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DRIVER'S SEAT

The Griffins are hoping AHL All-Star goalie Joey MacDonald can
steer them into the playoffs


Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Jim McIsaac

Joey MacDonald is ready to go the distance – and it’s not the kind of time and space that can be traversed on an all-terrain vehicle.

The journey that he has in mind can’t be measured in kilometers or miles.

Yes, it’s a journey that would lead through a handful of AHL cities, but it’s an adventure that can’t be undertaken by one man alone.

The ultimate destination: a trip around the ice with the Calder Cup trophy held aloft. Like his four-wheeling trips into the Canadian wilderness, getting there would be half the fun.

It’s new ground for the 25-year-old goaltender who has yet to play a full playoff game for the Griffins, but then there’s nothing he enjoys more than forging into unexplored territory.

Signed by the Detroit Red Wings a little more than three years ago as an undrafted free agent, MacDonald has consistently exceeded expectations, exc elling at every challenge that he has encountered.

If there is one thing he could do differently this year, he wouldn’t mind postponing his vacation. Summer can come too soon for hockey players and – as beautiful as his hometown of Pictou may be – he would gladly trade a little sunshine for ice time.

“I haven’t really seen action in the playoffs for a few years, so it would be huge to finally get some games,” he says. “Then again, all of our games at this point are like playoff games.”

An itinerant thrill-seeker, MacDonald finds peace in remote places.

His Nova Scotia home isn’t exactly at the end of the earth, but it offers enough remote luxury for a goaltender to clear his head in preparation for playing such a pressure-packed position.

MacDonald bought a new ATV last summer, a reward of sorts for establishing himself as a legitimate No. 1 candidate last year when he made more than a dozen straight starts in Marc Lamothe’s absence.

“That was probably the turning point in my career,” he notes. “It was a huge stepping stone for this year because it showed everybody I was capable of being No. 1 and handling the work load.”

During one particular 13-game streak last season, MacDonald’s record was 11-1-1. He posted three consecutive home shutouts in February 2004, eventually stretching a scoreless string to 242 minutes and 18 seconds.

“Playing game after game helps build confidence,” MacDonald says, reflecting not only on his personal state of mind but also on the attitude of the Griffins coaching staff.

“Joey has been outstanding,” says head coach Greg Ireland. “Consistency is the mark of a good No. 1 goaltender and Joey’s the kind of guy you can rely on because you know he’s always going to be there.

“He’s big and strong and focused and, most of all, nothing seems to rattle him. Everybody would like a goaltender who has a competitive fire that burns beneath a cool and calm demeanor. That’s Joey. He’s on such an even keel.”

It’s the same down-to-earth personality that’s on display during summers, when he’s beating the bushes on four-wheelers in the maritimes with his father-in-law.

“We leave at 8 o’clock in the morning and sometimes we don’t get back until 7or 8 at night,” he says. “We make a day of it, just cruising on the trails and up into the mountains. We keep going for quite a while, then stop and chat for a little bit.

“It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

By September, MacDonald had put almost 700 miles on his new ATV. “You wouldn’t believe how many little lakes we end up finding,” he says, noting they’ve encountered everything from moose to bears during their jaunty joyrides.

Now MacDonald finds himself ready to answer the call of the wild on the ice. He’s already met one personal goal this season – his selection to play in the AHL All-Star Classic was something he hoped to achieve in his third year in Grand Rapids.

“It was a great honor, especially with all the talent in the league this season,” he says. “I looked around the dressing room and almost all of the guys would be in the NHL if the league had played this year.”

Although other goalies may have better statistics on paper, MacDonald’s numbers haven’t reflected his success this year in terms of keeping his team close when the Griffins have struggled to score.

“Even when I went through an eight-game span without a win, I felt like I was playing really well and making some good saves,” he says. “It was a bit frustrating, but you can’t let it rattle you. I just try to concentrate on the next game.”

MacDonald hasn’t had to wait long between starts this season. He is on pace to start at least 60 games, a drastic change from his first year in Grand Rapids when Lamothe saw the bulk of the action.

"I’ve worked hard with a great goalie ahead of me the last couple of years and I’ve learned a lot. To finally step into that role – to play 60 games – is great. Every goalie wants to play every night and now I’m getting that chance.”

He has kept his focus on the ice, not wanting to get caught up in the on-again, off-again negotiations that eventually canceled the NHL season. He wants to go full-throttle into the playoffs, not wishing to be sidetracked by what might or might not happen.

“Everything is up in the air with the NHL, so I’m just going to keep playing the way I am,” he says. “I’ll let those other things take care of themselves.”

One thing is for sure. MacDonald is not interested in going anywhere else. “I would love to get a chance to play for the Wings,” he says. “If not, I’d love to stay here another year. I’ve had three great years here. I couldn’t think of a better place to be.”

Except maybe in the wilderness somewhere, sitting on his four-wheeler, puffing out his chest as he exhales another breath of fresh Canadian air.

Of course, he wouldn’t mind a regular seat on the Red Wings’ bench either. He got the chance to back up Curtis Joseph on two separate occasions last season.

“That was awesome,” MacDonald says of the experience of warming up with his childhood hero. “To back up Cujo in my first two trips to the NHL was an amazing experience.”

His family – including older brother Tim and younger brother Richie – couldn’t believe their eyes when they watched the game on television. “They said one time I was sitting there, talking with Brett Hull. They were like, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’”

Even MacDonald admits that it was hard to fathom that he was that close to realizing a lifelong dream.

"One time I looked down the bench and there was (Steve) Yzerman,
(Brendan) Shanahan and Hull,” MacDonald recalls. “I wondered ‘What am I doing here?’ It was pretty unbelievable.”

MacDonald has made great strides every year – time will tell if he finally gets his chance to make his mark at the next level.

“Making the AHL All-Star Game was a huge confidence boost,” he says.
“But I’m not thinking about next year right now. We’ve still got work to do to make the playoffs.”


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