SACO — Growing up in St. Louis, Mike McKenna heard stories from his grandfather about what it was like trying to muster a hockey game in Missouri.

McKenna’s grandfather was one of half a dozen guys who would travel two hours to Springfield, Illinois, to play on a real rink. St. Louis finally received a National Hockey League expansion team, the Blues, in 1967, and as more Blues players settled in the area, the seeds of youth hockey germinated and eventually blossomed.

“They didn’t get boards in St. Louis until the sixties,” said McKenna, the goaltender named Most Valuable Player of the Portland Pirates last season and the only holdover from last year’s club now that the franchise has switched NHL affiliations from Arizona to Florida. “My grandpa was really one of the founding fathers.”

McKenna rode the first wave of hockey players rising from St. Louis youth programs to the NHL. Cam Janssen and former University of Maine goalie Ben Bishop are others.

“He wouldn’t believe what it’s like today,” McKenna said of what has become, with California, fertile ground for American hockey talent. “It would just blow his mind.”

McKenna’s journey from heartland to Portland has taken him through 11 organizations, nine American Hockey League cities and four NHL cities. Now 32, McKenna once again is the oldest player on the Pirates, for whom he first played in the 2007-08 season when the parent club was Anaheim.


He and his wife, Rachel, have a 2-year-old daughter, Kenlin, and are expecting a baby in February.

Florida signed McKenna to a two-year, two-way free agent contract in July for more than his wisdom, experience and ability to help mentor the younger goalies in the system. McKenna can still play at a high level. They brought him to NHL camp knowing he would be an able backup to veteran All-Star Roberto Luongo should current No. 2 goalie Al Montoya struggle.

“That’s still my goal,” McKenna said of returning to the NHL, where he has seen duty for Arizona, Columbus, New Jersey and Tampa Bay. “Consciously, I have to be aware that I have to play well here and I have to earn that right if something happens up top.”

Last winter McKenna logged more minutes and played more games (52) than in any of his previous 10 professional seasons, and with the highest save percentage (.926) of his AHL career.

“I’m very cognizant that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to play this long,” McKenna said after practice Wednesday. “But you have to keep progressing. You have to be diligent about your craft. You can’t perform 1940s dentistry in 2015, can you? It’s the same way with goaltending. You’re constantly trying to learn new things and get better.”

Watch the way McKenna uses the goalposts, for instance. A few years ago, he started using them not simply as a friend to hold on to, but as a starting block to explode from.


“We will actually push off the post with our skate blade,” he said. “We never did that before. The way we integrate with our posts is huge, and it’s something we didn’t really key in on two or three years ago.”

Scott Allen, Portland’s assistant coach, pushed for Florida to sign McKenna. They were together briefly in Omaha nine years ago and reunited in Peoria three years ago.

“Obviously, he’s a very intelligent guy,” Allen said. “He was mature back then as a rookie. He was a guy who was a student of the game and wanted to get better at his craft.”

A 2005 graduate of St. Lawrence University with a degree in economics, McKenna has been involved in the Professional Hockey Players’ Association – the labor union representing minor-leaguers – since turning pro. It wasn’t something he sought out. Teammates nominated him and he ended up enjoying the work. This is his fifth year on the union’s executive board, which is currently negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

“I told the guys the other day, ‘Mike McKenna is a GM in the making here,'” said Pirates Coach Tom Rowe. “‘So become friends with him. You may want a job some day.'”

Rowe and Allen say McKenna is not only an outstanding communicator off the ice – he compiled a five-page guide to the Portland area for his new teammates that Rowe’s soon-to-be daughter-in-law has appropriated for wedding guests – but he’s one of the best at alerting defensemen to things they can’t see.

“It gives our ‘D’ almost an extra step with him talking out there,” Allen said. “Unfortunately, not all goalies talk to their D. They’re supposed to and they should, but that is not always the case.”

NOTES: The Pirates will vote on captains Thursday. … The roster is down to 22 skaters and two goalies. … The team opens Sunday at Providence, but will head to Rhode Island Friday to scout the Bruins’ home opener against Wilkes-Barre.


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