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Steve McKenna

October 12, 2011
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Steve McKenna – Pittsburgh Penguins (July 18,  2011):

First, how is the coaching career and what made someone who was born in Ontario decide to coach for Ice Hockey Australia?

The coaching career has been very enjoyable. For a person who loves the game and didn’t want to give it up (contrary to all the crowd yelling that I should have during my Penguin days!), coaching has been perfect. It is always challenging but I like seeing players develop and helping them achieve their goals, much along the same lines as I did with Kovalev and Jagr in Pittsburgh.

I didn’t bother with Lemieux, he seemed to be doing alright on his own.

Australia is a great country with very passionate people. They love all things sporting and physical. Being able to work with their program was a definite highlight of my career. The players were very receptive to anything that helped them get better.

How difficult has it been to drum up players and support in a country that, seemingly, has less experience with ice hockey? Is that part of the fun/challenge for you that makes the job appealing?

The hockey population in Australia is limited of course. Most of the young men that have some size and athleticism tend towards Aussie rules Football!

But the players that do play love it and see it as an extension of Aussie rules, only on ice. As I said, they love sports and the kids, boys and girls, are very very active so hockey is just another avenue for them. You see sports programs declining in certain places in North America and the associated health problems that go with that, but in Australia they embrace all activities, even Ice Hockey.

Life is all about challenges and trying new experiences. Australia was definitely both those things. It was a great opportunity to go beyond the normal and I lived to tell the tale.

What have been some of the bigger success stories so far – and have you worked with the NHL and Penguins in specific to help build recognition of the program?

The Ice Factor program that is run in South Australia and now even in Sydney has been a great success.

It takes young high risk teens and teaches them hockey and in doing so they learn a lot of real life skills necessary for the outside world. This is a fact that a lot of societies miss out on. They see hockey and sports programs only as an extra expense for tax payers but really, children learn a lot more from organized sports than just how to shoot or run fast!

The NHLPA generously supplied thousands of dollars worth of equipment for the program which was great and gave a lot more kids the opportunity they needed.. I did not approach the Penguins but I know they do a ton of work in the community.

The Australian team qualified for Division 1 while I was there and they again qualified this year. Not bad for a bunch of amateur players, paying to play in the tournament against professionals. This is a testament to their dedication and ability.

What NHL experiences have helped shape your coaching career – and how so?

Dealing with the likes of Ian Moran, Marc Bergevin and Jamie Pushor on a regular basis really made me patient and ready to deal with dysfunctional youngsters of any age!

Having Ville Neminen as a roommate made me aware of eating habits and the problems associated with them, having to decipher what Bergevin and Oliwa were saying readied me for international coaching and the problem of languages and giving young player like Mario the opportunity to play alongside me showed me that I can make other player’s dreams come true as well.

You’ve been known as more of an enforcer/physical player – but in 2003/2004 you did score 9 goals with the Penguins – and had 21 when you played in the OHA. Do you feel you had better offensive skills than your role in the NHL allowed you to display?

I wish you could have said that while I was playing because every day I was in the coach’s office saying the same thing. Of course it was after hours and the coach wasn’t there but I was just building up the courage to say it for real!

I was fortunate to play with some great players, and only through their generosity and kindness in passing me the puck was I able to score at all! In 2003-2004 I did get to play on a pretty good line for a period of time so I can’t take all the credit, or even any of it!! I always knew that there was a 50 goal scorer inside me, unfortunately it is because I ate my Mike Bossy trading card when I was little.

You had a brief stint with the Penguins in 2000-2001, played for the Rangers and Hartford before returning to Pittsburgh for two seasons. What made you decide to return and what was it like for you to do so?

The Penguins are an amazing organization and the people involved with the team from the equipment staff to the front office were top notch. It was honestly like a big family, I made some great relationships and when the opportunity came to go back it was a no-brainer.

And the Fish Market, best sushi this side of York!

Those early 2000 teams had a great deal of talent – Lemieux, Jagr, Stevens, Kovalev, Straka, Kasparaitis, Hedberg… What do you think was ultimately missing that prevented that team from winning another Stanley Cup?

I still look at our roster from that year and wonder what went wrong.

All teams have talent but it takes a certain something to put teams over the top and able to withstand the grind that is the Playoffs. Some teams show it and some don’t. We were missing that one ingredient and I wish I had known what that was.

How close-knit were those early 2000 teams and what would surprise fans most about them?

I can honestly say that I had the most fun and thought I was the luckiest guy ever when I played in Pittsburgh. It had a great mix of personalities and talent and that translated to success on the ice and a great atmosphere off it.

I think Craig Patrick and the management deserve the credit for assembling a good mix of players. Some of the best memories I have are of those years and I have the psychotherapist bills to prove it!

Everything would surprise fans about those years but the most was that Jamie Pushor ran a book club that really paved the way for Oprah to do the same, true story.

Who were the locker room leaders of those teams besides Lemieux – and how did they do so?

When people think of leaders they have this great vision of Braveheart giving his big painted face speech, but that is only one type of leader. Mario is a guy that can get the best from players with only a look.

He and Mark Messier and Brian Leetch are the best leaders I have ever met. They lead by example, by doing the work themselves that they demand from others. How can you not follow and fight for a guy that would do it for you!

But Pittsburgh had many locker room leaders that were just as valuable, Ville was a leader in pastries, we had several social directors depending on city and conference, and Kasparaitis led in a way that made you afraid not to follow him!

Just how crazy was Ian Moran to play with – and who were some of the other characters on those teams – and what made them so?

Ian and Marc Bergevin shared an on camera kiss for the big screen that really made it acceptable for athletes of all flavors to play our game. He was a great guy and he made coming to the rink a new experience every time. He and Bergevin and Tibbetts, and Barnaby, need I say more.

And who can forget Oliwa. It was like the The Breakfast Club of hockey players! Except we didn’t have the princess, unless you include Garth Snow! All the kids you could put into detention at one time and give them hockey sticks and a Stanley Cup to shoot for, and we almost made it.

What were some of your most memorable experiences as a Penguin – and what made them so?

Walking into the room the first time after getting traded from Minnesota and seeing all that talent in one locker room was an experience I wont forget.

The run during the playoffs was memorable, trying to understand a word Nieminen said was always something to remember as well as his ability to sample everything on the desert cart!

Just being able to play and work alongside Mario Lemieux was priceless, and I know he would say the same about me! He was a true professional on and off the ice…again this is a quote I am sure can be attributed to him about me…right?

How has the NHL changed since you’ve played – and is it for the better, in your opinion?

I think once I left, the NHL improved overnight! At least this is what someone from the Penguins tweeted with the name “Pensowner”!

I think they are trying to improve the speed and scoring in the game but I am not totally convinced they are doing it the right way. I think they really need to make the ice surface larger, players are bigger and skating faster, why not give them the room they need.

And they still need to get rid of the instigator rule, you want to limit head shots, make that player accountable for his actions by having to square up with a heavyweight. That is accountability that works.

Fighting will limit concussions before it increases them. But this is from a guy that had to use spell check just to spell concussions!

What’s next for you – where do you see yourself 5-10 years from now in terms of coaching?

I really am enjoying the start of my coaching career. I do love to help young players develop. I am currently coaching in Alleghe, Italy. It is a top division team located in a tiny ski village in northern Italy.

It is yet another experience that I hope will help shape my future. I would like to get back to North America eventually to coach and I would like to make a future at the NCAA level. I like the idea of building the student athlete, they are eager to learn and a lot of future NHLers come from college.

I know Pittsburgh has some great schools so if any are in need of a coach look me up!

Any last thoughts for readers?

Pittsburgh is one of the great sports towns and I was very fortunate to be part of it for a few years. I met a ton of great people and I would like to thank everyone that made the experience so memorable. I would name everybody but I think I wrote too much already. I

hope to see you again in the future and wish you and the Penguins all the best going forward.

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