When Buffalo Sabres forward Erik Rasmussen walks into his hotel
room, he never knows what his roommate, defenseman Jay McKee,
will be up to. "Lately he's been trying to levitate," says
Rasmussen. "I'm expecting to come in one day and see him floating
around the room."
Rasmussen usually finds McKee rapidly shuffling a deck of cards
or twirling a coin on his fingers, exercises meant to enhance his
dexterity. McKee, 23, is an accomplished amateur magician whose
repertoire of party tricks goes well beyond the NHL player's
standard feat of making a can of lager disappear and then
belching in two languages. At the Sabres' Halloween party this
year, McKee got the costumed crowd to cheer by making a dollar
bill float above his hand, no strings attached. "That's the one
that blows everyone away," says Rasmussen. "I've been trying to
get him to show me how he does it."
McKee, who grew up in Kingston, Ont., learned early that
magicians don't reveal their secrets. When he was seven, his
father tantalized him with a few card tricks, then refused to say
how he'd done them. "The mystery got to me," McKee recalls. "My
dad wouldn't tell. I got so intrigued that I finally bought a
book on magic and learned to do tricks myself."
By junior high McKee was entertaining peers in hallways and the
lunch room. A deck of cards became as much a part of his daily
ensemble as his hockey stick. When he began traveling through the
junior hockey ranks, magic proved an invaluable outlet, a way to
pass time on the long bus rides. "When I got to the NHL, it was a
little overwhelming, and I gave up on magic for a while," says
McKee. "Then one day a couple of years ago, the team was in Los
Angeles, and a few of us went into a magic store. It was like
boom--I got back into it."
Unlike McKee's Sabres teammates, who badger him to perform, coach
Lindy Ruff doesn't pay much attention to McKee's off-ice magic.
He's more pleased to have seen the careless, erratic McKee of a
few seasons ago disappear and materialize as one of the more
consistent and physical defensemen in the game. Though he's lanky
at 6'4" and 201 pounds, McKee has bulked up in recent years and
uses his body to dramatic effect. "Every few games you see him
practically knock somebody out of the building," Ruff says. "Guys
know not to try to go wide on him. He used to run around a lot on
the ice, and he still plays with an abandon, but he has
McKee made a major impact during Buffalo's magical run to the
Stanley Cup finals in 1999, when he was arguably the Sabres' most
intimidating defenseman and led the NHL in plus-minus at +13.
Ruff often uses McKee and his defensive partner, Rhett Warrener,
to defuse opposing teams' top scoring threats, and the coach
doesn't mind that McKee contributes little on offense. McKee's
assist in Buffalo's 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Dec. 8
was his first point in 22 games this season. "When I learn to
levitate a goalie, that's when I'll start to score," McKee says.
In the meantime he's content with perfecting a new trick every
few weeks and has become a regular at the Elmwood Magic and
Novelty shop in Buffalo. One of Elmwood's owners, Mike Seege,
says that customers often come in "wanting to learn to do what
Jay does. The thing is, he's good. He dedicates himself to
learning tricks that require a lot of skill."
McKee is proud of his sleight of hand but swears he has no "real
magic" inside him. His life, though, seems charmed. He's a stud
athlete playing in a town only 200 miles from where he grew up.
He's in the second year of a four-year, $3.5 million contract,
and last July he married Nicole Malczewski, a Buffalo Jills
cheerleader. On their honeymoon the McKees went to Hawaii, then
stopped in Las Vegas, where they took in a magic show starring
McKee speaks in awe of one of Copperfield's signature stunts, in
which he levitates himself high above the stage, appearing to
fly. For McKee the mystery of magic is as acute and enlivening
as it was when he was seven. "By now I can often figure out how
a magician does something," says McKee. "But I have no idea how
Copperfield does that. He was floating 30 feet off the ground,
no wires or anything. That's the trick I most want to learn."