ALTON — Hockey has done many things for Ken McKinnon. The game brought him from Toronto to UNH, gave him a way to connect with his community for the years after his graduation, and this year it brought him back to Canada as part of the roster for Team USA in the U.S. versus Canada 80-plus hockey match.
McKinnon started coaching the U.S. team two years ago, when he was 78, for the Canada 150 Hockey Cup match. This year, the Alton resident was finally grown up enough to play. The match was held in Ottawa on Oct. 26, and McKinnon's U.S. team took home the cup for second time, with a 3-2 win.
“Coming home with the trophy, it was a lot easier ride,” McKinnon said of the 350-mile drive home from Canada’s capital city.
McKinnon, tall and lean, was the first Canadian player to be recruited to play hockey at UNH. He ended up being an advocate for the school’s hockey program, helping to scout and recruit players from Toronto after him. But his first impression of the school was inauspicious. He arrived on a drizzly evening, he recalled, and called up his coach, Horace “Pepper” Martin. Martin gave McKinnon's parents directions to a motel, and said he’d show McKinnon to the Alumni House, where he’d be staying. On the way, though, they stopped at the hockey rink, and McKinnon was taken aback when Martin turned on the lights.
“I said, holy (shoot), did I make a mistake,” McKinnon said. The rink base was gravel – with weeds growing up through it – and it wasn’t even covered. It was a far cry from the rinks that he had been expecting, coming to an American university, but he soon came to appreciate it.
“It was primitive, but it was good, hard ice and it gave us an advantage over everyone we were playing,” he said. “I would never regret going to that school.”
McKinnon, who played forward and defense at various points in his collegiate career, still holds the record at UNH for most goals scored in one game – six. Even so, he said it was clear to him that he wasn’t cut out to play professionally, so he became a teacher and coach in Concord, then got into the insurance business. Yet hockey never left his life.
McKinnon became a referee, a role he filled for nearly 40 years. He blew the whistle in nine high school state championships, two NCAA Division II championships, and the historic Beanpot Tournament in Boston. He also continued to play, even if he had to invent a league to play in.
McKinnon did just that, in fact. He founded the Granite State Hockey League, later played in the Capital City Hockey League, and still skates in the Laconia Legends of Hockey League.
He can’t give up the game, even though he has had both hips and knees replaced. He now spends his winters in Florida, where he has found senior leagues to keep him active.
“I’ve slowed down, and the game has slowed down,” McKinnon said. But the game is still hockey, so he will still be part of it.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing,” McKinnon said, quoting the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. “That applies to everything in life. Once you give up, a lot of times, your health depreciates, and the man upstairs is calling you.”
McKinnon has friends across North America thanks to the game, and enjoys the camaraderie with his teammates. “If you play with other guys, everyone is your friend, nobody’s out there trying to hurt you. It’s just enjoying life, making friendships,” he said. Even so, there are certain aspects of hockey that never leave the game, even for octogenarians. Bump into the opposing team’s goalie, for example, and you can expect a reaction.
“It’s in the game, every so often, it comes out,” McKinnon said.
His doctor lets McKinnon know that he doesn’t like him playing hockey at his age, though he stops short of telling him to stop. And that’s wise, because McKinnon wouldn’t take that advice anyway. And now he’s got a cup to defend.
“If I can still help the team, I’ll help the team,” McKinnon said. “There’s always the risk of injury, but you keep going out there and enjoying the game, having a pint with the boys. It’s a hard game to give up.”