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It's an awesome feeling when everybody is loud and cheering

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On his path from backyard rinks made by his dad, to playing before several thousand fans a game, Riley McKay has seen his hockey career vault him to the highest junior hockey loop available to a western Canadian kid. For the top players in the Western Hockey League (WHL), their skill set is amongst the best.
For the remaining 75 percent of each team’s roster, players must not only have a solid skill set but be determined and have a strong work ethic - willing to do whatever it takes to help their team win games. That’s exactly where McKay fits in. While he was a big scorer in minor hockey and even his 16-year-old season with his hometown Swan Valley Stampeders, to make the jump to the WHL took a commitment level not every kid is willing to take on.
After spending his first two seasons with the Spokane Chiefs, McKay was traded last summer to the Saskatoon Blades, a team he has flourished with.
“I’m really enjoying my first year here in Saskatoon,” he said. “I’m happy with how my season is going and our team is doing really good. It’s been awesome being able to play closer to home and have my family come watch often is pretty special for me.”
McKay’s popularity was proven just recently when he was named the Blades’ “fan choice for player of the year”, something he’s clearly, very proud of.
The biggest difference between Spokane to Saskatoon, according to the recently turned 20-year-old McKay, is the travel. Teams are a lot more spread out in the western conference so much shorter road trips playing in Saskatoon is a welcome change.
While McKay’s first two seasons in Spokane had him in a bottom six forward spot, where bringing energy and dropping the gloves were a regular part of his role, he now finds himself in a top six position giving him offensive opportunities - opportunities he never really had in Spokane.
“I kind of came into this season with an open mind knowing I would have a fresh start and could be a player who makes an impact on the game,” said McKay. “I think my game has been improving lots over this season and I’m happy with the way it’s going.”
After finishing with 12 goals and 27 points this season, McKay has seen his offensive output take a healthy jump. While he has held up his end of the bargain, McKay, who led the WHL in penalty minutes the past two seasons, is also quick to deflect some praise onto those who surround him.
“I have a great relationship with the coaching staff and they push me to get better every day - whether it’s watching video or with training,” he said. “The biggest thing I’ve learned this season is how important defence is. Our team focus is having good defence and I think that’s why we’ve been doing so well.”
For McKay, the reward for putting in the work to get into a top six role has been the feedback he’s received from his head coach (Mitch Love) and staff.
“The coaching staff is happy with how I’ve been playing this year and they give me the opportunity to play lots of minutes and in key situations in games, so it’s nice to know they trust me out there,” said the 5’11”, 190 pound forward.
Going back to his two years in Spokane, and to a little lesser degree in Saskatoon, McKay was either a fan favourite for his style of play or, just as often, the most hated player in opposing arenas. His 424 penalty minutes in three seasons is all the proof one needs to see why he receives the not-so-friendly welcome when on the road.
“It’s an awesome feeling when there’s a huge crowd and everybody is loud and cheering. It gets me into the game and to me, makes it more fun,” he said.
“Some of my favourite memories in Spokane were how loud and crazy the fans can get during the game when it’s a full barn.”
As the Blades began their playoff run last weekend - against another Swan River product, Tristin Langan and the Moose Jaw Warriors - the Blades are one of the favourites to win it all. What needs to happen for the Blades to make a long playoff run is quite simple, according to McKay.
“I think we just need every guy putting in an 110 percent effort and we will have a good outcome,” he said. “We know the game plan and we know what we need to do to be successful in these playoffs.”
In the first two games of the series, the Blades defeated the Warriors by scores of 3-2 in overtime on Friday and 3-1 on Saturday night. The series moves to Moose Jaw for games three and four tonight (Tuesday) and tomorrow.
After starting his junior career with the Stampeders in the 2015-16 season, where McKay scored 12 goals and 34 points to go along with 151 penalty minutes as a rugged 16-year-old, you know he still has a big, soft spot for his hometown team.
“Of course there’s a piece of me that still wishes I was playing in Swan with my good friends,” said McKay, who lists Stephan Vigier and jokingly, buddy Chandler Ashcroft, as his all-time favourite Stampeders.
“In saying that, I’ve really been enjoying this year in Saskatoon but I hope the Stamps bring home the cup this year.”
With one more year of junior hockey eligibility left after this season, McKay wants to ensure he finishes this stretch off as strongly as possible.
WHL teams are only allowed three 20-year-olds on their roster and for McKay to stay in the league next season, it might just be a simple case of working and playing exactly how he’s managed this season.

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Brian Gilroy
REPORTER
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