Utilizing his big size, Captain Kirk was one of the last classic stand up goalies to succeed in the National Hockey League. Canucks radio colour commentator Tom Larscheid described him best: "He's like one of those bubble hockey goalies, always standing perfectly straight and just letting the puck hit him."
His stand up style was ideal for his big frame, although in some ways his style made him unappreciated. While other goalies were acrobatically turning away pucks, "Mac" made all saves look routine by just getting in the way of it and making sure the rebound was under control. To the novice fan it looked routine, even boring, but to the hardcore fan it was a pleasure to watch one of the last great stand up goalies.
One of the coolest customers you'll ever meet, McLean seemed unflappable, even in the early years with Vancouver when the team was extremely weak. He had a tremendous glove hand, which made up for vulnerabilities to the low posts. He also loved to handle the puck, usually in the far corner of the rink in what is now part of the restricted zone. He would almost without fail deke out an oncoming forechecker by faking a puck dump behind the net and around to the other corner, but then pull back with a backhanded flip the other way, usually to a waiting Canucks defenseman.
Growing up in Toronto, McLean grew up idolizing Bernie Parent and Jacques Plante, as well as Dave Keon. He began playing in net at age 7, and before you know it he was the number one goalie with the OHL's Oshawa Generals. The New Jersey Devils were impressed, and drafted him 107th overall in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.
McLean would turn pro and apprentice in the minor leagues in 1986-87. He'd appear in 4 games with the Devils, who were loaded with good young goaltenders at the time. The Devils had always lacked great goaltending and had stockpiled on goaltending prospects. With Sean Burke, Craig Billington, Alain Chevrier and Chris Terreri all emerging as NHLers at relatively the same time, the Devils decided to move McLean in exchange for help up front.
The deal was good for both teams, but especially for Vancouver over the long haul. The Canucks moved creative center Patrik Sundstrom to the Devils in exchange for McLean, and B.C. boy Greg Adams. It was one of the first moves the new Pat Quinn-Brian Burke regime would make, and proved to be a turning point in Canucks history.
McLean quickly proved he was ready for the NHL. After battling in training camp with veterans Steve Weeks, Frank Caprice and most notably long time fan favorite "King Richard" Brodeur, "Mac" emerged as the number one goalie. Adding to the pressure of being counted on game in and game out was the fact that the Canucks ended up trading Brodeur away to make room for McLean. The unproven goaltender replaced the local legend and had to prove his worth before a very watchful fan base and media.
McLean played in 41 games that first year, winning just 11 with a very weak Canucks team. His numbers improved to 20 wins in 42 contests the following year. He extended he is season by representing Canada at the World Hockey Championships. While locals knew McLean was something special, soon the rest of the league would find out for themselves.
In 1989-90, the Canucks were still struggling, but with McLean and a young Trevor Linden leading the way, the future looked bright. McLean played in 63 games that season, winning just 21. But his value to the team was recognized throughout the league when he was named a finalist in league voting for goaltender of the year. He was also invited to his first NHL all star game and was named NHL player of the week in March.
As the Canucks got better, McLean emerged as one of the league's best. In 1991-92 he won a a league high 38 games in 65 contests. His GAA was an impressive 2.74 and he posted 5 shutouts, another league high. He was named to the NHL's second all star team. He would finish second behind Patrick Roy in voting for the Vezina Trophy as the league's top netminder.
Kirk McLean, like most of the Canucks of that era, will always be remembered for his play in the 1994 playoffs. The team struggled through an underachieving regular season, but backed by the brilliance of McLean's puckstopping went all the way to game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals before finally bowing to the New York Rangers.
McLean's signature moment came in round one against Calgary. With the team clawing it's way back from a 3 games to 1 deficit, the Canucks forced overtime in game 7. In the extra frame McLean robbed Flames' sniper Robert Reichal with a sliding, pad-stacked toe save that to this day is considered the single most important save of the Canucks history.
But McLean was never better than in game one of the Stanley Cup finals in New York. The Rangers heavily outplayed the underdog Canucks, but McLean, in his classic stand-up style, committed one of the grandest larcenies in the history of Manhattan. His 52 save performance, including 17 in overtime, remains one of the most impressive games I've ever seen a goaltender play. In a game where the Rangers could have blown out the Canucks, McLean kept the score 2-2 into over time where Greg Adams, McLean's trade accompaniant from New Jersey 7 years prior, scored the game winning goal at 19:26 of the first over time.
As magical as that spring was, the entire Canucks team could not recapture it and would soon fall apart. McLean struggled to adjust to the butterfly goaltending stance that was now seemingly the only acceptable strategy. He was doubly distracted by his divorce.
Despite his all star status and tremendous resume, perhaps history will always remember Kirk McLean as the goalie who gave up Wayne Gretzky's record breaking 802nd NHL goal. On March 23rd, 1994, Gretzky broke Gordie Howe's all time NHL scoring record with a power play marker in a 6-3 loss to the Canucks. McLean had no chance on the play, but will undoubtedly be forever immortalized in hockey trivia games.
Like all members of that Canucks team, McLean was soon moved out in a dismantling process by the new Canucks regime. McLean was moved to Carolina in exchange for, somewhat ironically, Sean Burke, the goalie who ended winning the Devils net job back in the late 1980s. McLean left as the Canucks all time leader in wins, shutouts and games played by a goaltender.
Sadly McLean bounced around the league, landing later in Florida and then the Rangers before retiring in 2001. By the end he may have been a shadow of his old self, his stand up style now a NHL antique. But to Vancouver fans of the early 1990s, Captain Kirk will always be #1.