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NU hockey energized by a coach who's NHL-ready ; As volunteer assistant, McKee still goes all-out

The cell phone lies on a table, inches in front of Jay McKee. Any moment, his agent could call. Any moment, his 14th National Hockey League season could begin. Next to a notebook, the phone blinks periodically, teasing him, toying with his patience.

McKee can't help himself. Throughout Niagara University's game against Colgate, he checks it and sets it back down.

"I'm not expecting anything," McKee said. "But I'll be ready if the call comes."

Until then, Dwyer Arena will serve as his bullpen -- and the NU hockey team will reap the rewards.

As a volunteer assistant coach with the Purple Eagles, the 33-year-old McKee has been a player/coach hybrid. He's practicing almost every day with the team. Not in a tracksuit. Not with an occasional cameo demonstration. No, McKee goes all-out. He's in full gear, sweating, diving in front of shots, doing sprints, giving nuggets of advice on the fly and, all in all, keeping up with guys half his age.

Straddling two worlds, McKee has helped Niagara (10-6-2, 7-4 Atlantic Hockey) stay within striking range of a conference title. And by practicing with the team "95 percent of the time," he's keeping his playing hopes alive.

"For my benefit and the players," McKee said. "I didn't play for 13 years because I was a highly skilled player. It was practice habits, it was positional play and working hard at the game. I think those things can spill over to the players."

Game day is never easy, of course. McKee can't get comfortable this night. Stand, sit, stand, sit, stand. Hands in his pockets, he traces the game action net to net. An earpiece connects him to the coaches below. McKee knows this could be his future, knows this may be his eventual path to the Stanley Cup.

But not quite yet.

Look at Miroslav Satan, he says. Like McKee, an out-of-work Satan was merely staying in shape last year, working out at a rink in Long Island. Then, out of nowhere, the Boston Bruins called, and Satan sent the Buffalo Sabres to the golf courses with a pair of clutch playoff goals.

So McKee isn't panicking.

"Eventually, I'll have to make the transition of not skating as a player and adjusting as a coach," he said. "That'll be tough. For now, I just enjoy practicing and getting a sweat."

In a dizzying color wheel of white, green and red practice jerseys at Niagara's practice, McKee blends in seamlessly. The only way to spot him is if you squint and spot the "74" sticker on the back of his helmet or the gold strips down his pants. All remnants from his one-year stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 are subtle suggestions that McKee isn't done yet.

His play suggests the same.

By no means is McKee a creaky old vet clinging to false hope.

The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder moves with ease, effortlessly poking pucks away in two-on-one drills and redirecting rushes up the ice. Trapped in corners -- with multiple NU players pestering at each hip -- McKee somehow digs out the puck. And when an assistant coach beckons, "If you ain't first, you're last!" at the end of practice, McKee lines up with everyone else for sprints.

"I think there's still a spot for him somewhere," says Niagara coach Dave Burkholder.

For Burkholder and McKee, this is a reunion. Seventeen years ago, McKee played under the coach with OHL's Niagara Falls Thunder. Burkholder says that 802 NHL games later, McKee is the same disciplined player he was then. A player who relies on savvy, not necessarily skill.

McKee has never scored more than five goals in a season. But the shelf life for his playing style, Burkholder realizes, is long.

"He goes as fast sideways and backwards as some guys go forward," Burkholder said. "I think he still has that. He still stops and starts, and his pivots are real good. I think that's what kept him in the league for 13 years."

Several Niagara players, including Buffalo native Kevin Ryan, grew up watching McKee. All season, Ryan has been a sponge.

"He knows all the little details it takes," Ryan said. "Obviously, we listen to him because he knows what he's talking about. He gives us tips we wouldn't have seen otherwise, tips that only NHLers see."

Save one tip. McKee has never asked a player to block a shot -- even if he made a living himself sprawling in front of bullet-fast pucks. Instead, he stresses positioning and spreads a calming influence throughout the team. With McKee on the ice, Ryan says, the game feels more controlled. And it's carrying over to game day. Offensive transitions have been more fluid for NU, which ranks seventh nationally on offense at 3.67 goals per game.

Each day, McKee is learning more as a coach. Each day, this new role feels a little more comfortable. For a while, Burkholder asked McKee if he was getting any nibbles from NHL teams. Not anymore. With interest stagnant, Burkholder doesn't even bring it up.

McKee settled in and stopped holding his breath.

"Teams could get close to the playoff hunt and realize they need some more depth," he said. "Some teams could run into some injury problems and may not have guys deep in the minors."

Back at the Colgate game, McKee's silver watch glistens, hinting at the peak of his hockey career. Just four years ago, he signed a $16 million contract with the St. Louis Blues. McKee could easily dismiss this whole Niagara endeavor as nothing but a temporary bridge back to the bigs.

But with each "Shoot it!" on a power play or timely tip given through the headset or expletive muttered under his breath after a bad break, it's clear that this isn't the case.

"He's really immersed himself," Burkholder said. "He's as competitive as any of our coaches. For a guy who's a volunteer and new to it, if we lose it hurts him. And that's a good thing."

There would be no losing this night.

Niagara withstands a hailstorm of shots by Colgate late and tacks on an empty-netter to win. Grinning ear-to-ear, McKee jokes with an assistant coach from above and playfully punches him in the gut.

McKee has no clue when -- or if -- an NHL team will give him another chance. Here, in the moment, it doesn't matter.

For a moment, he even considers going to the Sabres-Penguins game the next night. Maybe, just maybe, he'll be a pure spectator at HSBC Arena for the first time ever. Then, suddenly, he slams the brakes.

Attending the game means he's a fan, means he's conceding, means he's putting out the flame.

No, not just yet.

"I don't know if I'll go down there yet," McKee says. "I'm not ready to cut the cord."

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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