“They were the only team to offer me a contract,” McKenna said with a smile.
How can that be? No, McKenna's not a household name and he's not a touted prospect but the St. Louis native posted a 24-13-1 record for the Portland Pirates last winter, along with a 2.72 GAA and a .908 save percentage. Without that performance, the Pirates almost certainly wouldn't have made the playoffs. So why did McKenna's phone remain relatively silent last summer?
“It's harder for goalies, even good goalies, to hook on with an NHL franchise because there's only two spots on each AHL team,” McKenna noted. “At least one and often both of those spots are taken by drafted players. Goalies in my situation are few and far between and you pretty much have to set the league on fire to stick around.”
McKenna, 25, said he was becoming resigned to beginning a fourth consecutive season in the ECHL when the Tampa Bay Lightning called late in the summer. He won a training camp battle against Bolts draft pick Riku Helenius
, who will begin the season with ECHL affiliate Augusta (Ga.) and hopes to eventually become Norfolk's starter.
That won't happen right away, if at all. Top prospect Karri Ramo is slated to start roughly two of every three games to enhance his development and McKenna isn't likely to break that pattern unless injury or an NHL call-up intervenes. Still, he's not backing down.
“I have to plan and prepare for playing every game and if that doesn't happen, you still have to help the team however you can,” said the St. Lawrence University product. “I think I showed last year that I can be a No. 1 goalie in this league and I hope to have that chance again.”
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The Admirals lost twice to visiting Hershey to begin the AHL season last weekend, but the team's energy and offensive potential had coaches, players and fans in an upbeat mood.
In addition, it was quickly apparent that Hershey is a force to be reckoned with. Minus injuries or massive recalls to the parent Washington Capitals, the Bears will give opponents fits.
“Hershey might be the best team in the league,” said Rumble, whose squad fell 4-3 Saturday a night after a 5-3 loss. “Yes, it's early and you're wondering how I can say that without seeing the other teams. But I've seen a lot of AHL teams over the years and the one we played this weekend is awfully strong.
“I'd rather play a good team early than a weak one, because those games are going to make you better.”
On paper, the Admirals could also be one of the AHL's better clubs. In fact, Norfolk center Paul Szczechura made that statement out loud while stretching in an empty dressing room after Saturday's contest.
“We have so much offensive ability and if we just tidy up things in our own end, we'll make a run at the (Calder) Cup for sure,” he said. “We showed signs this weekend and we're going to have a real good year.”
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The Admirals drew 3,745 last Friday for their opening game. That was down from the 5,627 that saw last season's home opener and was the lowest opening night crowd in franchise history, although those in attendance were vocal and enthusiastic.
Teams across the AHL are feeling the pinch from the sluggish U.S. economy and the Admirals are no different. Many Hampton Roads residents are employed by the military and don't have a lot of discretionary income at the best of times, so a financial downturn is sure to be noticed at Scope's gates.
However, Admirals vice president Joe Gregory noted that attendance for Saturday's second home game was virtually the same as for the second home game of last season and that walkup sales for the opener rose 30 percent from last season.
“I hate to start talking about excuses,” Gregory told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper. “We’re just going to have to re-double our efforts and work harder. It’s just nice to have 18 days to regroup and really put that focus on the next homestand.”
Norfolk’s next home game is Oct. 29 against Philadelphia. The Admirals play in Cleveland, Hamilton, Ont., Rockford, Ill. and Grand Rapids, Mich. on a 5-game road trip before returning to Scope.
* * * * *
The Augusta Lynx open their season Friday against the visiting Mississippi Sea Wolves, who recently announced affiliations with the Philadelphia Flyers and their AHL team, the Philadelphia Phantoms.
Augusta dropped its two exhibition games last weekend but defenseman and Lighting prospect Kevin Quick earned an assist in the second contest when his shot was tipped in by 5-foot-6 center Dallas Steward, who also scored Friday.
"I don't care if you're playing checkers or rummy or exhibition games. You still want to win," Lynx coach John Marks told the Augusta Chronicle. "But we're evaluating talent here and trying to give some guys the chance to play themselves onto the team and some to play out of it."