“Rasmussen, turning, here’s Rasmussen, leaving it there, here’s McKee with a shot, he scores! Jay McKee! Jay McKee picks up the trailer! Slams it home! And Buffalo leaves the City Of Brotherly Love, up two games to none!”
There’s nothing quite like a Rick Jeanneret call of an important goal scored by the Buffalo Sabres. Something about his voice and sheer excitement sends shivers up your spine. That goal, scored by Sabres defenceman Jay McKee, was the overtime clincher in Game 2 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals versus the Philadelphia Flyers. It remains one of my most notable memories of McKee in a Sabres uniform. I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview Jay McKee recently, touching on a variety of topics ranging from his tenure with the Sabres, to favourite teammates, and even what he’s currently up to after retiring from professional hockey. I can’t thank Jay enough for taking the time to sit down with me, it truly means a lot to both myself and the folks here at TCB.
Without further ado, here’s the interview:
PZ: Jay, you were drafted 14th overall by the Sabres in 1995. Are you able to explain what the draft process was like, and how nerve racking it was waiting to hear your name called?
JM: The draft was a great experience. Its hard to put into words the moment or feeling of hearing your name called. At that point in your life, it’s everything you’ve worked for and dreamed about. Agents are finely tuned and usually have an idea of a range you may get picked as a player. My agent had informed me that I could probably go as high as 10th or as low as 15th. He was pretty spot on.
PZ: You played on some pretty impressive Sabres squads during your tenure in Buffalo. Between the 1999 and 2006 playoff runs, which one stands out to you more in terms of significance to the franchise?
JM: I think the 1999 season would have had more significance given we made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. We had a team that everyone counted out, wouldn’t have expected to make it that far. Our top forward (Miroslav Satan) didn’t have near the amount of points as the top players in the league. We made it to the finals playing as a team, with a lot of grit and excellent goaltending.
PZ: Are you able to shed some light on what the locker room atmosphere was like during the Eastern Conference Finals run in 2006? What do you think the current Buffalo Sabres may lack or have an edge over, compared to that 2006 team?
JM: The 2006 team was a tight knit group. The guys all got along really well and played for each other. I don’t know the inner workings of the current Sabres team – I’m not inside the dressing room, I don’t talk to the players, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment or compare on how the teams relate to each other.
PZ: Do you believe that role players (Checkers, Shot Blockers, Fighters, etc.) still serve a meaningful purpose in today’s game? Or is it merely a dying breed?
JM: Checkers – guys that can play against and shut down top lines, I do believe they are an important part of a hockey team. These players may have some offence, yet limited – if players compete and are responsible defensively, they can be an important part of team success. Shot Blockers – yes, it’s an important aspect to winning games. Fighters – specific fighters, no, the world is changing, the game is changing, science is showing the dangers that can be attributed to fighting in hockey – I support long term health over having players who are “only” in the sport to fight.
PZ: How much do you currently follow today’s Sabres team, and how do you see them faring over the next few seasons in terms of both sustained growth and success?
JM: I follow hockey closely, but all teams. I don’t zero into the Sabres specifically. I think Jason Botterill has done an exceptional job at making much needed changes. Things haven’t been working for a few years now and he wasn’t afraid to make some major changes, I applaud that.
PZ: For those fans who aren’t up to date with your post-NHL life, what have you been up to?
JM: When I retired, I jumped right into coaching. I’ve coached in the NCAA, AHL, ACH and OHL. Along with that, I’ve coached Team Canada’s U17’s and U18’s at separate times. I’m entering my 8th season in coaching, 5th year in the OHL and currently third year as Head Coach of the Kitchener Rangers. My focus and ultimate goal is to work to become an NHL Head Coach one day.
PZ: For those fans who are, how excited are you for the team in Kitchener this season? Any special prospects that stick out in your eyes?
JM: I’m excited to be back in Kitchener. We made it to the Western Conference Finals last season and took Canada’s top team to double overtime of Game 7. We will be losing a number of key players, but I’m excited about the level of compete and determination of our returning players. We have a couple defencemen in their draft years in Michael Vukojevic and Jack York (son of former NHLer Jason York).
PZ: Where is your favourite place to get Wings when you’re in Buffalo?
JM: Believe it or not, I never really ate wings as a player. I mainly focused on training hard and eating clean (laughs).
PZ: Are you able to divulge into the early years of your hockey career, from junior up to the NHL?
JM: Early years – up to a pro. I think I was always fortunate to play well at the right times while growing up. I think I often went from an unknown to impressing the right people at the right times to earn the opportunities that I was given.
PZ: If you can, give your opinion of the direction of the NHL, good or bad, in terms of the way the game is played in 2018, with smaller, creative, speedy players becoming more and more dominant.
JM: I liked the old school game of hockey. I feel that I played during the grittiest and most entertaining generation of the game. 10-15 years before I played, it was a bit of a goon show, but in the 8 years since I’ve retired, the game has gotten much softer and smaller with more of an emphasis on skill and speed. I really enjoy the tradition of the game, being built on aggression and contact – but I do understand the importance and desire of living a healthy life, post career.
PZ: Jumping back to 2006 for a second, did you find yourself as a veteran trying to mentor the younger core of players, such as Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, etc. What sort of tactics motivated the team? How much do you think injuries played a role in the Eastern Conference Finals exit?
JM: We had a real group in 2006. There wasn’t a whole lot of mentoring needed, it was like a bunch of buddies playing together. I thought we had the best team, the team that had the most on ice chemistry that postseason. I believe that without the injuries to 4 of our top 6 defencemen, we win the Stanley Cup that year.
PZ: Jumping back to 1999, what was it like playing for a shot at the Stanley Cup? What was the atmosphere like with the fans and the city of Buffalo, especially at KeyBank Center?
JM: There’s no feeling like the feeling of having the opportunity to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. It’s what hockey players dream about since they were 4 or 5 years old. I still dream today about winning that Cup, it’s a big part of the motivation of why I coach.
PZ: Who was your favourite/preferred defence partner in your time with Buffalo? Who where your favourite teammates, or who have you kept a close knit friendship with in your retirement?
JM: Rhett Warrener was my favourite teammate to play with. I’ve kept in touch with many teammates over the years, so I wouldn’t draw on one or two guys specifically that I’ve stayed really close with. I’ve been fortunate to make many good friends over the years in the sport.
PZ: Final Question: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask this. Was Brett Hull’s foot in the crease?
JM: Brett Hull’s foot was clearly in the crease, there’s no opening for debate on that one.
I’d like to extend a massive thank you to Jay McKee once again for taking the time to sit down with me and let me pick his brain about all things hockey. Go Sabres!
If you’re on Twitter, give Jay and myself a follow! @JayMcKee74 @paulzuk_81
Jay McKee OT Goal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMOsvAoj5Kg