Justin McKenney skated around the Flyers Skate Zone for the first time in nine months Oct. 14.
His jersey and pads felt undersized and uncomfortable, but after a few adjustments he felt at home.
“It’s like I never left,” McKenney said. ” It’s like I didn’t miss a single part of the season.”
The junior defenseman played for the Owls the past two seasons, but Oct. 14 marked his first time on the ice in 2015. McKenney’s last game with the team came in the Owls’ 4-3 loss to Rowan Feb. 13 in the Mid-Atlantic Hockey Association playoffs.
The defenseman’s departure meant for the first time since he was 6 years old he was not going to be playing ice hockey. He grew up near Hatfield Ice Rink in Colmar, Pennsylvania, where he played youth hockey for nine years.
“That place has so much nostalgia for me,” McKenney said. “It was a mile from my house. … Some of the best times of my childhood were there, and my name is on a plaque in the rink as a lifetime player.”
He then moved on to La Salle College High School, where he played with the Owls’ senior defensemen Patrick Hanrahan and Jason Lombardi. McKenney won the Pennsylvania AAA State Championship with the duo in 2012 and picked up the nickname the “trashman,” for his assertiveness in front of the net.
“[High school coach Walter Muehlbronner] stuck me in front of the net in those situations and it just happened to have worked out,” McKenney said. “I could score goals, draw penalties and a lot of good things have happened when we did that.”
McKenney enjoyed having more free time away from hockey earlier this year, but Hanrahan kept encouraging him to rejoin the team. McKenney initially refused Hanrahan’s offer, but changed his mind when one of McKenney’s friends nudged him along.
“One of my friends told me, ‘You should just do it,”’ McKenney said. ‘“You’ll stop just wasting time, and you’ll actually have something to do a lot.’ I was just like you’re right. I love the sport, I love to play, why not just get back to it.”
“Justin is a great locker room guy and a pretty influential player out there,” Hanrahan said. “He works hard and lays the body, and he’s also somebody we wanted back on the team. When he didn’t come back this year, he’s a player you miss in the locker room and a guy you definitely miss on the ice.”
McKenney has logged six penalty minutes through four games this season, after he scored two goals, five assists for seven points last season as a forward.
Coach Roman Bussetti switched McKenney to defense after four of his seven defenseman were injured. McKenney took the transition in stride, since he made the Owls as a defenseman as a freshman in 2013.
“There’s not a whole lot not to like,” Bussetti said. “He’s a good kid. He’s got a good personality, he plays hard, he does whatever you ask, and he plays whatever position you need him to play. He’s an all-around great player.”
Stephen Godwin Jr. can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @StephenGodwinJr