On April 13, Mike McKenna skated off home ice at PPL Arena in Allentown, Pennsylvania — you could almost hear Billy Joel singing about closing factories down — after playing his final game as a professional goaltender. The Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the top minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, had just beaten the Hartford Wolf Pack in a shootout.
McKenna made the save on the final breakaway he would ever face. He waved to his kids upon skating out for a curtain call.
At 36, he was getting too old to drive in the Indianapolis 500 or tour with the Swedish death metal band Amon Amarth. Those would have been his first two choices. While he has never kicked a field goal with giraffes serving as goalposts like the Dos Equis beer guy, that doesn’t make McKenna any less interesting.
But no one rocks a goalie backup towel like McKenna — hockey is still what he knows best. So when the Golden Knights reached out and said they were changing lines on their studio broadcast team, he said yes. Becoming an analyst is something that would interest him.
For now, anyway.
“I knew a lot of people in the game because of the suitcase career I’ve had,” said McKenna, who played in 35 games for seven NHL teams (Lightning, Devils, Blue Jackets, Coyotes, Stars, Senators, Flyers) and hundreds more for 17 minor league teams, including 63 for the defunct Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL.
“I had Dan D’Uva in Syracuse,” he said of the Golden Knights radio play-by-play broadcaster. “I gave myself a deadline of a year or two to see if I could make this work. I didn’t have any idea there would be something for me here.”
He said the opportunity reminds him of when he started playing for the Wranglers and lived in an apartment across from the Las Vegas Ice Center at Interstate 215 and Flamingo Road — and wasn’t sure he’d get his security deposit back.
“I came out here out of school, not even knowing I would make the team,” he said. “I didn’t have any expectations. Let’s see where this goes. Now years later, here I am, coming back.”
During a brief but far-ranging conversation at City National Arena, McKenna said he was nowhere as good a race-car driver as his father, which would have been his career of choice. Terry McKenna won the Sports Car Club of America’s President’s Cup, whose winners include former IndyCar champions Bobby Rahal and Jimmy Vasser and Roger Penske, whose cars have won the Indy 500 a record 18 times.
“I did a couple of summers (racing karts), but it’s tough to have two expensive hobbies,” Mike McKenna said of burning rubber and stopping it.
He also wanted to set the record straight about the genre of heavy metal he fancies: “A lot of it is Scandinavian, but I really don’t have a preference,” he said. “If a band is from the Czech Republic, I’m not gonna hold it against them.”
There’s an album by Joan Jett, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer, called “Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth,” and although her brand of rock is probably much too timid for McKenna’s tastes, he said he could relate to that theme growing up in St. Louis as an only child.
“I think I just grew up in a curious household,” he said of his myriad and diverse interests. “My dad was a tinkerer who did a lot of different things. He was a dentist and a race-car driver, and he was the official scorer for the Blues. He’s always been very worldly and well read and curious.
“I think that kind of led me to being interested in a lot of different things. I’m also an only child, so I had to keep myself entertained. I think that probably led to a lot of this.”
This would include his passion for open wheel auto racing and Swedish death metal and cooking stuff on a grill and self-produced podcasts (6 Degrees with Mike McKenna) about quirky things he finds fascinating, such as goaltender backup towels.
McKenna may not have invented the backup towel — “(Gerry) Cheevers wore it like it was nobody’s business,” he said of the former Boston Bruins goalie during their 1970s glory days — but he’s doing his part to keep the tradition alive.
“It does keep your neck warm,” he said. “You go out there in warmups and you’ve been sweating and it’s easy to get cold.”
I tried to steer the conversation back to the Wranglers, midnight puck droppings and Dick Cheney Hunting Vest Night, but by this time Mike McKenna was glancing at his watch. Any questions about Mini Kiss would have to wait until next time.
Mike McKenna file
Born: April 11, 1983, in St. Louis
College: St. Lawrence University
Drafted: 2002, sixth round, Nashville Predators
Played for: Tampa Bay Lightning, New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets, Arizona Coyotes, Dallas Stars, Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers
Family: Wife, Rachel; daughters, Kenlin (6) and Adeline (3)
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Voices of the Knights
TV play-by-play: Dave Goucher
TV color analyst: Shane Hnidy
VGK insider: Gary Lawless
Radio play-by-play: Dan D’Uva
Deportes Vegas radio play-by-play: Jesus Lopez
Deportes Vegas radio analyst: Herbert Castro
Studio host: Daren Millard
Studio analyst: Mike McKenna
Rinkside reporter: Stormy Buonantony