Tough guy Riley McKay working hard to become complete player in Laval

“I try to bring energy to the team and try to play the right way,” said McKay, who is the Rocket’s all-time leader in penalty minutes.

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Saw what you will about Riley McKay, but he has never backed down from a fight or defending his teammates.

At 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds, McKay even thought it was appropriate last season to engage Michael McCarron, seven inches taller and 35 pounds heavier, while his opponent was playing for Milwaukee.

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“He kind of got an early jump on me; I’ll give him that one,” McKay admitted Wednesday after the Rocket’s morning skate at Place Bell. “I’m pretty upfront, whether I win or lose. I’m never shy for Round 2. He’s a big boy, but it was a good fight and he plays hard. I respect all the guys that play like that.”

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During last Friday’s victory at Hartford, the left-winger got into a first-period fight with Connor Mackey. In the process, he overtook McCarron — a former Canadiens’ first-round draft choice (25th overall in 2013) now playing for Nashville — for the most career penalty minutes (219) in Rocket franchise history. McKay accomplished this in 62 fewer games than McCarron needed, and he was presented with a post-game puck in the dressing room to commemorate the honour.

“I take pride in it,” said McKay, 24, from Swan River, Man. “I really try not to take as many minors and try to stay away from that obviously. I’m happy with my success. I’m proud of it.”

Heading into Wednesday night’s home game against Hershey, McKay has three goals and nine points — along with a team-leading 103 penalty minutes — in 32 games. According to, McKay has had eight fights this season. In 10 of his games, McKay wasn’t penalized, but only once did he go as many as two games without a penalty. In a late December game at Belleville, he received 15 penalty minutes.

During the 2017-18 season while playing for the Spokane juniors, McKay received 152 penalty minutes in 62 games. In 2021-22, with the East Coast Hockey League’s Indy Fuel, there were 192 penalty minutes in 51 games. But McKay also was an assistant captain with the Saskatoon juniors, called an “unsung hero” by head coach Mitch Love; a player with a high hockey IQ who also was a leader and playmaker. McKay played on the same line as the Canadiens’ Kirby Dach with the Blades.

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And consider this: McKay was a minus-6 in 23 games last season, while accumulating 118 PIM. He also spent time in the ECHL, with Trois-Rivières. This season, conversely, he’s a plus-5 and has worked hard at becoming a more-complete two-way player.

“I think he brings a lot to our team,” Rocket head coach Jean-François Houle said. “He brings grit, sandpaper, and you need to have that on the team. Other players look up to guys like that, because they do a lot. They can defend a player, deliver a big hit to change the momentum. He’s well appreciated. He knows he needs to be careful taking penalties. There’s a line you can’t cross. He’s crossed it a couple of times, which has cost him some games. He sat some games for being undisciplined, but those players are very important for a team.”

McKay has admitted he enjoys fighting — an attribute that was instilled at an early age. He admits to having been called a goon occasionally, but said the game has evolved; players required to use more than their fists to keep up with the fast-paced play.

“I try to bring energy to the team and try to play the right way,” McKay said. “I try to play hard and obviously keep my minors down. With my role, sometimes that’s hard. Sometimes I do a bad job and my emotions get the best of me. In the end, I’m always trying to stand up for my teammates. I’m proud to do that. I wouldn’t be where I am today without (fighting).

“When I was playing junior A (in Manitoba), I never thought I’d make the step to the WHL. I did. Then to the East Coast Hockey League and the AHL. I keep making the next step. Anything’s possible.”

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