Jay McKee still looking for a Stanley Cup

The Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars were deadlocked in the sixth game of the 1999 Stanley Cup final. During the first two overtime periods, neither team could break the 1-1 tie. In the third OT, Brett Hull finally notched the winner – a goal that was allowed despite the fact that his skate was in the crease.

For the Dallas Stars, it was their first and only Cup victory. For the Sabres, it was the closest they have ever come to lifting the trophy, with many frustrating years since then.

Amherstview’s Jay McKee served as a physical defenceman with the Sabres, collecting three assists in that year’s playoffs, but primarily working to shut down rushes and block shots. For McKee, the loss serves as both a highlight of his playing career and a challenge for his current role as a coach – he still wants to win the Stanley Cup.

McKee is the bench boss with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the Ontario Hockey League. Last month, he was inducted into the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame for his 14-year playing career with the Sabres, the St. Louis Blues and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I got into coaching with the goal of winning a Stanley Cup,” he told the Original Hockey Hall of Fame. “I am building a resume and hoping to spark interest in becoming a coach in the NHL.”

After retiring as a player, he took a job as an assistant coach with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League in 2011. That was followed by a stint with the OHL’s Erie Otters in 2014-15.

He joined the Kitchener Rangers as an associate coach in 2015, later being promoted to head coach. After the team went into a slump, he was fired in 2019. Let’s face it, every coach gets axed eventually.

McKee has bounced back with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Last year, he coached the Bulldogs to the OHL championship, with the Hamilton squad defeating the Windsor Spitfires 6-1 in Game 7 of the finals. The Bulldogs went on to the Memorial Cup final, losing 6-3 to the Saint John Sea Dogs.

This season, the Bulldogs lost to the Barrie Colts in six games in the first round.

“I have had calls from NHL teams about coaching for the last five or six years,” he says. However, he’s not looking for just any position as an assistant with a pro team. “I want to earn the interest and I’m willing to put in the hard work to become a head coach.”

He feels that coaching youngsters has changed over the years. When he was a player with Sudbury and Niagara Falls, the coaches were tough and motivated their charges with intimidation. “Today’s coaches want to connect with the players and create a positive culture.”

While he acknowledges that only a small fraction of his OHL players will play professional hockey, McKee says it’s vital to give them all the same opportunity.

“You never know who is going to succeed,” he says. “With Hamilton, we have had three players who were not drafted by an NHL team, but have signed NHL contracts. For us, the dream is always there – it never dies. We believe that everyone deserves a chance.”

Growing up in the Kingston area, he played with the Ernestown Minor Hockey Association and later the junior C Ernestown Jets. His is the only jersey number to ever have been retired by the team, now known as the Amherstview Jets. As a 15-year-old, McKee was selected by the Sudbury Wolves in the OHL 1993 priority selection draft. Leaving home and playing against opponents who were several years older presented challenges for him. Then in his second year, a bombshell hit – he was being traded to Niagara Falls.

“In those days, there was no internet and I really had no idea that these things occurred. I thought it was going to be the worst thing that happened to me, but it turned out to be a great opportunity.”

Indeed it was. At the 1995 entry draft held in Edmonton, he was chosen by TSN to be followed by a camera crew for the entire event. Fortunately, he had a great agent to guide him through and process and McKee ended up being chosen 14th overall by Buffalo.

He changed his focus from offence to being a physically aggressive defenceman. He got in his fair share of fights – while not an enforcer, he did drop the gloves on occasion to stand up for teammates.

After spending time with the Rochester Americans of the AHL, he joined the Sabres in 1998-99. McKee was later named an alternate captain. He stayed in Buffalo until 2006 and then spent three seasons with St. Louis and another with Pittsburgh. He retired from the NHL in 2010 after playing in 802 regular season games and 90 playoff matches; he then took up coaching. 

A career highlight for McKee was being invited to the Canadian Olympic camp in 2002. While he didn’t make the team, he was thrilled that Wayne Gretzky gave him the opportunity to try out. (Canada would go on to win gold at the Salt Lake City Olympics).

Next year, the Bulldogs will be moving to Brantford while their Hamilton arena undergoes renovations. Will they be back in the steel city? Who knows. Like that of their coach, the future is unknown.

Here in Kingston, his legacy was cemented after he was inducted last month into the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame for his athletic achievements.