April 6, 2006

Junior Goalie McKee Joins the Real World: Anaheim

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Sadly, I am graduating in less than two months. I do not have a job, a future place to live or even have a faint idea what I’m going to do after I receive my diploma and leave a place where you could drink wine for school credit.

However, for junior David McKee, his reality of a life after college and Ithaca, N.Y., started in a split second last week. And for him, it hasn’t yet sunk in.

Today, he’s facing shots in practice from stars like Teemu Selanne. When he looks over his shoulder in the locker room, he’s sitting next to veteran Scott Niedermayer. And when he glances down at his sweater, it’s plain to see – he’s now a goaltender in the NHL for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

His pads do not even fit correctly. His custom-made ones that the team ordered haven’t arrived yet so he’s borrowing from a few different goalies.

“It’s just a mess of equipment,” McKee said over the phone.

What was a mess – or a “rollercoaster,” as McKee calls it – was the most exhilarating, nerve-racking, happiest and saddest week of his life. Just the Sunday before last, McKee hung his head in utter disappointment on the ice in Green Bay’s Resch Center, when a blistering Jack Skille shot sent the Cornell men’s hockey team home without a Frozen Four berth after a three-overtime classic against Wisconsin. McKee made a career-high 59 saves.

Calling the next few days a whirlwind would be a gross understatement. Part of McKee expected it, to a certain extent – he told his coaches at the beginning of his junior year that there would be a good chance he’d leave Cornell early to go to the pros. Not too long after that final horn blew in Green Bay, NHL teams started contacting McKee’s agent, Wade Arnott. Before he knew it, McKee went to Toronto on Tuesday to evaluate offers with Arnott. McKee combed over every team’s depth chart and their individual deals so he could make an educated decision.

McKee eventually narrowed it down to three teams, but decided that because of Anaheim’s relative lack of depth in the goaltending position, along with its contract, it was the best situation for him. And wondrous chances like this are fleeting.

“The offer and opportunities were there and it was too good to pass up,” he said.

That didn’t help prevent the hardest 48 hours of McKee’s life. He returned to Ithaca on Thursday, perhaps not fully realizing yet that his life of going to classes in Statler Hall, practicing at Lynah Rink, and just hanging out with his teammates – his best friends – in their house in Collegetown was over.

“They were really supportive, and they’re the best group of guys I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “They really helped me be OK with the fact that I chose to leave. I owe a lot to those guys this last couple of years.”

He packed all of his possessions into boxes on Friday. He had to say his goodbyes to some of the most important people of his life, including a girlfriend of two years, in a single day.

His emotions weren’t those of a Hobey Baker finalist and record-setting collegiate athlete, but of just a normal 22-year-old person about to leave behind a place he’s made his home for three years. Those feelings did not truly surface until around 1 a.m. that evening – right before his flight to Anaheim less than two hours later.

“It kind of hit like a ton of bricks,” he said of that moment. “I almost felt like kind of a failure for leaving my teammates and my best friends. That one day was probably the most difficult day in my life.”

McKee will remain with the NHL team until next season, when he will join the Ducks’ minor league affiliate squad in Portland. Right now, he is shacked up in a hotel just across the street from Anaheim’s Arrowhead Pond. He brought a single bag with a couple of shirts and pants and a suit from Ithaca, so when he’s not practicing, he’s getting new clothes with his dad, Carl, so he’ll have something to wear.

In practice, he immediately felt the brunt of playing at the highest level – not only with his NHL-regulated smaller pads, but also with the elite level of skill. He admitted since he’s arrived that, “I haven’t stopped a whole lot of shots.”

McKee said he is fortunate because he has been working with renowned goaltending coach, Francois Allaire, and said even in the first 30 minutes with him, he learned plenty more about the position.

“I knew I had weaknesses, but I didn’t know I had this many,” he said with a chuckle.

McKee, who hopes to take correspondence courses to finish up his degree, said his new teammates are helping make him feel comfortable and included and there are actually guys who are younger than he is. He said that being around professionals and seeing how they conduct themselves is one great part of an experience in which he will likely not see a game for the next few months.

Until then, McKee, like many players who have come out of the Cornell hockey woodwork before him, will patiently wait and practice for his opportunity to focus on and achieve his ultimate dreams.

He’s just a few days removed from his former home over 2,500 miles away, where he dazzled fans and opposing teams alike at Lynah Rink for three years. He’s like anyone who is looking onto something new and unusual – he’s excited and nervous.

After speaking with him, in an unusual way, I could relate to a few of McKee’s emotions and sentiments during his crazy week. It connected to my own mixed feelings about leaving Cornell. Many of us are enjoying ourselves as second-semester seniors and many of us are excited about starting something new after we leave. But, we’re also finding out that our own rollercoaster in Ithaca has almost come to a stop.

And for us, just like him, many of us are waiting for the reality of it to sink in.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Senior Writer. Life of Brain will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao