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A Little Rock for Ducks

McDonald's only 5-10, but he's as tough as they come and can definitely play with big boys

December 02, 2003|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

David McNab, the Mighty Ducks' assistant general manger, sat in Albany Arena that day, as big a Michigan fan as there was in the building. The Wolverines just had to beat Colgate in the 2000 NCAA first-round playoff game.

His reason had nothing to do with a burning desire to hum "Hail to the Victors."

McNab was there to get another look at Andy McDonald, the Colgate brightener. The Ducks were keen to sign the smallish center, but McNab would have been happy if McDonald had fallen on his face that day, literally, even.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Hockey -- It was incorrectly reported in a Sports article Tuesday that Andy McDonald of the Mighty Ducks was the first Colgate player to make it to the NHL. Mike Milbury was the first Colgate player to make it to the NHL.

"A lot of NHL scouts [were] at that game," McNab said. "I wanted Colgate to get beat because teams were getting interested in Andy. Well, Michigan goes up 3-0 and it looks good. Then Andy gets going. He scores a goal and has two assists, setting up the tying goal with one minute left. It was like the secret was out.

"Michigan won in overtime. They had a bunch of future NHL players -- [including] Mike Comrie [now with Edmonton] and Jeff Jillson [now with Boston]. Andy was the best player in the ice."

Little has changed, except these days McNab roots for McDonald, now a gnat-like forward for the Ducks.

There are nights, many of them in fact, when McDonald is still the best player on the ice, even on a team that includes Sergei Fedorov, Petr Sykora and Vaclav Prospal. He has earned a reputation as a 5-foot-10, 174-pound pest in only two-plus seasons in the NHL.

There is really nothing left to prove. Except, yes, there is. The goal is the same as it was when McDonald played junior hockey and at Colgate. Each shift is a pass-fail test.

"You never get comfortable," McDonald said, an impish smile slowly expanding. "To feel comfortable would hurt my development.

"When people say, 'He's not big enough, he's not strong enough, he's not an NHL player,' it's something you kind of put in the back of your mind. Every day when you're in practice, it is motivation that you draw on."

*

Comfortable or not, McDonald is here to stay. He has earned that much.

He has demonstrated flash-and-dash skills, flying across the ice at hummingbird pace. He has demonstrated his toughness. During his rookie season, in fact, he slammed Zdeno Chara, Ottawa's 6-9 defenseman, into the boards. He has demonstrated determination, returning from a concussion that robbed him of 36 regular-season games last season, not to mention playoff experience. McDonald couldn't play in the Stanley Cup finals and then spent the summer in a fog. Duck officials were hoping he could return by December, but McDonald surprised them. After sitting out all of the exhibition season, he sat out only the first three games of the season. Scouring off the rust took time, but McDonald has had two two-goal games in the last two weeks.

"I like playing with him," said Fedorov, who centers the Ducks' top line with McDonald on a wing. "He is a skilled player with tremendous speed. I like the guy too. He's a very nice person."

Opponents don't always think so. Toronto goalie Ed Belfour became so annoyed with McDonald's persistence that he swung his stick at McDonald during a game Nov. 12, after McDonald had scored twice.

Of the Ducks' last 24 goals, McDonald has scored or assisted on 10, using the type of work ethic that delights Coach Mike Babcock.

"He comes here and does it right," Babcock said. "He's under the belief that he gets paid for practice and games, not just games.

"When Andy got hurt [last season], he lied to us. He told us he was fine and came back and played [four games]. He wanted to play so bad, he didn't tell us the truth. Then when we found out he was hurt, he was like a lost puppy. The thing that he loved in his life had been taken away from him. Maybe that's why he pursues it so hard."

*

Maybe.

But that I'll-show-you attitude has also been McDonald's modus operandi since he was a kid in Strathroy, Canada, where playing hockey was as predictable for a boy as being able to see your breath on a January afternoon.

McDonald grew up on the ice and even had a rink in his backyard for a couple of years. "I had to take care of it, so every day I prayed for cold weather," he said.

Yet it was clear by the time he was finished with junior hockey that he wasn't NHL material, not at 5-10, 155 pounds.

He looked down another avenue.

"I thought maybe I could get a scholarship and get a degree, use my hockey that way," said McDonald, who, indeed, has a degree in international relations. "If there is a chance to play afterwards, maybe in Europe, that would be great. But playing hockey at the NHL level wasn't really in the big picture."

Then McDonald started painting with broader strokes. By his senior year, he was listed at 185 pounds and was causing chaos on the ice with his speed. Still, few noticed.

"The coaches at Colgate always said, when you're at a small school, the only way to get noticed is if the team does well and you go to the NCAA [tournament]," said McDonald, the first Colgate player to make it to the NHL. "That's where the scouts come."

But McNab dropped by early.

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