The Perfect Fit

At a time when the eligibility rules that govern college hockey are under review, Andy McDonald reminds us all of why the game as it exists today is so great.

McDonald’s competitive hockey career might have ended long ago were it not for a chance to develop at his own pace at Colgate University. How many people looked at McDonald four years ago and saw the makings of a possible Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist?

Colgate’s captain is the linchpin of the resurgent Red Raiders. In his time in Hamilton, New York, the senior has blossomed from a 160-pound wisp of a playmaker into a solidly-built, two-way star. He has toiled indefatigably to make himself every bit as much a pro prospect as ECAC alumni like Princeton’s Jeff Halpern, Vermont’s Martin St. Louis or Harvard’s Don Sweeney, all of whom were at one time considered too small to garner serious attention from pro scouts.

Yet what makes McDonald different than the thousands of other Canadian or American kids who held out little hope of ever playing hockey for a living when they reached draft-eligible age? Ask teammate Darryl Campbell, the leading expert on what makes Andy McDonald tick.

“I have never seen a player with such desire to get to the next level as Andy,” says Campbell, who grew up just a few houses away from McDonald in Strathroy, Ontario. “He practices night and day and never seems to get tired.”

McDonald’s willingness to do whatever is necessary to make himself a better player is an inspiration to the players who wear Colgate’s garnet-and-grey jersey. His on-ice exploits have inspired excitement in the Hamilton community, where a night at Starr Rink is once again a main attraction. It is hard to imagine a better fit of student-athlete to school then this modest, small-town product and this quiet, small-town institute of higher learning.

Credit for McDonald’s rise from relative hockey obscurity to Hobey Baker candidate goes to several people. Assistant coaches Stan Moore and Chris Wells spotted McDonald in the Western Ontario Junior Hockey League and made a concerted effort to draw him to Hamilton. Coach Don Vaughan acknowledged McDonald’s offensive gifts by putting him on a line with All-America Mike Harder as a freshman, then gave McDonald the freedom to express his creativity in subsequent seasons.

Andy’s father, Steve, coached him for most of his minor hockey career, putting him back on the blue line as a youngster and then letting him move up front when Andy’s lack of size threatened to become a limiting factor.

“Andy comes from a great family, real good stock,” said Vaughan of Steve McDonald and his wife, Margaret, a nurse. “They have followed us closely and don’t miss too many games, but they take a real hands-off approach to Andy’s hockey career.”

Most of the credit for McDonald’s rise to prominence, however, should go to the left-handed shooting forward himself.

“I have always tried to work hard, but preparation is even more important in college where you only play a limited number of games,” McDonald said. “You cannot take a night off, so you have to practice hard during the week and let the games take care of themselves. College gives you four years to work at getting better whereas in major junior, you play so many games that you don’t have time to work out or practice.”

Perhaps because he was only in his second full season as a forward, and certainly because he was under 5-10 at the time, major junior scouts ignored McDonald at age 16. The insult only inspired the offensive dynamo as he went on to become a two-time team MVP for the Strathroy Rockets.

Campbell remembers McDonald as an opposing player in the WOJHL, where McDonald was a dominant offensive player but relatively one-dimensional. Four years later, Campbell sees a dramatically improved player with superlative strength on his skates, a formidable defensive conscience and practice habits that can make a coach cry with delight. Vaughan comes across McDonald every morning as the coach walks through Starr Rink on the way to his office. The captain might be alone on the ice, working on his shot, or in the locker room for a cool-down stretch.

“Andy started skating in the morning during freshman year, when we were roommates,” Campbell said. “Neither of us really knew what to expect when we got here. We found out we could skate in the morning and we would do it every so often, but not every day. For Andy, it progressed over the four years to where he is in there every morning.”

McDonald’s hard work and its results have played a key role in rejuvenating the Colgate program. The Red Raiders made it back to Lake Placid for the ECAC tournament last year after a five-year absence.

This season, Colgate has already clinched home ice for the playoffs and should make it back to the Olympic Arena, and a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since an NCAA title defeat at the hands of Wisconsin in 1990 may also be in the cards.

You will not, however, convince the Raiders’ captain that he is the only, or even the most significant, reason for the reversal of fortune in Hamilton. McDonald dishes out credit to his teammates like he distributes the puck — quickly, precisely and with feeling.

“People should take more notice of my two linemates,” McDonald said. “(Junior) Kevin (Johns) has had a solid year; he really stepped up when he moved up to our line. (Junior) Sean Nolan has been injury-prone in the past, but he is a great player. And (senior goalie) Shep Harder has won some big games for us.”

Campbell anchors a recently-created second unit with sophomore Etienne Morin and junior Mike O’Malley. Colgate’s most productive grouping, however, is the top power-play unit of McDonald, Campbell, and Nolan, with junior defenseman Cory Murphy and senior Mike Marostega on the points. Oddly enough, Vaughan designed his power play to de-emphasize McDonald.

“We obviously want to get the puck on Andy’s stick, but we don’t want teams to isolate him,” said the coach of the ECAC’s top-ranked man-advantage. “We structured things so that Andy can wander a bit, use his head for the game to find openings, but he doesn’t have to hold the puck for 20 or 30 seconds.”

Yet it is McDonald who is most often the one finishing the play or making the final pass to a streaking teammate, often Marostega creeping into the slot from the left point.

“Andy is an unbelievable playmaker,” said Campbell, who skated with McDonald for much of the first half of the season at even strength. “If you get open in a prime scoring area, he will get you the puck, whether it is with a three-foot saucer pass or a touch pass, whatever. He is also really tough one-on-one; when he cycles out of the corner, he will beat the opposing defenseman every time.”

Vaughan used McDonald as his first-choice penalty killer for much of the season as well, until the coach decided it would be wise to save some of that energy for the stretch run. Nevertheless, McDonald rarely, if ever, shows signs of getting too much ice time. He often logs 25 to 30 minutes a game, numbers usually reserved for top defensemen.

“I always know on the power play that if Andy is leaving the ice for a shift change before me, than I had better get off the ice,” said Campbell.

There is an inner toughness to McDonald in addition to his physical skills. Opponents cannot intimidate him with physical challenges. Opposing fans do not appear to rattle him with taunts. The only time he came close to losing his cool this season was in the closing moments of the game at Cornell, when he raced to help defend Harder from a mugging attempt in the midst of a near-donnybrook. Unfortunately, that act resulted in a one-game suspension that took effect when Colgate faced off against league-leading St. Lawrence.

“Andy didn’t throw a punch and you can actually see him hold back in the video of the incident, so I was a little disappointed with the suspension,” Vaughan said. “Of course he was very disappointed not to play against St. Lawrence, but he tried to help out in other ways. Even in his street clothes, he came down between periods and talked to the guys and was still involved.”

The ‘C’ that McDonald wears on his chest speaks volumes about his status among his peers. In fact, it may speak louder than McDonald himself in most situations. The Red Raiders sniper prefers to lead by example, choosing his words carefully and saving them for key moments.

One can make the case that there is no player in college hockey more valuable to his team than McDonald to Colgate. McDonald sees as much ice time as any forward in the country, ranks among the nation’s top scorers in points per game, plays in all of the key defensive situations and sets a standard for leadership that is nearly impossible to match.

“The beauty of it is that Andy loves the game,” said Vaughan, who feels that McDonald is deserving of strong Hobey consideration. “It is never a chore, never a grind for him to practice or work out.”