VANCOUVER -- It was a short skate from the Zamboni entrance behind the net to the blue line, but even after playing 16 NHL seasons, it made Kirk McLean nervous.
McLean still plays hockey with the Vancouver Canucks alumni, but exclusively as a forward. The 53-year-old hadn't worn a pair of goalie skates or strapped on pads since he retired in 2001, so that 75-foot skate wearing a full set of goaltending equipment in front of a sold-out crowd at Rogers Arena as part of the 50th anniversary celebration before Vancouver's home opener against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday had him a little rattled.
"Skating in goal skates after that long was the tough part," said McLean, who said he skated some practice laps earlier in the week to get comfortable. "We had a little bit of nerves going into it, but as soon as you put that gear on again it all kind of comes back."
The reaction was well worth any risk, and a sign of just how deeply a goalie and the equipment he wears can become etched in the psyche of hockey fans.
McLean, who played parts of 11 seasons with the Canucks from 1987-88 to 1997-98, received a huge ovation as he skated out to join past and present players for a celebration that included Bo Horvat being named Vancouver's 14th captain. But the response after video and images spread online showing McLean in a replica set of his old signature equipment and wearing the black, orange and yellow jersey with the skate logo on the front, hit another level.
"It was electric," McLean said Thursday. "You come off the ice and it's a text haven. I just finished answering everybody this morning, but it was nice to read some of the comments, and on social media it was nice to hear that a lot of people were touched by it and it put smiles and some tears and some lumps in people's throats. It was a good moment."
It's not like McLean isn't already front and center with the Canucks. He appears regularly at games in his role as a team ambassador and plays with the alumni team. But there was something about seeing him in his old equipment, the signature black Vaughn pads, tan blocker and multi-colored glove, that sparked a more visceral reaction.
"It's like that song that as soon as you hear it you are taken back to college or some special time in your life," said Corey Hirsch, a goalie who played with McLean from 1995-96 to 1997-98 and now is an analyst on Canucks radio broadcasts. "We all long for a connection to the past, it's human nature, and for Canucks fans and goalie nerds like me, seeing Kirk in that equipment took us right back."
Much of it can be tied to McLean's leading role in the Canucks' run to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, which ended with a loss against the New York Rangers in Game 7. But that run included a sliding stacked-pads save in overtime of Game 7 of the first round against the Calgary Flames that has been cemented in Canucks lore. So too, based on the reaction from his cameo Wednesday, is the unique look of the equipment McLean wore while making that save.
Recently retired NHL goalie Mike McKenna responded to a video on Twitter showing McLean skating onto the ice with a tweet of his own: "I'm hyperventilating at Kirk's setup."
"It just brought me right back to my youth," McKenna said Thursday from Las Vegas, where he now works as a television analyst on Golden Knights broadcasts after a 14-season pro career that included games with seven NHL teams. "Those goalies, you don't realize it as a kid, but every setup they had was iconic, whether it was Kirk McLean or Bob Essensa or Ed Belfour. The gear was very unique-looking back then and it's bland now. So when McLean came out it was it was like he was being reincarnated on the ice."
McKenna admittedly is biased toward nostalgic equipment. While with the Dallas Stars in 2017-18 he used Bauer's digital printing technology to have a modern set of pads created that looked like the Bauer Reactor pads and gloves he wore as a teen.
"It gave me goosebumps when I saw it because it made me remember my childhood and my first couple years of college wearing those," he said. "I had a deeper connection to it."
Canucks fans seemed to feel the same way about McLean's look, but achieving it wasn't easy. He still had one of his signature masks, and long-time Canucks equipment manager Pat O'Neill had one of his old wood Hespeler sticks. But any other original equipment long ago had been donated to charities and sports museums.
Fortunately they found a rec-league goalie nearby who was just as passionate about McLean's iconic setup as McKenna was about his.
Josh Bowman, a 34-year-old firefighter, has been a goalie since he was 6 years old and fell in love with the sport and the position after watching McLean play. So as soon as he had enough money to buy new custom equipment, it had to be a McLean replica set.
Lending it to the man himself for the 50th anniversary celebration was an equally easy decision.
"It made me feel like a kid again," Bowman said. "I'm just glad I could help and that it seems to have meant as much to so many other people seeing him out there as it did for me."