The raucous Lynah Faithful support Cornell's hockey team in 3,836-seat Lynah Rink with some timeworn traditions, including throwing fish on the ice and silently reading newspapers while opposing players are being introduced before games. More recently the Faithful have added a new rite: crooning Deep in the Heart of Texas to serenade a cowboy-boot-wearing Big Red star who loves okra, George W. Bush and hunting. (He owns eight guns.) "I just love it when that song comes," says David McKee, Cornell's junior goalie. "It makes me feel so at home."
McKee, from Irving, is one of the few born- and-bred Texans ever to play Division I hockey, and he's by far the most successful. Having started every game since arriving in Ithaca, N.Y., in the fall of 2003, McKee has gone 51-18-10 with a 1.68 goals-against average. Last season he led the Big Red to a 27-5-3 record and the NCAA quarterfinals, and was one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, the Heisman of college hockey, after having the third-best GAA (1.24) and save percentage (.947) in college hockey history. He also had 10 shutouts, raising his career total to 15 and breaking the Cornell record held by Ken Dryden.
"David makes tough saves look easy and has the rare ability to win games by himself," says David McNab, assistant G.M. for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, one of several NHL teams that tried to lure McKee out of school last spring and sign him as a free agent. "He has a great future in pro hockey." If McKee does make it to the NHL, he would become the first lifelong Texan to play in the league. (Bruins defenseman Brian Leetch was born in Corpus Christi but moved to Connecticut as a toddler.)
McKee's path to hockey success was hardly conventional. He saw his first hockey game at age 10, when his father, Carl, took him to a Stars game in 1993, the team's first year in Dallas. McKee was entranced by Andy Moog, the Stars' goalie, and told his dad he wanted to become an NHL goaltender. A few days later Carl took David to an Irving rink where the Stars were sponsoring a youth league to drum up interest in hockey. "The coach [of the team he was assigned to] thought I was real bad," says McKee, who'd never been on skates before. "He told my dad I wouldn't make the team."
But because he was the club's only goalie, the coach relented. McKee has excelled at every level of hockey since. As fate would have it, he became a protégé of Moog's, adopting a hybrid butterfly--stand-up style from the 18-year NHL veteran, who coached McKee for seven summers at the Okanagan Hockey School in Calgary. "I love David's competitive spirit," says Moog, who's now a Stars assistant. "He just battles so hard to keep the puck out of the net."
Recruited by Cornell, Harvard and Yale, McKee chose the Big Red partly because of its tradition of producing great goalies (chart). But the academic pressures of the Ivy League have tested McKee, who suffers from dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. He hid his disability for his first semester, and it nearly proved disastrous as he earned a 1.6 GPA. Since then he has been assigned more tutors, is given extra time for tests and sits near the front in every class to avoid distractions. As a result his GPA has not gone below 2.8. McKee has even created a fund-raising program with an Ithaca charity--the Racker Centers, which support people with learning disabilities--that raises money for every save he makes. "I've never seen such a big change in a student in such a short time," says coach Mike Schaefer, whose team is ranked ninth in the nation with an 8-3-1 record.
"School still isn't easy, but I can do it," says McKee, a hotel administration major. "And that confidence is allowing me to focus on doing what we should've done last year--win the national championship."
Cradle of Goalies
David McKee is the latest in a long line of successful goaltenders at Cornell, including the player who wrote the book on the position, Ken Dryden (right). Here are five former Big Red netminders who went on the play in the NHL.
RON LEBLANC/ICON SMI (2)
BLANK SLATE McKee, a Hobey Baker finalist last year, has 15 shutouts in two-plus seasons.
TONY TRIOLO (DRYDEN)