(WSYR-TV) — In the world of hockey, goalies are considered offbeat. I know what you are thinking, “They must be. They throw their bodies in front of a puck moving 100 mph.” And while that sentiment isn’t always the most accurate, one thing is true when talking about former professional goaltender Mike McKenna.
He marches to the beat of his own drum.
After getting drafted in 2002 and playing four seasons at St. Lawrence University, McKenna played 14 seasons of pro hockey. The man who often wore number 56 between the pipes, nearly played for the same number of teams during his career. Actually, It was only 20, but holy heck that is a ton of sweaters to wear during an AHL/NHL career.
And while he is known for his time in net, and more recently as a TV analyst for the Vegas Golden Knights, you can often find McKenna at an open wheel race. Tweeting about his love of wrestling, music and playing guitar is easy to find too. Did I fail to mention he was also an economy major during his time in the North Country?
As someone who first covered McKenna during his first run with the Ottawa Senators, and their AHL-affiliate the Binghamton Senators back in 2011-12, his willingness to be different stands out.
Remember he is a goalie after all.
His individuality was even more evident during his time with Syracuse in 2016-17. McKenna led the Crunch to the Calder Cup Finals and instantly became a fan favorite. After that improbable run, McKenna continued his pro journey for two more seasons, racking up the most wins in the AHL by an American-born goalie. He then decided to hang ’em up in 2019.
Since then, McKenna has kept in touch with his fans through social media, his podcast Six-degrees with Mike McKenna and his analyst job.
Like almost every hockey job McKenna has had during his career, the time came for him and the organization to part ways. But instead of immediately jumping back into the hockey world like he had done since 2002, Mike decided it was time to focus on himself and do something that he had wanted to do for the past two decades.
Honor his grandfather.
McKenna is a proud St. Louisan, and is a bit of a legacy there. His grandfather Bill McKenna is a founding father of the St. Louis hockey scene and is in the St. Louis Amateur Hockey Hall of Fame.
Mike and Grandpa Bill, as he is affectionately called by Mike, had the type of relationship one usually only reads about or sees in a movie. You see, Mike, his father, and his grandfather were all only children. So, naturally the attention filtered through to Mike very easily. But adding to the closeness of Mike and Grandpa Bill’s relationship was the fact that both of Mike’s parents worked. Since Grandpa Bill was in retirement, the two spent a lot of time together. They talked about baseball, played golf and tennis, rode bikes, visited amusement parks together, and of course, obsessed about hockey with each other.
“He was just an incredible guy. When he passed away, I think I was 13-14 years old. You think about people that influenced you at that time and there was nobody greater than him. He was my best friend,” Mike remembered. “We did everything together… he had all the time in the world for me.”
Right up until his passing, those in St. Louis could find Grandpa Bill umping on the softball diamond or refereeing on the ice. It was also during that time that the two started fantasizing about riding their bikes along the entire Katy Trail in Missouri.
For years it had just been something Mike had talked about with Grandpa, but it became a dream unfilled due to Bill’s passing. That is until a few weeks ago.
“I think (things changed after) my contract didn’t get renewed (as an analyst) with Vegas. I had some time on my hands. Generally, around this time of year it’s your time off, but I really had some time off. I thought a reset would be good. I had been dreaming of doing this ride for what has probably been close to 20 years. I just thought, ‘It’s time for this to happen,’” McKenna said.
And with McKenna being the Type-A personality that he is, he set out to conquer the trail. Mike would bike 210 of the 240 miles on the Katy Trail over a three-day span.
That was the extent of Mike’s planning.
McKenna wanted the trek to be of the DIY (Do It Yourself) nature. Though it was this mindset that almost ended the trip before it really got going.
Riding the Katy Trail
The Katy Trail is the longest developed rail-trail in the country. It is built on the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. It’s rich in history with select parts named as an official segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The journey is as daunting as a bike ride as it is beautiful. It is also a bit different than just pedaling one of the mechanical bikes you find in the hockey workout room.
On the first night, as dusk began to set and his saddle sores already settled into his rear, Mike is still two hours from his overnight stop in Jefferson City. So far, his ride is worse than any night spent riding the pine as fill-in-the-blank team’s backup.
“My naivety and my arrogance to this trip (was a problem). I’m a former pro athlete, I can handle it and knock out 80 miles-a-day, no problem. Just get on the bike and ride, I figured. I didn’t factor in saddle sores. My butt is still healing right now. It was bruised as can be for a couple of days,” Mike remembered.
As McKenna approached a trestle bridge without a light to show him the way, he encountered a groundhog that rivals the experience captured in the American movie classic, ‘Caddy Shack.’
Here’s Mike in his own words:
“There are these wood planks (laying horizontally on the bridge), but it also had vertical planks. It was the only one on the trail like that. As soon as I got onto this bridge, about ten feet off this bridge, I saw this dark shadow start to move next to me. It’s a groundhog. I immediately deciphered it’s not going to bite my feet off, but it’s scared so bad that it started to take off running. I can hear its nails on the wood planks going as fast as it can.
I’m trying to get some separation from this thing. So, I’m cranking on the pedals. I’m already 11 hours in and I’m thinking, ‘I can’t get away from it.’ Well, the groundhog veers towards me, and my tires hit the seam between the planks. And it’s like that scene in ‘Dumb and Dumber’ when Llyod Christmas speed-wabbles on the bike in the middle of Nebraska. And that was me. I somehow save it and my heartrate is through the roof.
(But the groundhog) comes at me again and my tires hit it. I’m like, ‘this is it; I’m going down.’ The bike wabbles as I ride with clips on my pedals, so I’m attached. It’s 10:30 at night, I’m doing this solo, I’m in big trouble here.
Thankfully, on the trestle bridge, there is railing like a deck. So, the chances of me going into the creek twenty feet below are slim. I somehow caught the railing and just before I was about to hit the deck, I was able to unclip from my pedal and keep it vertical. This groundhog just ran off the end of the bridge and I stood up and I laughed. I was manically laughing in the dark on this trail.”
Despite the near death by groundhog, McKenna found his way to Jefferson City and inhaled Red Barron Pizza and Gatorade. His confidence is shaken and is willingness to continue the trip to honor Grandpa Bill is in serious danger.
Finding his inner strength
In the morning Mike contemplated taking the train back home to St. Louis. Questions of whether this trip was worth the pain were going through his head.
But as McKenna shook off a hangover, one in which came even though he never had one sip of alcohol the night before, he remembered an old hockey experience that changed his mind.
Some 19 years earlier, during a goalie camp run by Chris Economou, known as @EconGoalieGuru on Twitter, Mike was pushed to the limits.
“It was just two weeks of just skating as goalies. We didn’t stop pucks. We just skated.”
Mike believes that camp is the reason he became a professional hockey player. He was going to harness that same attitude and competitive spirit it took to complete the camp 19 years earlier.
“I was like, ‘You know what, man? You’re here. You’re almost halfway through this ride that you and your grandpa always dreamed of. Just give today a try and see what happens,” McKenna continued. “So, I got on the bike that second day and I just started grinding. I had Econ in the back of my head cursing at me saying ‘You can’t quit.’”
The effort used to overcome that self-doubt is the closest thing to professional hockey Mike has had since retiring. McKenna met the challenge and pedaled over 70 miles on day two.
The three-day journey which began after one of many life altering work decisions, ended as fulfillment. While Mike does not if he used this trip to find closure for Grandpa Bill death decades earlier, he found it.
He also found peace of mind.
When not reflecting on his relationship with his grandfather, Mike passed the time, not by listening to music but singing a couple of songs to himself over and over in his head.
I told you at the beginning of this story that Mike loves music. He loves playing guitar. But I also told you, goalies are unique. I point this out because one particular song McKenna had stuck in his head was by Swedish progressive metal band “Opeth.” Never heard of them? Don’t worry, neither have I. And when listening to the song “Bleak,” the one Mike was singing to himself during his ride, it doesn’t sound like a tune one would sing while honoring their dead grandfather on a painful 210-mile bike ride. The screams with the killer guitar riff hits you right in your face.
Give it a listen.
But the lyrics tell a different story:
Heart still beating for the cause
Soul still feeding on the loss
Limbs are aching from the rush
You are fading from my sight
You can see why Mike would settle on this sound for his journey. It almost completely sums up his feelings for Grandpa Bill.
With each turn of the peddle, every beat of his heart, Mike rides towards the end of the trail but also farther away from the memory of his grandfather.
The saddles sores healed, and the scared groundhog got over that scary night on the trestle bridge outside of Jefferson City, or at least we hope he did. But no matter what, McKenna accomplished what he wanted to do since that fateful day two decades ago… honor Grandpa Bill.
“As I peddled in on the last minute of that last day, I was in a lot of pain but man it felt good to put that bike on the rack, and be like, ‘That’s it, man. Done deal. Grandpa, we did it.’”