Iowa Heartlanders defenseman Kevin McKernan providing veteran presence

With over 200 ECHL games under his belt, the blueliner is helping guide the way for one of the most inexperienced rosters in the league.


Matt Sindt

Players move for the puck during a hockey game between the Iowa Heartlanders and the Cincinnati Cyclones at Xtream Arena in Coralville on Saturday Nov. 26, 2022. The Heartlanders defeated the Cyclones, 4-3.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

Iowa Heartlanders defenseman Kevin McKernan said he doesn’t know if it’s a good or bad thing he’s played all his professional games in the ECHL.

But Iowa head coach Derek Damon said McKernan provides the Heartlanders with stability. With 231 ECHL contests under his belt, McKernan is a veteran among one of the most professionally inexperienced rosters in the league.

“He’s seen a lot,” Damon said. “He’s had a calming presence. He plays the game with a calming demeanor. He’s a smart hockey player, and I think we’re fortunate to have a player of his caliber with us right now.”

When McKernan is on the ice, he skates side to side throughout the defensive zone as he attempts to block passes and shots off his stick or body. He did that exceptionally well versus the Cincinnati Cyclones on Saturday.

“Just got to do what you got to do out there,” McKernan said. “Doesn’t feel great, but [it’s] part of my game, so I had to do it.”

The right-handed shooter spent his youth training with the Boston Junior Bruins in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and developed through their program, competing in various leaguers. In 2013-14, McKernan competed for the Junior Bruins in the U.S. Premier Hockey League Premier Division, notching six goals and 19 assists over 26 games.

Then, the blueliner progressed to Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University. He spent four seasons there and was an alternate captain his senior year.

At the end of the 2017-18 campaign, McKernan began his professional career with the Fort Wayne Komets. McKernan transferred to the South Carolina Stingrays the following year, where he recorded his best ECHL season with six goals, 22 assists, and a plus-nine rating.

He was on the move again in 2019-20 when he joined the Kansas City Mavericks. The 5-foot-11 skater split 2020-21 between the Jacksonville Icemen and the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. He spent the rest of his career with the Swamp Rabbits before he was traded to the Heartlanders on Nov. 4 for future considerations.

McKernan has totaled 14 goals — including two with the Heartlanders — and 58 assists while donning an ECHL sweater. He noted his time in the league has been a grind.

“It’s nice to see new people, new places, and new cultures,” McKernan said.


Since he’s been with the Heartlanders, the 28-year-old said he’s helped the young roster by sharing with them the knowledge he’s accumulated. So far in McKernan’s time with Iowa, he’s been paired with rookie Ryan Wheeler, captain Riese Zmolek, and AHL-contracted blueliner Matt Murphy.

“He brings that extra leadership in the locker room, right the ship that we’re going on right now, so he’s been a really good addition,” Zmolek said.

The Heartlanders are 3-8-2-1 and sit at the bottom of the ECHL Central Division, but McKernan has experienced rough stretches before. While he was with the Swamp Rabbits in 2021-22, the franchise dropped 10 straight games — with four in overtime or a shootout — but still qualified for the Kelly Cup Playoffs.

“There’s a lot of roller coaster to the season,” Damon said. “It’s managing the ups and managing the downs. Having a guy like Kevin helps push our message.”