By Mike Griffith
Californian Staff Writer
The Bakersfield Californian
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – For the Bakersfield Condors, the upcoming season is a fresh start — as an affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks, the first time in franchise history the team has had an affiliation.
For goaltender Dave McKee, it’s a new beginning as well, but in a familiar organization.
A standout at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., McKee was lured away from college after his junior season in 2006 and signed a contract with the Ducks, one of many National Hockey League teams seeking his services.
Just over a year later the Ducks told McKee he no longer fit into their plans and the once highly-touted prospect spent last season adrift in a sea of minor-league hockey, spending time with five different teams.
Now he’s landed in Bakersfield after, surprise of all surprises, the Ducks signed him to a one-year minor-league contract.
“It was pretty strange and unexpected to say the least,” McKee said of receiving an offer from the Ducks. “I had signed with Charlotte (of the ECHL) and got a phone call from Anaheim saying they wanted me to come back. I couldn’t believe it.”
Harboring no ill feeling over the past, and wanting a second chance, McKee jumped at the offer.
“I had such a good experience with Anaheim and I know everyone there so it was a comfort zone for me,” he said. ” I wanted to come back. I wanted to be a part of this organization so I had to take that opportunity.”
And he knew that opportunity most likely would have him headed to Bakersfield and the ECHL.
“They were very honest,” McKee said. “They told me exactly what the deal was. They need me to be a really good fifth (goaltender) and if anything happens they’ll get me up (to the Iowa Chops in the American Hockey League) to play some games.
“They told me to play my best.”
If McKee’s best can come close to what he did at Cornell he might stick with the Ducks a bit longer than his first go-around.
Born in Irving, Texas, McKee, 24, didn’t even know what ice hockey was until the Minnesota North Stars relocated there in 1993 and his father dragged him to a game.
Baseball and football fell by the wayside and McKee, inspired by Stars goaltender Andy Moog, decided to give hockey a try as a goaltender.
“When I was younger I wasn’t very good. Not good at all, actually,” McKee said.
But he got good enough to be noticed by Cornell where he became an overnight sensation.
Penciled in as the third goaltender as a freshman, McKee wound up in a starting role due to injuries and played in 102 straight games. He was 27-5-3 as a sophomore with a miniscule 1.24 goals-against average and astounding .947 save percentage. He was one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top collegiate player in 2005 and was named the Ivy League player of the year.
McKee spent most of his rookie pro season in Augusta (Anaheim’s former ECHL affiliate) but was called up to Anaheim twice for a total of five games in a backup role (he never played) due to injuries.
He won 29 games for Augusta but his 3.35 goals-against average and .898 save percentage may not have been what the Ducks were looking for and they set him free.
“That’s the way of the hockey world, things are fickle,” he said.
McKee played 23 games for the Phoenix Roadrunners in the ECHL last season and remembers his first game in Bakersfield last November — the annual Teddy Bear toss game (where fans toss stuffed animals on the ice after the first Bakersfield goal).
“It was a pretty neat experience,” he recalled. “I think there were Teddy Bears up to my knees. It was a really cool experience.”
Although his pro career has yet to take off, McKee has no second thoughts over leaving Cornell early.
“I loved playing there, but I don’t regret leaving,” he said. “It was an awesome experience being up with Anaheim and trying to move forward with my professional career.”
He even put a positive spin on being a vagabond last season.
“I think it helped me build a little character and maybe a little more mental toughness,” he said. “It was a fun year, lots of different travel, lots of different cities.”
As for his second chance with the Ducks, McKee said he’s up to the challenge.
“I need to make a statement this year,” he said.