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McDonald a chip off the old block

by Mike O’Brien || AHL On The Beat Archive 

The American Hockey League is rife with players that have fathers that have NHL experience. Taking a stroll around the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ locker room, names like Samuelsson and DeFazio allude to such legacies.

The image of NHL dads teaching their sons the fundamentals of hockey on the frozen ponds of Canada or Sweden is an easy one to conjure, but learning the game a stone’s throw from Hartford, Conn., may be a little more difficult to grasp in the mind’s eye.

Yet that’s where Penguins right winger Colin McDonald developed into one of the top players in the state, with the help of his dad and former Hartford Whaler, Gerry McDonald.

Colin’s ascendance to one of the leading scorers on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is not so surprising when you consider the journey taken by his father. Originally from Weymouth, just outside of Boston, Gerry was recruited to play defense for the North Adams State College – a Division III school in the northwestern corner of the state.

After four years of collegiate hockey, the pro ranks didn’t greet the blueliner right away. An audition at the Quebec Nordiques training camp in 1980 eventually led to an opportunity with the New York Rangers and their AHL-affiliate, the New Haven Nighthawks.

Twenty-nine points in 70 games during his rookie season made him a valuable commodity and part of a trade that off-season that sent him to the one the newest teams in the NHL, the Whalers. The elder McDonald would start the season in Binghamton, but go on to make his NHL debut in Hartford, skating in three contests. He went on to play two more years within the Whalers organization, including another five appearances in Hartford, before hanging up his skates.

While being a former NHL’er definitely had some bearing on Colin’s love of hockey, it was Gerry’s second career as a broadcaster that had most influence. As a broadcaster during the Whalers’ final season and later for the Hartford Wolf Pack, Gerry was able to afford Colin experiences that would plant the seeds for his later success.

“I would always go the game with him, sit way up top in the catwalk and just watch,” said Colin. “Then going down to locker room afterwards, seeing how big those guys were and how they worked out. I knew at a very young age that this was something I wanted to do.”

Though his dad made his living as a defenseman, Colin chose the forward route and quickly developed into a top junior player while playing for the New England Coyotes of the Eastern Junior Hockey League. He credits Gerry and his NHL experience for his growth on the ice.

“I think that’s the difference maybe between Canada and someplace like Connecticut. A lot of younger Canadian players have coaches that have played the game, whereas in Connecticut, that’s not always the case. I think one of the reasons I was able to make it [to the pro level] is because we had a guy who played the game who knew how to coach and teach us.”

Colin was first in the EJHL in scoring during the 2002-03 season with 58 points on 28 goals and 30 assists. He was named EJHL Offensive Player of the Year and the league’s Most Valuable Player. His successes on the ice led a second-round selection (51st overall) by the Edmonton Oilers in 2003 and an opportunity to play at Providence College. He led all freshmen on the Friars with 10 goals and was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team.

Following his four-year career at Providence, McDonald joined the Oilers’ AHL-affiliate, the Springfield Falcons for his rookie year in 2007-08. In one of those movie script-esque coincidences, Colin scored his first pro goal on Oct. 29 against the Wolf Pack. In Hartford. In the building that he spent so much of his youth.

“It was one of my most memorable moments,” mused McDonald. I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal when I first stepped onto the ice, but it kind of hit me all at once during warm-ups. Getting my first pro goal was pretty special as well.”

The storybook moment gave way to three seasons of solid numbers with the Falcons, but it was with the Oklahoma City Barons last year that McDonald enjoyed his breakout moment. Not only did he post career highs with 16 assists and 58 points, but also led the entire AHL with 42 goals.

When his contract with Edmonton came to an end last summer, an opportunity presented itself with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh that McDonald is more than pleased that he took.

“I have talked to other guys [about Wilkes-Barre/Scranton] and when you get here, you see that this environment just breeds winning. I just like it here and you understand why this organization has been so successful.”

Those who expected McDonald to match his goal total from last season need only watch a shift or two to see that there is much more to his game than lighting the lamp. Colin leads the Penguins with 13 assists and is tied for the team lead with 18 points. He has already established himself as a threat on the power play, one of the team’s leading penalty killers and a fierce forechecker.

Though such traits may have been instilled in him at an early age, Colin still returns to his first teacher, Gerry, to help him improve as a player.

“When I was younger and he was coaching me, he would give me advice. I thought he was just being tough and I didn’t always want to listen. Now that I’m older, I’m reaching out to him about what I could do better or what he saw from the last game. It’s funny how it all comes full circle.”