Wednesday, April 18, 2012

To McDonald, There is no Quit in the Heart of a Champion

By Larry Wigge

There is no quit in the heart of a champion. There's a resiliency, a relentless drive in the heart of a champion.

To Andy McDonald, it's a matter of cold, hard facts. To this veteran, it's those mentally tough intangibles that shows he has always battled some long odds in his career ... and succeeded.

He was once considered a too-small, undrafted product of a school that wasn't a hockey power. He also overcame a pretty fierce wallop to his head by rugged Colorado defenseman Adam Foote in January of 2003 that rattled him so severely he wondered if he'd ever play again.

Nothing slowed him down. It took Andy almost a full calendar year before he felt right again -- and not dizzy -- after the concussion. And again last October, a sixt concussion, nearly put him out of the game for good.

"Probably the first week or two I was out, I thought that I was probably done for good," McDonald said. "With the way I felt, there was just no way that I would ... with my history and with the way I felt at the time, there would be no way that I would come back."

Well, he did return. And there McDonald was showing reporters how much damage a hard check in Game 2 had done to his faceshield. He was in there with this touch of fearlessness.

Cold, hard facts.

How about the fact that McDonald -- even by today's standards is too small at 5-11, 190 pounds or is too old at 33. Too old, nonsense. Here he is a veteran of the 2007 Anaheim Ducks Stanley Cup champion and still scoring and shooting his way into the news in 2012.

The Strathroy, Ontario, native, now has 72 points in his last 73 games, including three playoff games. Included in that were 10 goals and 10 assists in 23 games to end the 2011-12 for the St. Louis Blues and two goals and four assists in three games of the playoffs to rank him second to Philadelphia's Claude Giroux.

"He's a really competitive professional player," said St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock. "To me, Andy is a throwback. He's the way you remember the older players in the league years ago. They were ultra-professional, they focused on their craft every day -- who put a lot into every part of the game -- off ice, on ice, nutrition. They're throwbacks. They're hard to find ..."

Hitchcock is also a throwback, but he continued about McDonald as a player. 

"He's a very effective player," continued Hitchcock. "We don't have a lot of those rush attack chances but when he's on the ice, we do. I think that's a threat that makes other teams nervous." 

It's the speed, the strength on the puck that make him so tough to stop.

"He'll back you off in an instant with his speed and strength on the puck," Montreal defenseman Tomas Kaberle explained. "I remember watching him in that Stanley Cup finals against Ottawa. He was dominant. He'd fly through the neutral zone and into the opposition end with Teemu Selanne on one side and Chris Kunitz on the other and ... well, seeing that can scare you."

McDonald had 10 goals in 21 games in that playoff run of 2007. He was a man on a mission that spring -- a caring and motivational leader for the Ducks.

Speed, heart, intelligence. Andy McDonald takes pride in making plays and he's got great speed. And we all know, speed kills.

What the left winger has brought to the Blues this season is a player whose skates sparkle when he turns on the after-burners. He's nifty with the puck, with pull-you-out-of-your-seat passes. And he's very, very smart.

"His effort and battle level make it seem like he's playing with a couple more inches and 10 pounds more when he plays against the bigger centers in the NHL," Toronto GM Brian Burke once told me. "It's definitely not a hindrance the way he works out there at a consistently high level every game."

Not when you get that "I'll-show-you" mentality when people keep telling a heart and soul player like McDonald that he's too small.

That's also where McDonald's smarts come in. He graduated from Colgate University with a degree in International Relations. But he also had some international acceptance to work on out on the hockey rink. To that end, he was the ECAC Player of the Year and a first-team All-America in 1999-2000, his senior season. He was also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's Player of the Year. And he put up some mind-numbing statistics at Cincinnati in the American Hockey League before being promoted to the NHL.

"No one ever said it to my face, but I could sense the doubt that a small player like myself could succeed in this game because I'd have to outplay guys much bigger and stronger than myself," McDonald said.

But Andy's dad, Steve, a former policeman in Strathroy and McDonald's coach growing up, enrolled his son in a power skating program that gave Andy confidence that he could overcome just about anything.

"Genetics and my body type at 9 or 10 dictated that in order for me to compete with bigger and stronger kids I needed to emphasize skating ... and speed," McDonald remembered. "The speed gave me a power that a lot of the bigger guys didn't have -- and it helped me realize that I could do a lot of things in this game."

Power skating isn't the only offseason program he was involved in. As a high schooler and during each summer while at Colgate, McDonald and a few of his buddies would gather together in Southern Ontario and Michigan and help goaltenders. Yes, you heard me right. But ...

If you can't beat them ... you learn from them is the way McDonald put it.

"I did it each summer for nine or 10 weeks," Andy said. "It was a good way to get in shape after a long summer and a good way to make a little bit of money.  

"I learned a lot. I mean, it's surprising when you go to work with the goalies everyday, you're learning what their learning. How they stop the puck ... but ...

"You're learning the other aspect of it. How to score on them. I learned a lot of things and helped me on the offensive side."

Like robbing Peter to pay Paul ...

"It was a good way to stay on the ice and work on your shot -- learn how to shoot better," he said. "You work several hours a day working on your shot. At practice, in a team setting, you do a lot of team stuff. Here, you work on your shot."
There's something to learning about the cold, hard facts like Andy McDonald did so well. But ...

Putting the speed, the heart and the intelligence into motion is more the resiliency and relentless drive that leads to the heart of a champion.

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