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Fresh from winning the Allan Cup, Jay McKee interested in Frontenacs coaching job

May 7, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Yes, Jay McKee was saying Tuesday morning, he did hear that the Kingston Frontenacs were looking for a new coach.

“I actually sent Doug a text earlier this morning,” McKee said of his one-time Buffalo Sabres teammate, Doug Gilmour, who is now the general manager of his hometown Ontario Hockey League team. “I’d like to have a good talk with him.”

Gilmour, who sacked Frontenacs coach Todd Gill Monday, told a television interviewer that he wasn’t necessarily interested in following the age-old tradition of recycling someone else’s failed coach. He would, by implication, entertain the notion of hiring a fresh face.

McKee is intrigued by the possibility.

“No question, (coaching) is what I want to do,” he said. “I would like to stick in the Buffalo area, with my kids being here, but Kingston is my home town and I have a lot of friends back there.

“I will definitely talk to Doug and have a good discussion about (the Kingston job). That’s something I would very highly consider doing.”

McKee’s last coaching gig was a success. He was the playing coach of the Dundas Real McCoys, who last month captured the Allan Cup as national senior A champions.

The experience, McKee said, not only rekindled his passion for the game, it erased any doubt that coaching hockey is what he wants to do with his life.

“It brought me back to the game again,” he said. “I enjoyed that.”

McKee retired from pro hockey in 2010 after a 13-year National Hockey League career spent mostly in Buffalo, but also in St. Louis and Pittsburgh. “I was happy with my career,” he said. “I had no regrets. I wasn’t bothered about knowing it was my time.”

The transition out of playing was made easier by the fact that McKee moved immediately into coaching, first at Niagara University, and then as an assistant with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League. The thought of trying to make players better, he said, was appealing, but the game “always stays with you.”

“That competitive edge, when you deal with it for so long, it becomes part of you.”

That’s how, in the spring of 2013, at the age of 35 the former Amherstview Jet came to be commuting 90 minutes to play senior hockey in Dundas, Ont.

The episode began when Mike Wilson, a former teammate of McKee both in Sudbury and Buffalo, called his old buddy to play on a Canadian team being assembled for a tournament in Belarus. “We won the bronze,” McKee said, “and had a good time.”

One of the members of that team played for Dundas, and eventually McKee agreed to play the last quarter of the season and playoffs with the McCoys.

“I was playing in a beer league (in Buffalo), shinny hockey,” McKee said. “There’s no hitting, guys aren’t even stopping and starting, they’re just kind of turning. When I went up and played in Dundas I really enjoyed it again. It was different. Guys were taking it seriously; there was hitting. It made the game feel real again.”

When the season was over, McKee and general manager Don Robertson sat down for a chat. “I was giving him my take on different things I saw our team doing that we could probably improve on,” McKee recalled, “and he asked if I would come on board as the head coach. I didn’t want to stop playing, so they asked, ‘How about head coach-slash-player?’

“I agreed to that, and had a real good year this year.”

What the experience demonstrated to McKee was that as thrilling as being a successful athlete can be, the rewards of coaching, though different, can be no less satisfying.

“I don’t know what was more rewarding, going out there and sweating it out and winning a national championship in overtime or drawing up some systems for the guys to work at in practice and see the whole team execute it to a T,” he said.

Until his team got into the national championship tournament, McKee remained apprehensive.

“Coaching pretty much all former pro hockey players, knowing this is probably the last level they’re going to play, I didn’t know when I started putting systems together if they were going to take it seriously,” he said.

“When we played our first game in the Allan Cup tournament, I noticed a huge difference in our team. I didn’t see it in the season, I saw spots of it here and there, but if we got a two or three-goal lead, you’d see guys try to be a little bit more fancy, or the backchecking wasn’t quite there.

“That first game that we played in the Allan Cup, and the three or four games after that, everyone was on the same page.”

The real prize for Coach McKee came from a Twitter post from the manager of the defending champion Bentley Generals, after Dundas beat them 6-2 in the preliminary round. He lamented that his team wasn’t ready for the McCoys’ level of preparedness.

“Reading that was as rewarding from the coaching aspect of things as anything (you do as a player),” McKee said.

The Allan Cup was the first championship of which McKee has been a part since he was 10 years old in Amherstview. “We beat Walkerton in four straight games,” he recalled, instantly. “We played with three defencemen throughout the whole playoffs.

“Back then we had the energy to do that.”

McKee would later be reunited with one of the other two defencemen on that team, Andy McDonald, with St. Louis in the NHL.

In his year between Rochester and Dundas, McKee worked with members of the Buffalo Sabres during the NHL lockout, a time when coaches were enjoined from doing so.

“Thomas Vanek called me up and asked if I could put them through a few months of practices,” McKee said. “I enjoyed that.

“Now it’s time to look for a new job.”

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