Walt McKechnie: Hockey to Politics

Careers Over the Years

Author/Editor: Jennifer J. Lacelle

October 27, 2021

The city of London, Ontario has a fascinating history and is the birthplace of several infamous actors and musicians like Justin Bieber, Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling, and Amber Marshall (to name a few). 

London has also raised several major NHL players like Joe Thornton, Eric Lindros, Jeff Carter, and Walt McKechnie, who was born on June 19, 1947. He grew up in the London area where he learned how to skate and play hockey. Eventually, he would go on to play for the National Hockey League and have a career longer than the majority of players. 

Ponds, Rinks & Playing the Game

All great stories have a beginning. For Walter McKechnie, it started at six years old when he began to skate on ponds and outdoor rinks around his community where he learned to skate. He says fathers around the neighbourhood would build outdoor rinks, meaning there were a number of them to play on.

“I was so keen whenever there was ice time,” he says. “Whenever the guys were going, I’d go.”

In the initial stages, being fairly young, he and his friends would stay off to the side of the rinks and play their own game. But as they got older, they began mingling with the others on the ice. McKechnie recalls being on those outdoor rinks with upwards of 20 players all sharing a puck. 

It didn’t take long to start Peewee level at nine years old while simultaneously playing in his public school’s hockey team. 

The Ryerson Public School’s team had never won a championship and when McKechnie was in his final year playing with them they finally won the All-Ontario Championship! 

“It was a great thrill!” 

It was such a wonderful memory that McKechnie publicly posted the photos decades later when he owned his own store.

Traveling Teams & Gaining Skills

By the time McKechnie was 12, he was playing in both Peewee and Bantam leagues, including their travelling teams. He was also playing in the Midget league, but not their travelling team. So, all at once he was playing on five separate teams.

McKechnie says to make it work with the travelling teams, he would play the Peewee level game and then head to the changeroom. From there, the Bantam coach would have him take off the Peewee uniform and put the Bantam sweater on, then McKechnie would head to that team’s changeroom and get ready to play the next game.

It’s very different nowadays since back then there was more of an emphasis on winning competitions, although he notes it wasn’t at all costs. McKechnie says players and coaches wouldn’t be able to play in both leagues in today’s era.

Also in those days, there wasn’t always equal ice time between teammates. If players were dogging it (not doing well), they’d be swapped out for other players. You had to work and earn your ice time, especially if you didn’t get as much time as you wanted. 

Getting Noticed

By the time McKechnie was 14 there was a callout from the National Ontario Western B Junior Hockey League for all local boys to tryout for the team. 

He hadn’t thought much of it apart from getting ice time for a day, and hopefully up to a week. So, he and some friends geared up and headed for the tryouts. McKechnie notes he was a pretty tall kid and that helped him stand out. But having some skill also brought him to their attention. 

The general manager approached and told him they wanted to talk to his mom and dad, but McKechnie wanted to know why. They told him they were interested in having him play for the team, but he was a minor and they needed permission from his guardians. McKechnie informed them it would be his mom and grandma, as they were who raised him. 

When they did meet the family, his mom asked what the problem was. So the general manager explained that given his age they not only needed his mom’s permission, but at 14 he would be playing against people 18-20 years old. That alone came with its own risks: a higher chance of injury. 

McKechnie recalls his mom looking at him and asking what he thought, to which he replied, “I wanna play.” 

So, off he went to the Western Ontario Junior B Hockey League (WOJBHL). Within a year he and his mom received notice that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ had drafted him in the first round, sixth pick for midget in the overall draft. 

They wrote his mother a check for $100 and he became the “property” of the TML. However, he was informed that a requirement was quitting his other sports McKechnie was a quarterback in football, and a pitcher in baseball, so that he could focus solely on hockey.

It was also around this time he was kicked out of school. His mother was upset and crying as they walked the steps out of the school. This was when McKechnie decided he would play in the NHL and told his mom not to worry. 

“All of us that made it, we had some God given talent and were extremely dedicated,” he says. “We were just committed to being professional hockey players.”

Playing the Big Leagues

McKechnie played in the junior leagues for six years. During that time, they won the Junior B Nationals and he says they had a great team set up. While he could have continued playing in the juniors for his last year the Toronto Maple Leafs took him to their official training camp for the first year of expansions (1968). He was eventually signed for a total of $8,000 to play in the Western Hockey League, which included Phoenix, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, etc, and was shipped out. 

He only spent a couple months playing when he was traded to the Minnesota North Stars: they now had all the rights to McKechnie. He completed several games that year and says he did well in the playoffs, scoring a goal with only two minutes and thirty-one seconds left, however, they still lost the game during over time. 

While at a training camp in Winnipeg, Wren Blair called him to his hotel room and informed McKechnie they were signing a new contract with him for one year and a solid $20K — with no more minor leagues. 

“I remember going back to my hotel room and calling my mother, and I said, are you sitting down… I just signed a contract for $20,000,” he says. “She couldn’t believe it.” 

From there he went to Minnesota, then Oakland before being traded to Boston, then Detroit, followed by Cleveland and then eventually his dream team: the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

“The greatest thing that ever happened to me in my career,” he says. “I played there for just over two years. There’s a saying; once a leaf, always a leaf.” 

After those two years he was traded out and played for five more seasons on various teams before retiring after a strong, 17-year career.

After the Ice

In 1986, McKechnie opened his own restaurant and pub in Haliburton, Ontario. He called it McKeck’s Place and initially had 65 seats. By the time he sold it in 2009, after 24 years, there were close to 300 seats. That peewee championship photo was hung up on the wall when he opened the pub, and when his old coach came in he was surprised McKechnie still had the picture and even posted it publicly! When he decided to open McKeck’s Place, he wanted to keep the same ideals as when he played hockey.

“We tried to adopt the same theory as we always had in hockey, I always wanted to be a team player, so we always called the staff as part of the team,” he says.

He had two fantastic careers and it was being surrounded by wonderful groups of people that helped him get there. From coaches to teammates, family and friends, they all played a role in bringing McKechnie to success. 

“I was very fortunate and had a lot of help along the way with a lot of great coaches and teammates, my mom and my family,” McKechnie says. “My two great careers I had that were same years and length, roughly, 6 years in junior hockey, 17 in professional hockey and 24 years in the restaurant. Neither one did I make any money at, but I had a hell of time.”

What’s he been up to since selling the pub? Well, McKechnie’s currently in his third run as a counsellor for his municipality. He plans on running again at the end of the term for a total of four terms, which would culminate 16 years.

When asked about why he chose that route, as it seems particularly different from the first two, he says a friend thought he’d be good at it. Turns out that friend was right. 

“I’m very passionate about my people,” McKechnie says, which is part of the job, especially for politicians — municipal, provincial or federal. On that note, he believes the provincial and federal levels of government should be held just as every bit accountable as municipal. “We can’t just spend money and make promises…” 

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Walt McKechnie: Hockey to Politics

The city of London, Ontario has a fascinating history and is the birthplace of several infamous actors and musicians like Justin Bieber, Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling, and Amber Marshall (to name a few). 

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