When Mike McKenna
reports to Blues Training Camp in September, he won’t need anyone to show him around town.
The 29-year-old goaltender grew up in St. Louis and still lives here in the offseason. On July 1, he signed a one-year, two-way contract with his hometown team and he couldn't be happier.
Interestingly enough, McKenna was originally invited to the Blues' prospect camp prior to the start of the 2007-08 season. He impressed management enough to join the team at the Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, where he won both games he started, including a 41-save shutout effort against Dallas. He eventually joined the team’s main Training Camp in September, but that's where his run eventually ended. McKenna was never signed by the Blues: the crease was already crowded with Manny Legace, Hannu Toivonen, Jason Bacashihua and Marek Schwarz battling for playing time.
“There just wasn’t any room at all. It was unfortunate,” McKenna said recently. “But being seen and some of the exposure I got there led to me getting a job in the American (Hockey) League in Portland, which basically jump started my career…so the Blues have been very instrumental in my career in furthering it. If I didn’t have those opportunities, I’m not sure I’d be here today.”
“Here today” happened to be Lake George, NY, where McKenna conducted an interview by phone shortly after signing a contract with the Blues. He had been spending the week there, in his fiancee's hometown, while the couple prepared for their wedding on June 30. Less than 24 hours after tying the knot, and almost five years since that original prospect camp, he had a contract on the table from the Blues.
“It was kind of surreal when it happened, because for me at least, I’ve never really thought it was a realistic thing,” he said. “We’ve always flirted a little bit, but the timing hasn’t worked. As soon as (the contract) came across, it was a no-brainer for me. Not only is it possibly a once-in-a-lifetime thing to play for your hometown team, but it’s also a good scenario. It’s somewhere I’d like to play…I’m not just signing a contract.”
McKenna’s roots in Blues hockey stretch way beyond prospect camps. His grandfather, Bill, was a linesman in the Central Hockey League when the St. Louis Braves existed. He also worked as an off-ice official for the Blues since the franchise was founded in 1967. McKenna’s father, Terry, began working as an off-ice official at the St. Louis Arena in the '80s, and he still works at Scottrade Center in the same role today.
“(My dad) was a pretty happy guy (about the Blues signing me). I think it’s just because it’s so much of a family history thing,” McKenna said. “He’s just really happy and he knows it means a lot to me and everybody else in our family. I can’t imagine how proud my grandpa would be right now.”
McKenna said that Blues goalie Greg Millen was his first hockey hero and he still has a photo he took with Millen at the St. Louis Arena when he was 4-years-old.
“Off-ice officials got season tickets, so I used to show up early to every (Blues) game,” McKenna said. “We’d be there for warm-ups and I’d always go watch the goalies. From (Curtis) Joseph to (Pat) Jablonski, (Guy) Hebert, (Grant) Fuhr, you name it…all those guys were heroes of mine growing up.”
McKenna got his start in organized youth hockey in Kirkwood. He attended Parkway South High School for two years before leaving for Springfield, IL to play junior hockey. He played four years at St. Lawrence University and was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2002. After joining the Blues camps on a tryout basis in 2007, McKenna got his break when he signed with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals and was later called up by the Tampa Bay Lightning when Olaf Kolzig suffered a season-ending injury. McKenna played in 15 NHL games with the Tampa Bay.
After that, he joined the New Jersey Devils organization, earning a call up when Martin Brodeur was injured. The timing couldn’t have been better…he started between the pipes against Jaroslav Halak at Scottrade Center on Nov. 20, 2010, where he made 24 saves in a 3-2 loss.
For the time being though, hockey is on the backburner. Just a day after signing with the Blues, McKenna left town for Aruba to begin a honeymoon with his new wife, Rachel. When he gets back, he’ll start focusing on hockey, which will likely consist of sharing the goalie duties with Jake Allen in Peoria.
“It’s a really really amazing moment, but I think I’ve been prepared for something like this to happen for awhile,” McKenna said about signing with the Blues organization. “I’ve thought about what it would be like to sign with the Blues, and it’s what I expected: It’s my dream and I’m as happy as can be.”
Fans can follow Mike McKenna on Twitter @MikeMcKenna56