MacDonald rising through ranks of pro hockey

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by Rob Lippolis and Danielle Voss | AHL On The Beat 

Binghamton Devils defenseman Jacob MacDonald’s odyssey through the world of hockey started gaining momentum during his time with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League. Midway through his junior year of high school, the Brighton, Michigan, native received a call from the junior league offering an immediate chance to play for the Black Hawks’ legend P.K. O’Handley.

“I ended up playing the rest of the season there that year before coming back for my senior year and getting a commitment to Cornell,” reminisced MacDonald. “I made a lot of good friends in that city, and the coaching staff was always fantastic.”

The unpredictable offensive defenseman put up forty points in his season and a half with the Hawks, and had 22 assists in his senior year alone. He soon realized that his time in college hockey would not come as easy as it did in the juniors. While he managed to record an assist on his first shift, in his first game at Cornell (against Harvard, no less), MacDonald only suited up for eight games in his first year.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be easy’, and then I only played eight games that year, so I realized I needed a wake-up call after that first year. It really helped put me into gear,” noted MacDonald. “I worked out a lot. I worked on my game during the summer in Ithaca, and that really boosted my confidence a lot. I ended up playing all but one game the rest of my time there.”

It is that mentality that made the 6-foot, 200-pound MacDonald stand out in Cornell head coach Mike Schafer’s mind over the hundreds of other players he has had on his teams. MacDonald did not let being benched slow him down. It motivated him, and drove him to be better.   

“Jake handled it great,” said Schafer. “He’s one of those kids in watching him that’s determined and prideful and wants to get better in every situation at all times. That characteristic led him to get better each year at Cornell, and I knew his best hockey was ahead of him.”

Bad grades? No skates

MacDonald was raised in a household that valued academics, and if he did not perform well in the classroom, he did not perform at all on the ice. After all, if he did not have skates, he could not play hockey, and MacDonald’s parents were not afraid to make his skates vanish if his grades slipped. This was the true test for any student athlete: balance. Balance homework, practice, classes and games. Balance being a student and an athlete. For MacDonald, it was a non-issue: school had always come first for him, even in college.

“It is huge,” stated MacDonald. “Luckily that was never an issue and it was good for me as a person to go to Cornell because I had to learn to manage my time between school and hockey. That was huge for me, and I still use it to this day.”

Not only did MacDonald learn to manage his time between school and hockey, he excelled at it. He was a numbers guy. For him, creating coding and functions was what he loved, and he was good at it. So much, in fact, he became a tutor for his fellow student-athletes in Cornell’s athletic department. He understood the importance of lifting those up around him and making sure they thrived as well.

“That’s how they are wired,” agreed Schafer. “Players need to not only constantly work on their game, but their school work too, and they want that. They want to be able to get good grades, and work toward the NHL.”

A professional start

After Cornell, MacDonald spent a season and a half in the ECHL for the Elmira Jackals and Toledo Walleye, posting a total of 66 points (25 goals, 41 assists) as well as being named to the ECHL All-Rookie Team. The impressive stats for a defenseman came to the attention of the Devils’ scouts at a time when the organization was lacking in their defensive zone.

“Our scout, Nick Vitucci, has connections in the ECHL and Toledo,” acknowledged Binghamton Devils head coach Rick Kowalsky. “He saw MacDonald play a few times and knows the coach Dan Watson. We were looking for a defenseman (last year) to bring in, and not necessarily a power-play guy at the time. It was a matter of finding the best defenseman available when we needed it.”

MacDonald was told he would eventually be receiving a call from the then Albany Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald, but he had a dentist appointment to take care of due to his bottom teeth being knocked out in a prior game.

“I am in the chair, my teeth are all jacked up, and I see Tom Fitzgerald calling,” said MacDonald. “They had their hands in my mouth, and I couldn’t answer the call, so I waited and finally got a hold of him.” 

MacDonald was informed he was signed to a PTO to the Albany Devils from Toledo, but the dentist would have to speed up their process, so MacDonald could catch a flight out of Detroit to meet up with the team. He hasn’t been back to Toledo since.

In his first game with the Devils in Lehigh Valley, MacDonald managed to find himself in the regular rotation, as well as being worked into a power play on a night where they dressed seven defensemen.

Unlike his time at Cornell, he did not score in his first shift in his first game; however, it was not his ability to drive into the net that intrigued the Devil’s team staff. It was his spontaneity and ability to create opportunities.

“It wasn’t that he scored every time,” said Kowalsky. “It’s his ability make guys think he’s just going to move the puck, and then it’s a give-and-go and he jumps into a hole in the defense, or he has a no-look pass to a guy back door and catches the other team sleeping. He’s very dangerous four-on-four and three-on-three because there’s more ice in those situations.”

Next stop: the AHL All-Star Classic

In his 69 games with the Devils, MacDonald has put up 53 points. This accomplishment is not something that has escaped the notice of others and as of January 30, MacDonald will be able to list “AHL All-Star” to his resume.

“It means a lot,” said MacDonald. “It’s a very humbling experience to get that phone call to say you are in the All-Star Game. It’s extremely exciting, and I am most excited about meeting a bunch of the guys from the other teams and hearing about their experiences.”

MacDonald now quarterbacks the power play for the Binghamton Devils and as of January 10, leads the Binghamton Devils in points (29), and power-play goals (7). Everywhere MacDonald has suited up, he has performed and improved. Just like all of his coaches have said before, the defenseman’s best hockey is yet to come.