***The McKee family (clockwise from top); Four-year-old Brynn, Carey-Ann, six-year-old Brianna and Jason.***
A teacher by trade and a coach by destiny, Spruce Grove Saints head coach Jason McKee credits his second straight Alberta Junior Hockey League Coach of the Year award to his ongoing work as a student.
“I like to learn, that’s the biggest thing,” said Jason. “The margin of error over the past few years has shrunk. The quality of teams in this league is as good as I’ve ever seen it. From a coaching standpoint, it’s a challenge, so I’m always analyzing or studying things that I can pick up to give us an extra edge.”
The Saints dominated the AJHL in nearly every category this season: most goals, fewest allowed, best special teams, longest winning streak — the list could go on. Such has been the norm for the group of players taking instruction from the 35-year-old bench boss and father of two.
“If you’re committed and emotionally invested in the job, you’ll do the work,” said Jason. “It’s very humbling to be selected by my peers with so many strong candidates.”
Jason was born in Irma, Alta., and grew up around the rink; his mother drove the Zamboni for the local arena. He moved to Lloydminster in junior high to play in the AJHL and moved on to play NCAA Division 1 hockey at Michigan Tech, and then the Seattle Thunderbirds in the Western Hockey League.
“Pretty good vision, distributed the puck well, average skater,” laughs Jason when asked for a scouting report on himself. “In my junior career I was on some struggling teams, and learned a lot from those situations.”
The under-sized offensive talent with lots of heart bounced around the minor professional leagues in the southern United States before an injury forced Jason to take some time off. He went to the University of Alberta to earn a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in phys-ed with a minor in communications.
Jason intended to go back to playing hockey competitively, but he soon discovered mixing sports and teaching was a solid career path, and he began teaching at Edmonton’s Vimy Ridge Academy.
“Tying the two together was a pretty good fit for me,” said Jason, who taught math, science, technology and phys-ed when he worked full-time at the school. He still had some spare time in his schedule, which is where a new part-time job opportunity emerged.
Jason was then asked by a co-worker, Steve Hamilton, to be his assistant coach with the Fort Saskatchewan Traders, formerly of the AJHL, in 2005.
“The biggest challenge was convincing him to coach because he was still playing senior hockey,” said Hamilton. “Our staff came together randomly, we were all rookies and we figured it out all together.”
Jason was a quarter of a coaching foursome that developed with the Traders and came to the Saints in 2006. Together, they would turn Spruce Grove into the most successful franchise the AJHL in the past six years.
Hamilton, now the head coach of the WHL’s Oil Kings, Ryan Marsh, an assistant with the Oil Kings, and Dustin Schwartz, current goalie coach for the Edmonton Oilers, rounded out the coaching team.
“We all had similar views into the kind of players we wanted, how we wanted them to treat each other and what was important,” said Jason. “We got to implement the culture we wanted and that’s how it all started.”
As the winning culture spread through the halls at the Grant Fuhr Arena, a hockey mastermind was being nurtured behind the bench. Jason was learning the ropes while teaching at Vimy Ridge, and would eventually be a natural choice to take over the Saints when Hamilton left for the WHL in 2010.
“He was the perfect guy to take over because of his insatiable appetite for success,” said Hamilton. “He has an excellent mind for the game. I always knew he’d be exceptional because assistant coaches don’t make a lot of money, but his investment was so far beyond the dollars and cents.”
Jason continued the tradition of building a blue-collar team with strong depth and a nearly unbreakable structure. He says the most important element is a team-first attitude from every member of the organization, and he strives to prepare his players for playing at the next level.
Most of all, Jason loves being creative behind the bench and developing attack and defence schemes to systematically beat the other teams. Jason will constantly analyze the attack mechanisms in every hockey game he watches, most often Dave Tippett’s systems with the Arizona Coyotes and Mike Babcock’s with the Detroit Red Wings.
“The Saints are such a hard team to play against because of their systems and amazing coaching,” said shutdown Whitecourt Wolverines defenceman James Vermeulen. “In their defensive zone, the way they overload, they always have options on the breakouts. They never have to make a bad play, they are always there for each other.”
Jason says that doesn’t come from writing things down on a whiteboard and expecting his players to follow.
“It’s all about executing the systems, and in order to execute, you have to know what you’re doing, and how do you know what you’re doing? You have to teach, and you have to take the time to teach, on the ice, through videos, in one-on-ones.”
That’s where his teaching skills and experience playing in the league himself come in. Both are valuable assets that have commanded his players to buy-in to his systems and why he’s had so much success with this hockey club.
“It’s never always about winning, it’s about those individual players to him,” said his wife Carey-Ann. “He’s got such a passion for the game and he’s completely dedicated to anything he commits to. It’s who he is.”
She would know. Carey-Ann is also from Irma, and remembers seeing her future husband’s commitment, passion and determination when he helped lead the local senior league team through the playoffs.
“I remember him as an all-star, being a leader on that team and helping the other guys from a small community,” said Carey-Ann. “Our community was all about helping each other out.”
Jason has instilled the same values in his two families, with the Saints and his own two daughters, six-year-old Brianna and four-year-old Brynn. Carey-Ann says Jason always puts family first, and relates to each one of his players.
“He understands what they are going through at this stage and the challenges they face to make it at the next level,” she said. “He is an amazing man. Kind, loving, committed, and he’s very proud to be a Saint. We all are, our whole family.”
By Mitch Goldenberg, Spruce Grove Examiner/Stony Plain Reporter