Kevin McKee was born with sacral agenesis, a spinal disorder that rendered his legs useless. He was also born with exceptional perseverance, a less visible but more important condition.
McKee grew up in Davenport, Iowa. That’s where he first discovered sled hockey, the sport in which he has won two gold medals at the World Championships and one at the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. He brought them along with him on Tuesday when he spoke to 4th and 5th graders at Brubaker Elementary School about the “growth mindset,” a concept he personifies. Proponents believe in dedication and hard work—brains and talent (and legs) are just the starting point. The other side of the coin is the fixed mindset – you got it or you don’t, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
McKee fell in love with sled hockey from the start. But that didn’t mean he was a natural.
“The first time I tried out for the USA national team was 2008,” he told the Brubaker students. “I didn’t make it. I tried again in 2009 and got cut again. Finally I made the team in 2010.”
McKee’s appearance at Brubaker was sponsored by the school’s community partner, AE Dairy. The brand’s reach doesn’t extend to Chicago, where McKee now lives and plays for the Blackhawks sled hockey team, but he did tell the kids that he always drinks a glass of cold milk with his favorite food, the city’s famous deep dish pizza.
Besides his medals and a video of the national team in action, McKee also showed students some of the equipment necessary to play sled hockey. Like regular ice hockey, sticks are employed, but sled players carry two, one in each hand. They are shorter than conventional hockey sticks and are used for propulsion, via small spikes that dig into the ice, as well as slap-shooting goals.
As a member of the 2014 gold medal-winning team, McKee was one of only 17 players good enough to make that grade. But he was also one of only two on the squad who didn’t get to play in the gold medal game.
“I was disappointed about that,” he said. “But I made up my mind that it would never happen again. I worked hard to improve and now I am on the national team’s top line.”
He’ll get plenty of ice time at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea next March, and he’ll have some new fans in Des Moines cheering for him to bring back another gold medal.
When he took questions from them Tuesday, someone asked how he felt about his legs.
“To tell you the truth, they just kind of get in the way when you’re playing sled hockey,” he said.
But they haven’t stopped him from scoring his goals.