Goaltender Joey MacDonald is happy to return to the Griffins after NHL stints in Detroit, Boston, New York and Toronto.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Griffins goaltender Joey MacDonald laughs when someone wonders whether he’s too old to be plying his trade in the AHL.
As far as he’s concerned, he is just entering his prime. “’But you’re 30 years old,’ they’ll say,” MacDonald chuckles, knowing he can point to a couple of former teammates who were just beginning to show flashes of brilliance between the pipes at that age.
MacDonald, who was the understudy of Dominic Hasek and Chris Osgood during the Detroit Red Wings’ 2006-07 season, thinks back to watching the workouts of Hasek, who won the first of his six Vezina Trophies at the age of 29.
Better yet, he remembers backing up Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, the Flint native who played several seasons in Finland before becoming an NHL starter at the creaky age of 31.
Thomas, currently the hottest goalie in the NHL, was a positively ancient 35 when he won his first Vezina Trophy in 2009.
MacDonald, of course, would never suggest that his talent is comparable to either Hasek or Thomas, but he believes that both players underscore the belief that netminders can take longer than others to develop.
And so now, after seeing playing time with the Red Wings, Bruins, New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs, MacDonald is looking to re-establish himself in the city where his pro career first blossomed.
MacDonald had no hesitation about returning to Grand Rapids, where he ranks among the Griffins’ all-time goaltending leaders in numerous categories and stands first in wins and shutouts.
“When Detroit called last July 1st, I didn’t take any time to think about it,” MacDonald said. “The Red Wings organization is great, but if I was going to play in the American Hockey League, there’s no better place than Grand Rapids.”
He figured he would see a lot of action with the Griffins, but an injury to Osgood led to a late-October recall to Detroit, where he enjoyed a five-week stay before being sent back to Grand Rapids on Dec. 1.
Although he saw action in only one game in relief of Jimmy Howard, the Red Wings’ No. 1 netminder, MacDonald nevertheless appreciated the opportunity to fill the backup role.
“Whenever you get a chance to be on the ice with the best team in the National Hockey League, you can’t take it for granted,” he said. “Sure, it’s a little frustrating because you want to play some games, but, at the same time, Howie was playing really well and you’ve got to respect that.”
It wasn’t the first time that MacDonald had to ride the pine. After four seasons in Grand Rapids, he spent the majority of the 2006-07 season in Detroit, where he was the Red Wings’ third goaltender.
He saw action in only eight games, getting a rare start in between backing up Osgood and sitting in the pressbox.
“Being the third guy was tough,” he said. “I wasn’t getting into a lot of games because when Hasek played, Ozzie would back up. Even in practices, Hasek would be at one end and Ozzie at the other, with me floating back and forth.”
To combat the inactivity, MacDonald spent a lot of time before and after practice working with Red Wings goaltending coach Jim Bedard. Being the third (winged) wheel also afforded him plenty of time to observe.
“Even at age 41, Hasek was on the ice long before practice and he was one of the last guys off, too, and now Ozzie is the same way,” he said. “When you see the older guys doing it, it energizes you and makes you work that much harder.”
And hard work is what it will take to earn a return ticket to the NHL. “Once you get a taste of the NHL, you want to keep working to get back,” MacDonald said. “You can never give up.”
The Bruins claimed MacDonald on waivers in February 2007 after the Red Wings tried to send him to Grand Rapids to get more work. As the backup to Thomas, MacDonald saw action in seven games, posting a 2-2-1 record with a 2.68 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
His Beantown performance led to a two-year contract with the New York Islanders. He spent the majority of the 2007-08 season in Bridgeport, but the following season saw him become a full-time NHL goalie after Rick DiPietro, the Islanders’ No. 1 netminder, was idled with injuries.
MacDonald, who appeared in 49 NHL games during the 2008-09 season, was chosen the NHL’s third star of the month in November behind Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.
Excelling in relief of DiPietro, MacDonald made 14 consecutive starts that month, posting an 8-5-1 record with a 2.64 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. He led all goaltenders in games (14), minutes (842) and shots faced (439), and shared the lead in victories.
The month also saw him outduel opposing goaltenders Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks and Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens in shootout victories that came just a week apart. “I think I proved that I could play in the National Hockey League,” he said.
Being the No. 1 gave him the opportunity to relax and not worry about being replaced the next game.
“When you’re the guy and you’re playing every night, it makes things a lot easier,” he said. “You might get lit up for 5 or 6 goals one night, but you know you’re going to have the chance to jump right back in there the next night.
“When you’re playing on a regular basis, you get into a rhythm and you don’t think. As a goalie, you don’t want to think too much. You just want to go out and play the game.”
One of the highlights of his career to date came in his return to Joe Louis Arena. He made 42 saves for his lone NHL shutout in the Islanders’ 2-0 win over Detroit on March 27, 2009.
“I was a little nervous; I think my legs were shaking almost the whole game,” he said. “It was one of those games where they hit a couple of posts, I made a few good saves and we stuck with it. I beat Ozzie, so I still tease him that I’m 1-0 against him.”
A month earlier, MacDonald led the Islanders to a big win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the eventual 2009 Stanley Cup champions. “The game was at home in New York and we were tied 1-1, so we went into a shootout. We scored the first goal and after a couple of stops, it came down to me and Sidney Crosby, two Nova Scotians, and I ended up stopping him for the win.”
Last season, MacDonald spent a good part of the season with the Toronto Maple Leafs when injuries sidelined Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala. He saw action in six games with the Leafs, including 40 minutes of a 3-0 shutout of Montreal and a 6-3 win at Columbus.
Playing hockey in Toronto is a pressure-packed experience. “It’s a crazy spot,” he said. “Wherever you are, you’re always in the spotlight. It even filtered down to the Marlies.
“There’s a lot of pressure. I have a lot of respect for the guys who played a long time in Toronto – guys like (Mats) Sundin and (Tie) Domi. They dealt with it for 10-15 years. It’s a tough place to play, but putting on the Leafs jersey was a good experience for me.”
In his return to Grand Rapids, MacDonald not only has provided veteran leadership but also has mentored Red Wings prospect Thomas McCollum, who was Detroit’s first choice (30th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
“Tommy has a lot of talent,” MacDonald said. “He’s big, moves really well and he’s a great kid. To come back and work with someone like that is fun. It’s the same as Marc Lamothe and me back in the day. Marc was my age then and I was Tommy’s age. I’m hoping I can help him.”
MacDonald was anxious to shake off any rust left from his extended his stay in Detroit. “You can practice all you want, but it takes a few games to get into the flow of the game, the quickness, and just little things like picking up pucks through screened shots,” he said.
His goal is to prove that he belongs in the NHL. “You never know what’s going to happen, but I would like to have a really good year and put myself in a good position for the next,” he said. “Right now, however, the goal is to win here.”
Whatever happens, he knows there are people watching back in his hometown of Pictou, Nova Scotia, where he lives with his wife Alyssa, son Camden, 6, and daughter Kendall, 3.
Camden is already following in his father’s footsteps. He is an aspiring goaltender.
“When I was in New York, he would watch the games to the very end, even criticizing me at times. I would come home and he would say, ‘Dad, why didn’t you do this?’ and he’d get down and show me.
“I’m thinking, ‘I have coaches and goalie coaches and now I have my five-year-old (at the time) telling me what to do.’ I’m looking at him, thinking, ‘Yeah, I probably should have done that,’ and it’s great because he’s already got a couple of years on me, because I didn’t start playing in nets until I was 7 or 8.”
It’s obvious that MacDonald takes as much pride in being a father as he does in his playing. He finishes with a story of Camden going to school with proof of his daddy’s success.
“He had taken my Toronto Maple Leaf card to school for show-and-tell and another little kid raised his hand and said, ‘I have that same card, but mine is signed!’” MacDonald recalls with a chuckle. “Cam came home and said, ‘Dad, can you sign my card, too?’”