As he bounced around the minor leagues for parts of four seasons, former Wranglers goaltender Mike McKenna always kept an even keel, never getting too high or too low emotionally, as he kept alive his lifelong quest of playing in the NHL.
But during a phone conversation with Las Vegas coach Glen Gulutzan this year, McKenna lost it, choking up as he delivered the good news: He had gotten the call he'd waited for his whole life. He was going to realize his dream of playing in the NHL.
"It was just unbelievable. Honestly, I was kind of emotionally overwhelmed," the 25-year-old McKenna said of getting called up from the American Hockey League's Norfolk Admirals to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Super Bowl Sunday. "I'd been on an AHL contract all year, so it was really a shock.
"I'd spent almost four years in the minors trying to work my way (up), and there were times when I didn't think I would stick in the American League."
McKenna, a St. Louis native who went 46-6-8 for the Wranglers, has appeared in 10 games this season for the Tampa Bay Lightning -- going 3-4-1 with a 3.71 goals-against average -- and he's one of six former Las Vegas players to make their NHL debuts this season.
The others are goalies John Curry (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Brent Krahn (Dallas Stars) and defensemen Adam Pardy (Calgary Flames), Tyson Strachan (St. Louis Blues) and Tyler Sloan (Washington Capitals).
"It just shows how much success we've had in Las Vegas the last couple of years," McKenna said.
He shut out the New York Islanders 1-0 on Feb. 7 in his second NHL start for his first win. McKenna's parents attended the game, which was officiated by Don Koharski, his former youth hockey coach.
"It was like it was scripted almost. It was crazy," McKenna said.
His father ran down to ice level to greet him after the 28-save performance.
"It was a really cool moment. He gave me a big hug afterward. It was one of those unscripted moments that happened. It was pretty awesome," McKenna said.
After first calling his parents with news of his NHL call-up, McKenna made a flurry of phone calls to people who'd helped him along the way, and Gulutzan was near the top of the list.
"Gully is somebody who was really good to me. He gave me a chance when he didn't have to ... and ultimately I landed on the next level," McKenna said. "I think Gully still might be the best coach I've ever played for."
In the midst of a trying season, Gulutzan said "it's more than gratifying" to see six of his former players reach the NHL.
"That's what you coach for," Gulutzan said. "We all have dreams of making the NHL. It couldn't happen to better guys, either. They're great people that started at this level and worked their way up. When you're playing in the ECHL, the NHL looks far away, but you realize if you've got some potential and you work, you can get there.
"When you're talking about Tyson Strachan and Mike McKenna, those guys weren't under contract (with an NHL team), so they had a long road."
Strachan, who has played 30 games this season for the St. Louis Blues, is especially grateful to Gulutzan, who recommended him to the AHL's Peoria Rivermen last season over a player from another ECHL team.
"Honestly, I owe Glen a ton of thank-yous," said Strachan, who helped lead Las Vegas to last year's ECHL Kelly Cup Finals. "When I got the call to Peoria (last season), I can honestly say it was all on behalf of Gully.
"He's a great coach and a great man. He's a good guy to have at the helm down there."
When Peoria asked Gulutzan about another player, he replied, "Why don't you take (Strachan)?"
" 'I still think he's an NHL prospect' were my exact words," Gulutzan said. "They gave him a try, and the rest is history. That's what you need -- a break and someone in your corner. But Tyson did it himself. He played well enough to earn it.
"He was making 550 bucks a week, and he's making $550,000 a year now. That's a big difference. I should get at least four free dinners, I think, whenever I see those guys."
Although they've all gotten a taste of the big time -- and the good life that comes with it -- McKenna said he and his former Wranglers teammates in the NHL always will treasure their time in Las Vegas.
"We had such a good time playing there," he said. "I look back on it now, and those first two years were really the time of my life."
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.