Mike Hastings says one of Dryden McKay’s most admirable qualities is his ability to remain calm when things go haywire around him.
Hastings, the ninth-year head coach of the Minnesota State University men’s hockey team, goes back in his memory bank to October of 2018, McKay’s freshman season. The Mavericks were playing the second game of a non-conference series at North Dakota and looking to become a rare team that sweeps the Fighting Hawks in their building.
MSU had won the first game of the series 7-4. In the series finale Marc Michaelis scored an unassisted shorthanded goal with 1 second remaining in the second period to tie the score 3-3 and give the Mavericks the momentum heading into the third period.
With less than nine minutes to play in regulation, North Dakota dumped the puck into the MSU zone behind McKay, the Mavericks’ starting goalie.
“We were fortunate enough to win the first game and we’re playing the second night, Engelstad Arena, 11 (thousand)-plus. You’re not supposed to win one game, let alone two in that building,” Hastings said on The Rink Live podcast last summer. “He goes back in the net and it’s a tie game, there’s about (eight) minutes left. He goes behind the net, as a freshman, stops it, and literally takes his sweet time going back to the crease.
“Well, one of their talented forwards grabs the puck, throws it in the back of the net, 11,000 go crazy and … when you’re on the bench when that happens, some of your guys have a tendency, especially if it’s an upperclassman, they want to look back and see what kind of reaction is going to come out of the short hairless guy, with his goaltender going for a little skate.”
Hastings didn’t react on the bench that night as North Dakota held on for a 4-3 victory. The next day, he pulled McKay aside to ask him about the play that resulted in the game-winning goal for the Fighting Hawks.
“I remember talking to Dryden the next day and saying ‘hey, you know, what do you think about that?’ And he says ‘ahh, you know, it wasn't really that big of a deal,’” Hastings said with a chuckle. “We had a little conversation and I explained that it was a little bit bigger than ‘not that big of a deal.’
“But that’s Dryden. He’s somebody who allows us to play with a lot of confidence, because when we do make mistakes, when our group does have bad things happen, he’s had a tendency in his career to be there.”
Famous Name, Famous Number
With a name like Dryden and a dad who played goalie in college and for a brief time at hockey’s highest level, there was never a question about what Dryden McKay’s future held.
In a story that McKay has recounted more than once, when he was born 23 years and 3 months ago in Downers Grove, Ill., his parents placed a birth announcement in the local newspaper that didn’t say “It’s a boy!” but rather “It’s a goalie!”
McKay is named after one of the best goaltenders of all time — legendary Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden, who won six Stanley Cups in eight seasons in the NHL after playing four seasons at Cornell University.
McKay embraced the name from a young age, wearing Dryden’s No. 29 and putting up numbers very similar to the famous goalie with whom he shares a name. McKay is re-writing the Mavericks’ record book. He leads the nation this season in the three categories that goalies are judged on the most — goals-against average (0.90), save percentage (.954) and shutouts (6). But the number that means the most to the junior goaltender is nine, as in the number of victories the No. 6-ranked Mavericks (9-2-1 overall) take into this weekend’s showdown series against WCHA rival and No. 8-ranked Bowling Green at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center.
“Calm,” Hastings said last week when asked how to best describe McKay’s demeanor. “The way he plays, not a lot of peaks and valleys. He’s calm water, somebody who has a unique sense of humor, who doesn’t take himself too seriously and he’s somebody who the guys like being around.
“We’re happy to have him whether we’re playing a game or whether it’s practice or just traveling in between. He’s someone we value in a lot of different areas.”
Finding his way to MSU
McKay truly became hooked on hockey when his dad, Ross, served as a goalie coach and team physician for the Chicago Freeze of the North American Hockey League from the early 1990s through the early 2000s.
Ross McKay played college hockey in Canada, followed by three seasons of pro hockey, including playing one game in goal for the NHL’s Hartford Whalers in the 1990-91 season. He became a chiropractor after his playing career ended in 1991, and he went to work for the Freeze.
Ross would bring a young Dryden to the rink with him for practices and games, and Dryden began to study and watch his dad instruct and teach the Freeze’s goalies. He also began to study and model his game after some of the NHL’s best smaller goalies.
It might seem odd to call McKay undersized, at 5-feet-11, 175 pounds. But in today’s game, professional organizations value size in their goaltenders, so he knew he had to figure out how some of the best smaller goalies climbed the ladder to the NHL.
“Growing up I was a big Carey Price and Braden Holtby fan,” he said of the 6-feet-2 NHL goalies, “but since I’ve gotten older, I’ve focused on the smaller goalies like (Boston’s) Jaroslav Halak (5-10, 185) or (Juuse) Saros in Nashville (5-11, 180). He’s a good, young, smaller goalie.
“I just try to watch the smaller guys, since I’m a smaller guy myself, to see how they have success at the highest level.”
McKay played in the famous Chicago Mission program for one year, as a 13-year-old in 2010-11, then played three seasons for the Chicago Young Americans program before landing a roster spot in the NAHL as a 16-year-old with the Springfield Jr. Blues. He was traded the following season, remaining in the NAHL with the Corpus Christi (Texas) Ice Rays, and he played one game with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers.
He made the Madison Capitols roster in the USHL in 2016-17 and stuck with them through the 2017-18 season.
“That’s when I started to get the college attention and started the recruiting process,” he said.
In his first fall in Madison, McKay committed to Holy Cross, a Division I school that plays in Atlantic Hockey. It was his first Division I offer and, as he told NeutralZone.net in 2017, "I accepted the offer there because I wasn’t sure another Division I offer would present itself. By December (of 2016), I started to realize that I made a rushed decision without making sure it was a good fit for me academically and athletically."
As McKay began to pile up solid numbers and play nearly every night for a Madison team that hovered around .500, he learned that recruiters from other colleges were still enamored of his play and wanted him to join their teams.
McKay decommitted from Holy Cross and in September of 2017 he gave Hastings, associate head coach Todd Knott and assistant coaches Darren Blue and Brennan Poderzay the thumbs up. He wanted to play at Minnesota State.
“MSU had stuck with me the whole time,” McKay said, “and when it was time to make that decision, it was the perfect situation as far as the goaltending situation, the school and the location.
“There was no reason to say no to MSU.”
‘Numbers stand the test of time’
McKay’s decision couldn’t have worked out better for himself and the Mavericks.
He is one shutout away from tying the WCHA career record of 21, held by former Bemidji State goalie Michael Bitzer. He is six shutouts away from tying the NCAA career record of 26, set by former Michigan State star Ryan Miller, who has played for two decades in the NHL and has starred for team USA in multiple Olympic Games and World Championships.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in the back of my head,” McKay said of the conference and NCAA shutout records. “You do go into games … every goalie wants to get a shutout every game. The goal is not to give up any goals, but all that really matters in the end is getting the win. Whether that’s 6-5 or 1-0, I’m happy with either.”
McKay’s numbers are squarely in the mix for all-time great status. He is Minnesota State’s leader in career goals-against average (1.45), save percentage (.936) and shutouts (20). Last season, he became the first Mavericks goalie ever to record 30 victories in a season. He's a two-time WCHA Goaltending champion and was named First Team All-America last year for the first time.
“He’s been a rock for us the last two years,” senior defenseman and assistant captain Jack McNeely said of McKay, prior to the start of this season. “It’s super nice as a defenseman knowing he’s back there. We have a lot of confidence in him, knowing if we do make a mistake he’s back there.
“For the whole team, it’s extremely nice to have a guy back there who is so calm and steady, who makes the saves he’s supposed to make and a lot of the time the ones he’s not supposed to.”
MSU’s success and McKay’s success go hand-in-hand. He has backstopped the Mavericks to WCHA regular-season championships each of the past two years, and to a WCHA playoff championship two years ago. They would have been a favorite to repeat as league postseason champions a year ago, had the COVID-19 pandemic not ended the season prematurely.
McKay was also a top-10 finalist last season for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to college hockey’s top player, and he was a finalist for the Mike Richter Award, given to college hockey’s top goalie. On Monday, he was announced as one of 50 candidates for the 2021 Hobey Baker, along with teammates Nathan Smith and Cade Borchardt, both sophomore forwards.
“One thing that comes to mind there is facts,” Hastings said about where McKay belongs in the conversation about college hockey’s best goalies. “Numbers are facts — wins, goals-against average, save percentage, shutouts, those types of things.
“I also feel, for Dryden and for our team, when do those wins come? When do they make an impact? Can you get it done at an important time of year, which is playoff time. And NCAA time. There’s still a lot of runway for Dryden to build his book of business before he’s done here, and numbers stand the test of time.”
McKay said last week that he doesn’t allow himself to think too far ahead, that he’ll worry about his professional hockey career when the time comes. His NHL Draft eligibility has expired, but his body of work on and off the ice will make him a sought-after prospect when he does turn pro.
Right now, he’s focused on helping the Mavericks get back to the NCAA tournament, however that may look this season.
“I’m just focused on college and doing as well as I can here. The rest will take care of itself,” he said. “We’re trying to build our legacy here. We’re trying to be a team that raises more banners in our rink. Hopefully at the end of the year we get that first NCAA tournament win and hopefully three more after that.
“And hopefully we can finally raise that big banner here at MSU.”