When the Columbus Blue Jackets said No-Way, current Griffins forward Kent McDonell set sail for Norway
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Kent McDonell could have spent last years lockout in limbo. Instead, he decided to play in Norway.
Not that there was much difference.
Limbo, as you may know, is presumably that place of oblivion somewhere on the border of hell, a weighstation of sorts for lost souls short of heaven.
When the NHL owners put last season on hold, McDonell found himself without a job despite a two-way contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets. In deference to younger players, the organization locked him out of a spot with its minor league affiliate in Syracuse.
Wanting a job somewhere, McDonell accepted a contract to play in Bergen, Norway. While it wasnt exactly h-e-double-hockey sticks, it was less than ideal.
Unfortunately, it was a last-place team with no money, he says. Dont get me wrong, I loved the experience and met some wonderful people. But when a team seems headed for bankruptcy and folding, its not the best situation.
Situated on the west coast of Norway, Bergen is the countrys second largest city, known as the gateway to the Fjords. Its absolutely beautiful, says McDonell, who stayed in an apartment on the side of a mountain overlooking the harbor.
As picturesque as the citys setting was, Bergens hockey team wasnt quite as pretty.
We had no sticks, no tape for practices. Wed make 12-hour bus trips on the day of the game, he says. Wed leave at 5 oclock in the morning for a 7 oclock night game, get smoked 9-0, then travel 12 hours back home.
Pre-game meals were eaten in parking lots cold pasta box lunches kept in the luggage compartment of the bus, occasionally burgers and fries at truck stops. On one road trip, the team stayed in a hostel with a bunch of backpackers.
We had 10 guys in one room, sleeping on bunkbeds, he says. I think it worked out to something like $5 per player. Funny thing is, it was our best pre-game meal of the year.
McDonell tried not to complain. He borrowed sticks from other players; fans brought him blades they had from home. One day Id use a stick that was too short, the next I shared a stick with another player.
His teammates made the situation bearable, as this wasnt a bunch of prima donnas. Everybody on the team had full-time jobs, McDonell says. Our captain worked for Coca-Cola. We had three postmen on the team. Our trainer was a fulltime plumber. Theyd work all day and then come to practice at night.
The caliber of hockey was respectable for the most part. The good teams were really good. . . but our team wasnt very good at all, he admits.
Bergen played in a fortress-like arena. Our dressing room looked like the inside of an old Russian submarine, McDonell says. You even had to walk through a big steel door and step over the bottom to go in and out.
Keeping his spirits up wasnt easy. It usually rained six days a week the clouds would come in off the sea, the condensation would hit the mountains and it would start pouring.
If it wasnt raining, it was dark outside. It wasnt easy adjusting to the lack of daylight, he says. The sun wouldnt come out until 11 oclock and it would go down about 2:30-3 in the afternoon.
Things could have been worse. He could have been home, bored out of his mind. To be honest, people were paying me to play a game that I love in a beautiful country. Besides, at that point I had nowhere else to play.
His attitude brightened with a month-long visit from his girlfriend, Julie Watt. The couple, who have been dating nine years, took a memorable cruise through the fjords to visit Denmark.
Trust me, the North Sea is not quiet in winter, he says, recalling the rough waters. It was a huge ship, but as soon as we got out of the harbor, it was awful.
A couple of times, we got hit by waves and the lights went out. We thought the boat was going down. They battled seasickness for the entire 17-hour trip. We laid in our cabin the whole time.
Being able to sample the local culture and cuisine made McDonells time in Norway an unforgettable experience. He took a special liking for pinnekjott, or cured mutton (sheep) ribs. Its fantastic, he says.
Lutefisk, however, wasnt so easy to stomach.
Its terrible, he says of the centuries-old yuletide delicacy which is actually cod soaked in lye. We bought some at the market and we couldnt even swallow a bite. It was disgusting.
When his second paycheck from the team was late, McDonell knew it was time to look for another place to play.
He landed a spot with a second division team in Duisburg, Germany, an industrial city located on the junction of the Rhine and Ruhr rivers, north of Cologne. One of his new teammates was former Griffin Hugo Boisvert.
The language barrier in Germany was really tough, McDonell says. Our coach didnt speak any English, so all the practices and meetings were in German. Fortunately, there were guys who could translate for us.
As he had done in Norway, McDonell did his best to pick up a few words. If you put forth the effort and try to speak a little bit of the language, theyre more likely to try to help you.
While in Germany, he took a day-trip to the Netherlands. We saw windmills and the fields of tulips. You see them in magazines and textbooks, but it was nice to see them in person.
His team in Germany won the championship. For winning, the owner took the entire squad to Spain for five days. The players stayed in Majorca, one of the Balearic Islands located off Spains eastern coast in the Mediterranean.
As disappointing as the lockout was, I saw seven countries in six months, he says. I was able to experience all kinds of different cultures and different lifestyles.
His overseas adventures helped him appreciate what he enjoyed back home. The luxuries you take for granted in North America are almost non-existent in some European countries, he says.
Its no wonder then that the Ontario native was anxious to return home to play hockey in his proverbial backyard.
A one-time draft pick of the Red Wings who was traded to Columbus in 2000, McDonell jumped at the chance to return to the Detroit organization this past fall.
Basically, I wanted to go to a team that had a lot of interest in me. Detroit was the first team that called and I thought it said a lot that six years later they still liked what they saw.
McDonell was also happy to play again for Griffins head coach Greg Ireland, who had been his coach in Dayton in the ECHL during his rookie season in 2000-01.
Coming back here has been a great experience, he says. I have great memories of my four years in Syracuse, but its nice to move on to a new city, a new team and a new division.
Its especially nice to be home.
Someday Ill look back and say, Wow, I played hockey in Norway and Germany and saw all these different places. For now, Im just happy to be back.
McDonell feels fortunate to have ended up in Grand Rapids, reunited with his old coach.
Its nice to come back to play for him again, he says. Hes probably the biggest reason I got back to the AHL when I was 21. He definitely helped me mature as a player and as a person.
Ireland is essentially still the same coach for whom he played in the ECHL.
He definitely wants the same thing that he wanted in Dayton, which is to win. Hell prepare you any way he can and he will help you develop to move up. You can see hes definitely doing a good job.
McDonell is grateful that hes been given the opportunity to play on the same line with Jiri Hudler and Eric Manlow.
I heard a lot about Eric from other guys who had played with him and hes just a great leader, a great person on and off the ice. He deserves everything hes gotten this year.
Hudler has been unbelievable, McDonell says.
Its been fantastic to be able to play with Jiri. Hes working really hard and hes having a great season. I just want to keep working hard so I can stay with him."