When buffalo Sabres forward Erik Rasmussen walks into his hold 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 office 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 disciplined himself."
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 David Copperfield.
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."