Mike McKenna is getting the best of both worlds in his return to the Portland Pirates this season.
McKenna, a journeyman goaltender who has played for 13 teams across the National Hockey League, American Hockey League and ECHL, including one previous stop in Portland, signed a deal with the Pirates in the offseason, affording him the opportunity to return to one of his favorite stops along the way.
“There are several cities on the eastern side of the American Hockey League that I really enjoy, Portland and Norfolk are probably the two,” McKenna said. “We made some amazing friends here, and we’ve seen a couple of them already, and we’ll some of the rest of them down the road, here. It’s just a fun city to play hockey in. People understand the game here, there’s a nice youth base to it, too, which is important.”
So, too, is the cuisine.
“As a sidebar, it’s also one of the great foodie cities,” McKenna added. “My wife and I are terribly excited about that. But that’s part of it. You want to be happy where you play, right? When I signed here, I knew that, away from the rink, we were going to be happy, and that makes being at the rink even easier.”
A long, winding journey
McKenna played four years of college hockey for St. Lawrence University in the ECAC after playing two seasons with the Springfield Junior Blues of the NAHL.
Drafted in the sixth round of the 2002 entry draft by the Nashville Predators, McKenna never saw a game with the Predators.
Three years later, after his senior season at St. Lawrence, McKenna joined the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL, where the journey began.
He bounced between the ECHL and AHL through 2007. In 2007-08, McKenna enjoyed his first extended stay in the AHL — with the Pirates, then affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks.
“That was the most success I’ve ever had, truthfully,” McKenna said.
In 41 games that season, McKenna had 24 wins and a 2.72 goals-against average with a .908 save percentage. A year later, he was with the Norfolk Admirals, and with the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL, where he saw action in 15 games.
Stops in Albany, Binghamton and Peoria followed, before he landed last season with the Springfield Falcons, affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I spent a little over a month in Columbus and actually got to play games,” McKenna said, “at a critical juncture in the season, there, too. Doing that, and actually being part of the team and being able to contribute was really good for me, because I really hadn’t had that for a few years, dating back to my time in Tampa Bay. So, last year was really a cool scenario and it felt good to get in and play well and contribute.”
McKenna is looking to build upon that success with the Blue Jackets’ organization.
That McKenna has seen in the league so long is one of the reasons the Arizona Coyotes signed him.
“With Mike, we knew what we were getting there,” Edwards said. “We have two young goalies that, even though they’ve played a couple years, they’re still young. If you look at goalies’ development as a whole, a lot of them, it takes some time. And we felt, to have a guy like Mike here to push them, that would be a good thing.”
It’s an opportunity McKenna relishes.
“It’s kind of the role I’ve fallen into now,” McKenna said. “The last few places I’ve been, I’ve teamed up with somebody young, which is something I actually take a lot of pride in.
“Whoever your two goalies are at the time, you want them both playing well,” McKenna said. “It gives your team the best chance at making the playoffs and going far, which is good for everybody.”
Now 31, McKenna acknowledged he may be the oldest player on the roster. But that hasn’t lessened his desire to achieve what all players dream: to return to the NHL.
“For Mike, this is a really good opportunity for him, as well, to push to be the No. 3 guy and maybe play some NHL games” Edwards said. “I feel like it’s a healthy battle, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. At the end of the day, it’s going to be results-driven. Whoever is going to give us success is the guys who’s going to play.”
“At the same time, too, I want to play every game, I want to have first crack at heading back to the NHL if that was needed down the line,” McKenna said. “It’s a little bit of both like that.”
The well-spoken and affable McKenna had little trouble finding friends when he first arrived in Arizona for the organization’s training camp.
“Jokingly it’s been kind of referred to as the six degrees of Mike McKenna,” he quipped. “You know, like the Kevin Bacon thing with movies? It’s kind of embarrassing but it’s funny, so I’ve kind of embraced it, that, if I don’t know somebody, I tend to know somebody that they’re friends with or went to school with, or played junior with. It’s such a small world now where, I can’t find many scenarios where I walk into a room and feel like a total stranger. There’s always some connection.”
That connection has served him well. Now in his second stint with the Pirates, McKenna is intent on helping the team rebounds from one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
“Arizona, and Portland here, they’ve really embraced the fact that you need veteran players and you need a strong support staff,” McKenna said. “Whatever capacity I end up playing, I want to be a big part of the team. I really take pride in being a leader.
“(The Pirates) bulked up in all the right areas for us to succeed. Now it’s up to us to execute on that.”