CAVENDISH, P.E.I. — Sitting in the clubhouse of Green Gables Golf Club, Jeremy McKenna is wearing a grin the size of nearby Confederation Bridge.
It is here, on the 18th hole of this Stanley Thompson gem, his long and winding road towards the NHL took a significant turn Tuesday when he signed with the Calgary Flames.
“It’s a dream come true to sign with my childhood team,” beamed the undrafted 20-year-old with a delightful, East Coast accent.
“I’m ready to prove a lot of people wrong.”
Fueled by a second-straight draft day snub and a work ethic instilled in him by his parents, former UPEI athletic standouts Mark and Sara, the nomadic McKenna is excited to pack his bags once again for another long-distance relocation.
Next stop, Stockton, Calif., where last year’s leading scorer of the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats hopes to continue moving up the depth charts of a Flames organization desperately searching to bolster it’s right wing — a position once topped by his childhood hero, Jarome Iginla.
Although listed as being from nearby Summerside, P.E.I., McKenna was born in Canmore, Alta., where his parents owned and operated the Wendy’s franchise along the Trans-Canada highway. It was there his dad taught him to play on the outdoor rink, inspired by a 2004 Flames run to the finals he recalls being enthralled with, even at age five.
One year later, his family moved to Prince Edward Island where they would eventually settle in Summerside to run the Granville Street Diner, still boasting the island’s best breakfast and milkshakes.
In between stints as a kitchen-hand, the five-foot-10, 180-pound sniper spent two years at Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask., and one year with the Red Bull Hockey Academy in Salzburg, Austria, before returning for a three-year stint in Moncton, where he was an associate captain.
It was as a Wildcat that he attracted the attention of Flames scouts who kept a close eye on linemate Jakob Pelletier, whom the Flames drafted 26th overall last month. Despite scoring 45 goals and finishing fifth in the Quebec league with 97 points, McKenna wasn’t selected in the draft.
A recent invite to the Dallas Stars’ prospects camp was followed by a stint at Calgary’s subsequent gathering last week, where he was offered an AHL contract Sunday night.
“It has been a pretty interesting journey for sure,” said McKenna, who credits former NHLer Brian Savage for giving him a place to continue progressing in Austria, where he played alongside Flames prospect Martin Pospisil and Summerside pal Noah Dobson, a first-round pick of the Islanders.
“There are many different paths to the NHL. I moved away from home at 14 to play at Notre Dame and I feel that’s helped me mature as a person and a man. I got to travel and see different countries like Switzerland, Czech Republic and Hungary and after that year I felt I was ready to make the jump to the Quebec league and spent three great years there. I really came into my game, learned a lot and now I’m here turning pro. Pretty wild — it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
McKenna was playing golf alongside his dad and Dobson Tuesday when he agreed to sign with the Flames (the club will announce the move soon).
His first call with the news was to his mother.
“The first thing she said was, ‘At least you’re going to be safe with Alex there,’ which I thought was funny,” said McKenna. The Flames will also soon announce the signing of Summerside pal Alex Gallant, a 26-year-old left winger whom he refers to as “one of the toughest in the American League for sure.”
“My parents helped me out so much. They stressed the hard work. I see them working every day and it kind of pushes me a little extra. I’m happy for what they’ve taught me and grateful for the opportunities they’ve given me. To be able to go to Notre Dame and play hockey — it’s not a cheap sport, but I’m lucky they put in the hard hours to allow me to play.”
When not working out with his trainer in nearby Charlottetown during the week, McKenna returns the favour by helping with the family diner, as he has since he was 10 when he was tasked with putting away dishes.
“I just help out in the kitchen where I can, doing the toast or helping the deep fryers and putting plates together — I don’t make the milkshakes or know what the secret is to making them so good,” smiled McKenna, whose three sisters also do their part for the family business.
“My dad always says everyone in the family has to pull on the rope, so I feel that’s important to me to help out any way I can.”
He feels the same way about the Flames.
“They said they watched me a lot and they know my game and believe I can take it to the next level,” said McKenna, who decided to forego his 20-year-old junior eligibility to try the AHL.
“I think the camp went really well and I think they had interest before, which helped me. I’ve got a good shot, speed and I’m a right-winger, which they said they’re lacking in their organization. It’s a good opportunity.
“Moncton has been great to me but I feel it’s time for the next level. I’m excited about starting the next chapter in my life.”