Colin McDonald didn’t hide his feelings – and didn’t want to, either.
After scoring an AHL-leading 42 goals with the Oklahoma City Barons last season, the Wethersfield native felt slighted when the Edmonton Oilers made an offer he could easily refuse. Then McDonald got one from the Pittsburgh Penguins that wasn’t as lucrative as some of his other offers but certainly made him feel wanted.
“I did everything the Oilers ever asked of me and just wish they showed more interest in me,” McDonald said before being part of the Green’s 6-2 victory over the Red in the scrimmage wrap-up to the sixth annual Pete Asadourian Pro Hockey Camp at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell on Friday night. “Because I’m bitter about Edmonton not signing me last summer, part of me just wants to make it with a different team. I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t give me more than just an AHL deal, and I kind of want to stick it to ’em and make it with a different team.”
McDonald said he and/or his agent talked to 26 of the 30 NHL teams, but the Penguins made the biggest impression.
“Pittsburgh went above and beyond every other team as far as making the phone calls and doing background checks on me, and what type of character and work ethic I had,” McDonald said. “I liked hearing that because it showed they were doing their work. I thought Edmonton might pursue me a little more. I know every team has different styles and philosophies as far as how they pursue their players, but it would have been very hard for me to say no to Pittsburgh.
“I had better offers, but they just pursued me the most and I felt most comfortable signing with them. I know I’m going to get an opportunity in camp, and worst case scenario is that if I am in the AHL, I’ll be in Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) so I know we’ve got a good team and that I’ll be playing with good players before good crowds and making the playoffs and playing for the Calder Cup.”
Before signing on July 1, McDonald talked to his father, former Hartford Whalers defenseman and radio/TV commentator Gerry McDonald, about some other perks of being with the Penguins.
“I’ll have an opportunity to play with (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeny) Malkin and not many players will have that opportunity,” McDonald said. “I want to take a shot and see what I can do. Who knows? If there are injuries and they’re in the playoffs, maybe I can get some games up there. Obviously I’m looking down the road, but all these thoughts kind of came to my mind and I want to take a chance and see what can happen.
“Only being on an AHL deal is not exactly how I drew it up, but I guess looking back I can say you have to take one step back to take two steps forward.”
McDonald, the Oilers’ second-round pick in 2003 who played at Wethersfield High and Providence College, said he could have had more than a one-year, two-way deal with the Penguins for $525,000 at the NHL level and $105,000 at the AHL level after he made $80,000 on the AHL deal last season.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be a bad situation,” McDonald said, “but that’s why people will sometimes tend to take a one-year deal because you don’t want to get locked into a bad situation.”
Last season was anything but a bad situation thanks largely to Barons first-year coach Todd Nelson, who showed tremendous confidence in McDonald. Nelson played McDonald in all situations, including on the No. 1 power play for the first time, and on the Barons’ top line with former Hartford Wolf Pack wing and two-time AHL MVP Alexandre Giroux and Brad Moran.
“Nelson used me everywhere, even 5-on-3, 4-on-4 and in shootouts,” McDonald said. “It was situations that I wasn’t accustomed to playing before, and my confidence kept building and building and building. Confidence goes a long way, and I could do no wrong and played my best hockey.”
McDonald, Giroux and Moran combined for 208 points, and McDonald’s 42 goals in 80 games were eight more than he scored in his first 226 AHL games. And McDonald won the Willie Marshall Award as the league’s top goal-scorer in dramatic fashion. He had 10 goals in the last seven goals, including six in three games the last weekend that earned him Reebok/AHL Player of the Week and the Barons a spot in the playoffs.
McDonald, whose previous pro high for goals was 12, scored No. 42 with 2:32 left in regulation in the season finale, a 6-3 loss at Houston, to finish one ahead of former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes of the Hamilton Bulldogs. And McDonald did it after turning down a day off to go for the scoring title. Ironically, he and Dawes went against each other in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, with the Bulldogs advancing in six games in McDonald’s first postseason play in four years as a pro.
“I’ve always been able to score at every level,” McDonald said. “Even in that third- and fourth-line role, I was able to produce somewhat, but last season, for whatever reason, I was given an opportunity by my coach to play with two top guys and feel fortunate that I was able to produce early so that way (Nelson) kept me with them with the exception of a couple of games.”
Ironically, Giroux left the Oilers organization and signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets, whose AHL affiliate is the Springfield Falcons, where he could play with former Wolf Pack left wing and captain Dane Byers, who was re-signed July 11 after being traded to the Phoenix Coyotes on Feb. 28. Byers was traded to Columbus for right wing Chad Kolarik on Nov. 11 and ended up playing in 85 games, an AHL single-season record.
Having only an AHL contract last season did have one major benefit for McDonald.
“I had a different mindset going into games,” he said. “I used to be just so focused on what I had to do, like not making mistakes. But last season, because I knew I couldn’t get called up unless (the Oilers) offered me a NHL contract, I just told myself to go out, have fun and whatever happens, happens.
“So I had just a loose mentality of having fun. Of course I worked hard and did everything that I always do, but mentally I played loose and played for fun, which is what this game is all about. I’ve been trying to take that same mentality into workouts.”
After working out for 10 years at Asadourian’s camp, McDonald said he needed a change of scenery and spent the past few months training in Boston. Some of his workout partners included members of the Stanley Cup champion Bruins, and more will be around when McDonald returns to Boston this week before heading to Penguins training camp Sept. 15.
As a warm-up, McDonald played on the Green’s No. 1 line with Kris Newbury, the Connecticut Whale’s leading scorer last season, and team captain Nick Bonino of Farmington and the Anaheim Ducks. Bonino and Jordan Samuels-Thomas of South Windsor and Quinnipiac University each had two goals, and Newbury and Dan Bogdan of Framingham, Mass., and Framingham State had one apiece, with McDonald chipping in three assists. The Red goals came from New Britain native Joe Dabkowski, who played on the Central Connecticut State University club team and will be starting his second season with the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League in October, and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Mike Komisarek, who was paired most of the game with Bolton native and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Ron Hainsey.
Bonino, Newbury, Komirsarek, Hainsey and South Windsor native Jon DiSalvatore, who came within two wins of the winning the Calder Cup with the Houston Aeros this spring, warmed up for the game with a round of golf at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, where Bonino and DiSalvatore are members at the home of the Travelers Championship. Hainsey shot a 4-over-par 74 from the championship tees as he and Newbury beat DiSalvatore and Komisarek.
Meanwhile, McDonald was driving in from Boston, with his eye on a bigger prize down the road.
FALCONS MORE OPTIMISTIC THAN EVER
Longtime Falcons president and general manager Bruce Landon seems to start every season with “cautious optimism.” But for the past eight seasons and 10 of the last 11, the Falcons have failed to reach the playoffs.
But Landon likely has more optimism than ever entering this season as the parent Blue Jackets added quality free-agent depth such as Giroux, Byers, standout veteran goalie Curtis Stanford and other proven AHL commodities such as Martin St. Pierre, Cody Bass, Andrew Joudrey and Nicolas Draenovic.
“Columbus has really stepped up,” Landon told Fran Sypek of the Springfield Union News during the Falcons’ annual summer barbecue for season ticket holders and sponsors in Westfield, Mass. “There are some areas we felt that needed to be addressed, and they did that. We’re excited.”
If Giroux and/or Sanford make the Blue Jackets, someone else will be sent to the Falcons, who also should be helped by coach Rob Riley and assistant Brad Larsen having had a year of experience in the AHL. And former Falcons standout defenseman Nolan Pratt, who also played nine of his 592 NHL games with the Whalers and one season with the defunct Beast of New Haven, has been added to the coaching staff after retiring after three seasons in Europe.
“Right after last season ended, we started to prepare for this season,” Riley, who scouted the AHL playoffs with Larsen, told Sypek. “Bruce and (Columbus assistant general manager) Chris MacFarland worked very hard to identify the needs of our team, and as the coaches, we were thrilled with the outcome. They’ve signed some quality players.”
The Falcons also will have a full season under gregarious owner Charlie Pompea, a former student at the University of New Haven who bought the team on Dec. 21.
“Springfield has such a great hockey tradition and we want to keep it going,” Pompea told Sypek. “I think we’re going to have a real exciting year, and I believe the fans are going to turn out. We’ve had a tornado, an earthquake and now a hurricane (coming), so that can only mean that the Springfield Falcons will win the Calder Cup.”
That hasn’t happened since 1991, when the then-Springfield Indians became repeat champions, and recent affiliations with the Oilers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Coyotes have hardly been fruitful. There was early improvement last season before injuries took a major toll and led to a 35-40-2-3 final record, sixth place in the Atlantic Division, and the Blue Jackets being aggressive in free agency.
Some of the Blue Jackets’ top prospects are former Avon Old Farms and Boston College standout Cam Atkinson, Tomas Kubalik, Wade MacLeod, John Moore and David Savard, and they will be part of a prospects tournament Sept. 10-14 in Traverse City, Mich., where many of the Rangers top prospects also will be competing. Then it’s on to Columbus, Ohio, where it will be determined who will start the season with the Blue Jackets, Falcons and the organization’s new ECHL affiliate, the Chicago Express, which will play in suburban Hoffman Estates, Ill.
Hopefully the fourth time is a charm for Landon, who deserves to have a playoff team for all he has done for hockey in the region.
“Bruce is a really good guy,” said Colin McDonald, who played his first three pro seasons with the Falcons. “I hope he finally has a team that makes the playoffs.”
MODANO DECISION IN A FEW WEEKS
Mike Modano, the NHL’s all-time scoring leader among U.S.-born players, reportedly will make a decision on retirement by the middle of September.
“It’s tough to think about letting go because it’s been a part of your life since you were a kid,” Modano told ESPNDallas.com on Friday. “You have to see how you feel and how much you want to do it. I’m still on the fence.”
Modano, 41, said he has talked with several of the NHL’s TV broadcast partners about possibly working on the air but isn’t sure what might be available. Among the media outlets he has talked to is Fox Sports Southwest, which broadcasts most of the Dallas Stars’ regular-season games.
Modano was drafted No. 1 by the-then Minnesota North Stars in 1988 and became the face of the franchise when the team moved to Dallas in 1993. He spent 20 seasons with the team before deciding last summer that he still wanted to play and signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings. He scored in his first game with the Red Wings but missed nearly three months with a severe wrist injury and finished with only four goals and 11 assists in 40 games.
“I’ve filled in a few times doing some analysis and enjoyed it,” Modano said of TV work. “Talking about the game is easy, but it’s a matter of getting the TV time under your belt where you feel comfortable with your delivery.”
Modano said he also would be interested in working for the Stars organization once it has a new owner, adding he believes he could help with marketing.
“We need to get the fan base back up and excited again,” Modano said. “I’d be interested in working for them and doing that.”
If you happen to be reading this somewhere along the path of Hurricane Irene, my deepest hopes are that you and your loved ones remain safe and dry.