By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Jay McKee spent 13 full seasons (and one game in a 14th) in the National Hockey League. He was the Buffalo Sabres’ first-round draft choice in 1995, and his years with the team were anything but dull.
McKee was in town for the Sabres’ “90s Day” celebration at the KeyBank Center, and he took part in an interview session with the media. Here are his comments about his career. They have been edited and rearranged for the sake of clarity here.
Question: You were called up for good for the 1996-97 season, and played a role in that team’s division title. In fact, after first place was clinched, you asked, “Do we get a banner for that?” It’s still hanging in the arena. What was that rookie season like for you?
Jay McKee: It was a great experience. Ted Nolan was a tough coach. For a guy that was 19 years old, you need that. I was a healthy scratch for half the games, but it was part of the plan for a guy coming in to the league at such a young age. Having Dominik Hasek in net allowed me to start as a defenseman. It’s fun seeing Dom’s highlights, because I get to see myself making mistakes in front of him. I was so grateful for the opportunity to play here. I got to play with a lot of great players, such as Garry Galley and Pat LaFontaine.
Q: Not only did your first team have talent, but it was a league leader in toughness. Opponents didn’t really like to play against the Sabres. How did that influence your game?
McKee: I walked into a room a room with Rob Ray, Brad May and Matthew Barnaby. I remember my first inter-squad game. I went into the corner and Pat LaFontaine went for the puck, I pushed him from behind, and he went hard into the boards. All I could think of was, who is on the other team? Is it May? Ray? Someone’s coming. I helped Pat up to let everyone know I didn’t mean to do what I did. It was intimidating, but when we went into games I knew those guys had my back. It allowed me to play a physical game. If I didn’t have those players on the team, I wouldn’t have had the career I had or be the type of player I was.
Q: That 96-97 season had tons of controversy, with disputes involving management, the coaching staff and some of the players. One of your teammates said at the time that it was a little like watching a soap opera on television. How did you handle that?
McKee: Honestly, the media sees more than that with the players – at least back then it did. Nowadays, with social media, players hear a lot more and see a lot more. When I played the first year, there was some turmoil behind the scenes. We just came to work every day. We didn’t pay attention to that. We had fun playing. We had a tight group. As a young player, everything was so new to me. Just getting on a jet airplane and going to the next game was different than getting off the junior bus. I was trying to take everything in my first year.
Q: In your first few years, the Sabres usually were a tough opponent in the playoffs and pulled off some upsets against higher-seeded teams. Did those Sabre teams do more than you could have expected?
McKee: I think we had a few years where we overachieved. To me, goaltending is the most important position in the game. You could have a good team and a great goaltender and overachieve. You could have a good team with a mediocre goalie and not play up to par. In ’99 with the Stanley Cup run, we didn’t have a great hockey team. We had a great goaltender and a good D corps and some forwards that found a way to chip in each night. Overachieve is a tough word. You look at the team, and we were made up the right way to do well.
Q: Your final season in Buffalo in 2005-06 was heartbreaking. The Sabres reached the conference finals, only to lose to Carolina in seven games. You were one of the defensemen who had to sit out Game Seven because of an illness. Do you think that team would have won the Stanley Cup with even better health?
Jay McKee: It’s hard to say. I had a lot of respect for the teams that we played, like Carolina. Edmonton was waiting for us in the finals. It was a magical season. That year we felt we had the best team in the league when we were healthy. The playoffs are tough. Things have to go the right way for you, and you have to click as a team. Everything has to come to come together. It was like that for a while for us, and even with the injuries we still found ways to win for quite a while. It’s a bittersweet memory. It was a fun year, it was a tight team, but it was a tough finish – especially for me, the way that I got injured. It was a freak (leg) infection. But there are a lot of good memories, and I do think we would have won the Stanley Cup had we gotten through that series.
Q: You left for St. Louis in 2006 to sign with the Blues. Was that a difficult move for you?
McKee: The majority of my adult life was spent here. When a team drafts you, you feel a bond to that team whether you are traded or move on as a UFA (unrestricted free agent). To me, I’ll always be a Buffalo Sabre. I spent 10 years here, four years elsewhere. I would have liked to stay here. I wanted to make things work out in my UFA year, but it didn’t work out unfortunately. I wanted to be here. I’ll always feel like I’m a Sabre.
Q: Since retiring as a player, you moved into coaching in the minor leagues and in junior hockey. Do you hope to continue doing that?
McKee: I love coaching. I want to be in the game. I love watching hockey. It’s a fantastic sport. I’m grateful for the people I’ve learned from. I love the experiences I’ve had. Being back (in Buffalo) like this is a great experience. I hope to stay in the game for a long time.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)