebody went right before me, and Nashville was up next.
I had spoken to them before the draft, and I thought maybe there was a chance here. Sure enough, they announced my name. That was a really special day. I was the first goalie who was from the St. Louis area that had ever been drafted, so that kind of meant a lot. There were only four kids from St. Louis, including myself and including Cam Janssen, that were drafted. So that was huge. We’d had four in the history of the town, and one per year previously. So it meant a lot that we were breaking the door down for St. Louis hockey. It was really neat. And Nashville, I went to rookie camp with them four years straight and got to know that organization. It was pretty special."
ECHL.com: Your split your first two professional seasons between the AHL and the ECHL, but primarily in the ECHL with Las Vegas. What do you remember about those first two seasons and just getting acclimated to the pro game?
McKenna: "I was really lucky to fall into such a good situation in Las Vegas. Our coach there, Glen Gulutzan, who’s now with Texas in the American League, I hold him in the highest regard. He’s an excellent coach, an excellent person and he really treated everybody properly and the organization did too out there. We got along really well as a team and we won a lot of hockey games. Winning hockey as a goalie is what propels you on, really. So I got the first chance with Norfolk to go up to the "A," and I was up there for a month and a half my first year. I got a chance to kind of get my feet wet.
The next year, I was in the "A" for two and a half months of that season, but I only ended up playing five periods, I guess. It was tough to just go up and sit like that at that level and especially in my second year. I really needed to be getting in games and getting my feet wet. It’s a little bit different now, I’ve played 200 pro games or whatever. But I was real lucky to go out to Vegas. My second year, that’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. Not just because it was Las Vegas, but everybody got along. From players to the wives, girlfriends, it just was a great season. It kind of carried over to that year in Portland, when I finally got a shot in my third year."
ECHL.com: You seemed to really enjoy the Vegas experience as a whole. Orleans Arena, of course, is built into The Orleans casino…is it difficult at all playing in that kind of environment where there can be some distractions like that?
McKenna: "The Orleans Arena is NHL quality, it really is. It is a phenomenal facility. Obviously, it only seats 7,000, but it’s got every amenity needed, it’s a great facility. As far as Las Vegas, I don’t really gamble (laughs). But truthfully, I mean I didn’t make enough money to really lose anything out there. When you’re making $450-500 a week, if you want to go gamble, you’re not going to live long. So, it was a self-limiting. But it really was a lot of fun. We had a lot of good connections in the city through our team and our sponsors with stuff like Cirque De Soleil and Blue Man Group, it was just an awesome place."
ECHL.com: There was an article you’d written kind of describing the differences in the shooters you faced in the ECHL, AHL, NHL…was hoping you could elaborate on that a little bit.
McKenna: "The basic gist of that whole article that I wrote was that the difference in talent is there, but it’s not as great as people would think it is. There’s very good players at all levels of hockey. But as you go up, at each level, the mental process and the way people think about the game and the way they can see the game, that’s what improves the most. A guy at the ECHL level might see one or two passing options, but a guy might see three or four in the NHL. They’re just that much more adept and that much more experienced that they can find those plays. Individual skill level, you can find skill anywhere in hockey. But it’s how well they can process it and think on their feet and the pace their brain moves that makes the game move that fast."
ECHL.com: So how long did it take you to realize all that? How big of an adjustment was it from level to level?
McKenna: "Well, I still think the biggest jump I ever made was going from bantams to junior hockey. It’s been a gradual adjustment. Each level presents its own challenge, but it’s just incremental. Thankfully, the best offensive players are also offset by the best defensemen. It wasn’t a huge jump really at any of the levels of pro, I felt, as it was to say maybe bantams to junior or junior to college or something like that."
ECHL.com: For any player who comes through the ECHL to get to the NHL, it’s such a long road. To finally get to make your debut at the highest level like you did in 2008-09 with the Lightning…what was that moment like for you to finally get up there?
McKenna: "It was just an amazing experience because I never truthfully thought it would happen to be honest with you. It’s in the back of your head that it can happen, there’s examples of people that do. But you have to play well and you have to catch breaks along the way. You need a bit of luck, and you need somebody to believe in you. If one of those ingredients isn’t there, it may never happen, especially for a free agent guy. If you don’t sign out of junior or college, or in the first year of pro hockey, it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. I was fully aware of that and tried not to be naive about it. But getting to play that game, it was amazing, I couldn’t really believe it was happening. Now, it’s just a reality, it doesn’t phase me anymore. But at that time, it was just numbing that it happened. And it was also because I knew I had to legitimately work for it and earn it for three and a half, four years to get there. It was really rewarding."
ECHL.com: Coming into the Devils organization last year, where you came in on a tryout deal, was it pretty much that scenario all over again where you felt like you had to prove yourself all over again?
McKenna: "Yeah. It was the exact same thing. It was a strange scenario where I thought I’d finally made enough of a name for myself and garnered enough of a reputation that at least finding a job in the American League would be feasible. Coming out of that season with Tampa, I couldn’t find a job; NHL, American League, anywhere. It was humbling, and it makes you realize how much of a business it is and how people have draft picks and they have prospects, and they believe in them. You have to carve your own niche out. But the Devils gave me a chance and thankfully rewarded me for my play and have been very, very good to me so far."
ECHL.com: Spending all of last season in the AHL and starting this season out there as well…did you think that maybe getting back up again might not happen? That you’d be stuck down there for a while again?
McKenna: "At the beginning of last season, everything was up in the air. But as the season went on and I played better and the team really started to gain some momentum and make the playoffs and won games, really by about February when I signed the NHL contract, I thought there would be a realistic chance of this happening again. I knew that I had proven myself to the organization, at least, that I can do this. I knew it was feasible at that point, but for the first half of the season, everything was up in the air."
ECHL.com: Opportunities at the top level for goaltenders in this organization are pretty few and far between. To get the game in your hometown like you did, what did that mean to you?
McKenna: "It was…I’m glad it’s over, first off, because it’s the hardest game I’ve ever had to prepare for just knowing how many people would be watching. Just how many friends, family, people that are just rooting for you and want you to play well. And obviously, I want to play as well as I can. Even all the kids that go to my goalie camps, so that can be a bit nerve-wracking when your students are watching. It just meant a lot, not so much for me, but for the family. We have really deep roots with the Blues and with NHL hockey in St. Louis. My grandpa was an off-ice official until he passed, and my dad is currently the official scorer. So that really, from that standpoint, was really special. I have to give a huge amount of credit to John MacLean for starting me, because that wasn’t the easy thing to do. The easy thing to do would have been to start Heddy. He’s proven himself time and time again, but he felt that I’d be the right person for it and I tried to give him as good of a game as I could."