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McKay’s first pro season a success

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When it comes to the Swan Valley Stampeders, everyone in the Valley knew they had a prototypical “fanfavourite” player when Riley McKay suited up for his hometown junior team in the 2015-16 season.
McKay had it all – he was local; he played that tough “north-south” game while throwing out board-shattering body checks at will; and he had skill to back up his toughness – 12 goals, 34 points and 151 penalty minutes as a 16-year-old rookie (leading the team in that category). 
That whole season teased the Valley with the possibility of having a championship-level team led by local players – McKay was part of four players with ties the Valley who finished top five in team scoring (Josh Tripp, Cody Ellingson, and Tristin Langan being the other three members of that group). 
But the fact is that the Stamps’ young local guns were so full of potential that the Western Hockey League came looking for proven young talent. And so it was that McKay made the jump to the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs in 2016-17, where he bided his time and worked on his game. A trade to the Saskatoon Blades for the 2018-19 season saw McKay truly make his mark on the major junior league. In his final year in 2019-20, McKay wore the “A” as an alternate captain, and played like it as well, scoring 19 goals, 19 assists and adding 93 penalty minutes. 
His play with the Blades definitely raised his stock in hockey circles. In a 2019 profile in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix by Darren Zary that was titled “Riley McKay an unsung hero for Saskatoon Blades”, his coach Mitch Love heaped praise on his hard-nosed forward. “He’s gotten the opportunity to play with
some of our top players all year long and that’s a credit to him and his ability to come to the rink and work and do his job to a T,” Love told Zary. “He doesn’t try and go off the page. He stays on top of it. It’s
just a credit to him as a young man.”
That sort of praise aided McKay in his goal to become a professional hockey player. And last year McKay was able to sign on the dotted line with the AHL’s Rockford Icehogs, the top farm team for the NHL’s
Chicago Blackhawks last summer. And despite the ongoing worldwide pandemic, McKay was able to make his professional debut this past season. 
McKay expressed his gratitude at getting this opportunity, and noted he did everything in his power to make the most of it. “I think it was kind of exciting to get out there and get your first taste of pro (hockey) – as a kid, that’s what you dream of,” said McKay while making the 17- hour drive back to the
Valley. “I think I took it day-by-day, week-byweek, and game-bygame, and made strides. “I also made use of the resources and the development staff with the Blackhawks and the Icehogs gave us, used them
well, and improved.” Before McKay was able to suit up in the AHL, he played five games with the ECHL’s
Indy Fuel, as the East Coast Hockey League got an earlier start than the American Hockey League. When the Icehogs were up and running McKay joined his new team, playing in 12 games, earning an assist
and adding 25 penalty minutes. The former Parkland Ranger says the differences between the Western
Hockey League and American Hockey League were obvious, and that learning the switch from the junior
game to the pro game is all part of his development. “It’s a bit of everything – everyone’s bigger,stronger, and faster,” says McKay, a six foot, 203-pound leftshooting forward. 
“Everyone plays a structure. I think the turnovers and mistakes are limited, and if there is a mistake that’s usually when teams capitalize on it and get a goal on you.
“So I think structure, playing the right way, taking care of your body, and being a pro is what it’s all about.”
Making the jump from junior to professional also meant the end of having a billet family to stay with. But McKay found some kindred spirits on the young Icehogs team, and they ended up rooming together – which is a good thing, as the pandemic severely limited where the team could go when they weren’t at the rink. “Myself and three other players got a house in Machesney Park, which is about 15 minutes away
from the rink,” says McKay. “I lived with Chad Yetman, D.J. Busdeker, and (goalie) Tom Aubrun, and it was kind of nice because we were pretty limited in what we could do with COVID. We had a ping pong table, a pool table, and a backyard with a river, so we kept ourselves busy that way.”
Speaking of COVID, McKay said the Icehogs were extremely diligent in keeping the virus at bay, and by the end of the season, they had one of the most impressive records of any pro sports teams playing in a pandemic. “It was tough for us – we didn’t have fans in the rink until the last three home games,” says
McKay. “I think there were only 200 fans in the rink, so that was a little different. 
“We also got tested every day when we got to the rink, even on days off we were getting tested,” he
added. “It’s been about four months straight of getting nasal swabs, so I’m glad to be over that.” 
McKay added the Icehogs were the only AHL team that didn’t have a positive test result from the daily COVID tests, something everyone in the organization takes some pride in. The only time they had games cancelled was when other teams had positive cases. Looking back at his first year, McKay says he would have liked to have added some more scoring, but adds he feels he made some real, tangible  improvements to his game. “I thought the player I was at the start of the year to the player I am now, I
think I’ve taken some big strides,” he said. “I got to work with some really good development staff and skill coaches, who have really helped me improve my game.”
That would include the likes of Icehogs head coach Derek King, and development coach Yanic Perreault – both with impressive NHL pedigrees. “I think I’m a lot better player than I was in December when I left (to join the team),” he said. “I’ve had some good feedback – I would like to get on the scoreboard a little more and help out that way, but this was my first year pro, and I think I had a good first year.”
Hopefully his second year will start this fall, and not in the dead of winter as this past season did. 
And McKay will have plenty to look forward to over a full season – playing in front of fans, playing a
normal AHL schedule all across North America, and hopefully getting that much coveted first professional
goal (and many more after that).

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Derek Holtom
REPORTER
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