SPRINGFIELD, M.A. – If you’re a fan of the American Hockey League or hockey in general, there’s a good chance you know who Mike McKenna is. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to.
After 10 seasons in the pro’s, the veteran netminder, who has spent time with the Portland Pirates and Binghamton Senators amongst many others, has developed a vast fanbase nationwide as he continues his career this season with the Springfield Thunderbirds.
For example, the first professional sport McKenna experienced actually wasn’t hockey.
“I grew up in motor racing. My dad raced open-wheel cars up to the SuperVee level in SCCA, which was roughly the amateur equivalent of Pro Mazda or Indy Lights today,” explained McKenna about the origins of his interest in racing.
It was only after the season would pass that the young athlete would be able to hit the ice, yet he didn’t seem to mind.
“I spent my winters in hockey rinks and summers towing a race car to tracks all around the U.S.,” he said. “It was an incredibly interesting and exciting life as a kid. My dad was a race car driver! How many people can say that?”
Although his father went pro in racing, McKenna quickly came to the conclusion that he was better off focusing on his strengths at the rink.
“I tried my hand at karting for a few summers, stunk the place up, and realized that hockey was what I needed to concentrate on,” said the goaltender. “Now, however, you can’t get me to leave any indoor karting facility. I still love the rush of hitting a corner just right.”
His passion for racing extends to more than just physical thrills as you can likely find McKenna at the racetrack during the offseason, taking it all in.
“It’s such an unpredictable sport, and it has a technological aspect to it that I find fascinating. It’s not just the driver who’s competing, but it’s the engine manufacturer, chassis makers, etc.,” explained McKenna. “I think it’s a sport that truly needs to be seen in person to appreciate. Television doesn’t do it justice.”
It’s also no secret that another one of McKenna’s passions is food, which is a popular genre of photos on his Instagram feed.
“My interest really started by watching shows like Top Chef and getting a subscription to Food & Wine Magazine. That really changed things for me,” he said. “It opened my eyes to how many ingredients exist and how differently each culture prepares them.”
When it comes to cooking in, McKenna and his family look forward to planning out their meals every week around the hectic game-day schedule the hockey season brings.
“I really, really enjoy anything that spends time braising in my dutch oven. Short ribs, chicken, lamb shanks, you name it,” said the chef-goalie extraordinare. “Set the oven to 325, sear the meat, sautee some veggies, cover it all in broth or wine, and see you in a few hours. To me, that’s comfort food at its finest.”
And if he’s dining out, there is one type of place where you’re guaranteed to never see him.
“Nothing bores me more than a steakhouse,” declared McKenna. “I tend to prefer small-plate restaurants spanning cultural boundaries. I love sitting down and having the chance to experience many different flavors.”
With an expanded kitchen knowledge, McKenna now looks back on fond childhood memories of gathering around the family table in his hometown of Manchester, Missouri.
“I was lucky to grow up in a house where my mom cooked often, and her food was pretty diverse and often tasty,” reminisced McKenna. “It’s something I really enjoyed and have tried to carry on with my family.”
Along with racing and fine cuisine, McKenna is also proudly passionate about the company which his dog is named for.
“I’ve used Bauer since I was 14 years old, so going on 20 years strong!” said McKenna, who can’t imagine ever switching to another equipment manufacturer. “They’ve supported me throughout my career and provide the best service anyone could ask for. I feel very fortunate to be a Bauer athlete.”
“And yes, my dog is named Bauer Supreme,” he added. “It seemed like a great idea at the time. Later it became obvious that thousands of hockey players had the same idea. C’est la vie.”
“Most often I have my color scheme locked in by July 1, but contract status can play into it as well,” explained the veteran netminder. “When you change organizations as often as I have, you learn to adapt to designs pretty quickly!”
The actual design of the gear is dependent on which graphic Bauer decides to use for the upcoming season, which are usually on a two-year cycle, according to McKenna.
“Often times I have the opportunity to plan ahead, but sometimes they come out with a new line or alter the existing graphic, so you have to be flexible and work within the template you’re given,” detailed McKenna on designing his body gear.
As for his helmet’s artwork, McKenna’s inspiration can be traced to his passion for racing, particularly from an old helmet that racer Jeff Ward wore in an Indy Lights race several years ago.
“I saw it on a telecast, thought it was the greatest ever, and had a friend that was a PR rep within racing track down some pictures for me,” said McKenna. “It’s evolved over the years, but I like that my masks have some continuity to them throughout the course of my career.”
After many stops with many organizations over his career, it’s not at all a challenge for McKenna to determine which moments were among the best he’s experienced on the ice.
“My first NHL win and shutout, which were the same night. Short of winning a Stanley Cup, I’m not sure anything could ever top it,” said McKenna of his biggest career accomplishment, which occurred with the Tampa Bay Lightning on February 7, 2009, against the New York Islanders.
“But last season, something came very close,” McKenna continued. “After setting the Pirates all-time record for wins, the team surprised me during the post-game interview by inviting my wife, Rachel, onto the ice along with our daughters, Kenlin and Adeline. I was stunned, flattered, and truly thankful to be able to play three seasons in such a great city.”
While McKenna’s journey through the world of hockey continues with the Springfield Thunderbirds this season, such memories are with the seasoned pro each time he takes the ice.
“Moments like that don’t happen very often, if ever, in a career,” concluded McKenna. “I’ve been very fortunate.”