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03/01/2006 10:35 AM - Donald MacLean is tearing up the charts with a knack for scoring goals that opponents find positively offensive

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Don McLean made several records in the ‘70s when he scored big with his ubiquitous American Pie, the epic single that peaked at No. 1 for four weeks in 1972.

Donald MacLean, conversely, can’t carry a tune, but he can sure make a puck sing. The Griffins’ prolific goal scorer, who has already set several records this season, has yet to peak.

He’s taking aim at a magic number – 50 – but he doesn’t want to talk about it, out of fear that it might detract from his main goal, to help his team win a championship.

“I’d gladly take no goals and win the Calder Cup,” he admitted a few days before tallying his 40th goal of the season. “But if I can take a lot of goals and the Calder Cup, that would be sweet.”

Indeed, becoming a 50-goal scorer would be music to this MacLean’s ears.

Reaching the big five-O is the magnum opus for any goal scorer and MacLean is not immune to the allure of the achievement, no matter how much he wants to put team goals ahead of personal targets.

Is there anything wrong with wanting both?

“Personal success aside, I’d much prefer winning the Calder Cup,” he says. “That’s why you play those 80 games plus playoffs. Winning a championship is what it’s all about.”

And yet it is hard to deny the groove he’s been in since the 10th game of the season. Another game, another step closer to the unspeakable.

Goal scored by Donald MacLean. It’s been a familiar refrain this season.

What’s amazing is that MacLean was singing a different tune at the beginning of the season.

After scoring in the season opener, MacLean went nine games without lighting the lamp. He didn’t even register another point until the 10th game, when he was credited with an assist.

“I was getting frustrated,” he admits. “I felt like I was skating hard, I was working hard, but I was hitting the post or the goalie was making a big save. It was tough.”

MacLean wasn’t about to panic. “I had enough confidence to know that it was a matter of time. Sometimes it takes a little while to crack through, to find my groove. I knew once I did, the flood gates would open.”

And yet even he couldn’t have anticipated the deluge.

There have been stretches where he has made the public address announcer sound like a broken record. In mid-January, he scored six straight goals for the Griffins, tying an AHL record by registering consecutive hat tricks in back-to-back games.

At the time, MacLean was in the midst of a torrid streak that saw him record points in 26 games out of a stretch of 27. He broke Derek King’s team mark of 17 straight games with a point. He became the quickest Griffin to reach the 40-goal milestone by tallying 40 goals in 45 games.

He is quick to credit his linemates, Nate DiCasmirro and Matt Ellis, for contributing to his success. Playing in harmony, the trio felt they could make sweet music together.

“Even before our line was put together, we had talked and the three of us felt that our styles complemented each other. We had watched each other play and we felt there was a chemistry there.

“It took a while to find our groove. I don’t remember how many games it took, but we found our roles. I got a hat trick in Manitoba (Nov. 22) and that’s when we started to see the light.

“I’m so happy to be on a line with DiCaz and Matty. I know those guys are always working hard. They’re happy for me and I’m happy for them. It’s like a circle. The more I score, the more points they get.”

And, more often that not, the more the Griffins win. Through Feb. 18, the Griffins were 25-3-1-1 when MacLean scored at least one goal.

This is MacLean’s second time around in Grand Rapids. He came to the Griffins back in the middle of the 1998-99 season, his second year as a pro. He was not the same player he is today.

“I struggled with my role. Was I offense? A gritty forward? What was I? Plus I was getting bounced around. I played for six teams in three years. It took me a while to find my footing.”

MacLean went straight from playing junior hockey to the NHL. He opened the 1997-98 season with the Los Angeles Kings, recording five points in his first five games.

“That’s when I saw my first sign of the business of hockey,” he says, noting that he was a rookie on a two-way deal playing in front of a veteran with a million dollar NHL contract. “I slowly got worked out and they sent me down (to Fredericton in the AHL).”

He struggled in the minors. “Honestly, I underestimated the AHL when I first came down. I had just played half a year in the NHL and I was a little cocky and arrogant. It took me a full two seasons to find my game.”

It was three seasons after Grand Rapids when MacLean led the entire AHL in scoring as a member of the 2001-02 St. John’s Maple Leafs. It earned him a trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs with Toronto.

Players talk about such opportunities as a cup of coffee. In MacLean’s case, it wasn’t even that.

“At least I got my coffee poured. I didn’t get to have it because I played a total of one minute and 20 seconds. One shift per game in the first five minutes. You feel like you’re there, but you’re not.”

Which pretty much sums up his NHL career to this point. Since Los Angeles, he’s played in three regular season games with Toronto and four games with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

He’s hoping his play this season will earn him another look, but he’s not going to worry about what may happen next. “I can only worry about what I can control,” he says.

Admittedly, even MacLean was surprised at his performance at the 2006 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic, where he won the hardest shot competition with a 98 mph blast. “I knew I had a decent shot, but I had never actually measured it before,” he says.

Maybe, he joked, the air is a little thinner in Winnipeg, where he was making his second all-star appearance. He was originally slated for the accuracy shooting event.

“I’d like to have tried it,” he says. “I’m curious about how I would do.”

MacLean says he never aims. He just shoots. “Occasionally, I pick my spots. Most of the time, it’s just muscle memory.”

Whatever the explanation, it’s working. And, as far as the Griffins are concerned, that’s beautiful music.

MacLean feels the prelude to his present success was played out in Finland last season, when he spent the NHL lockout in Helsinki.

“It was good, fast hockey with more one-on-one play. It helped get me to move my feet more. Here you can get into the habit of getting into the slot and waiting for a pass. There you don’t want to be caught standing still.”

In reality, it was ideal preparation for the way the North American game has changed this season.

He came into training camp this past fall in great spirits, having been a member of the 2005 Canadian senior baseball champion team. He was an outfielder on the Nova Scotia all-star team that won the national title on Aug. 28 in Kamloops, B.C.

MacLean, who had played baseball growing up and had played some senior ball in 2002, was invited to try out for the team by his pal Jamie Vallis, a one-time minor leaguer originally drafted by the Minnesota Twins.

He made the team, which had won its provincial tournament the previous year to qualify for the finals. The team played a 32-game schedule and MacLean saw his share of action, although he contends he was by no means one of its stars.

“I did well enough, but you could tell I was rusty,” he says. “Watching the good players in our league, you could tell they were used to hitting a curve ball.”

In Nova Scotia, a few pitchers throw in the low- to mid-80s. “When we got to the nationals, there were some guys who could definitely chuck,” MacLean says.

For MacLean, baseball wasn’t about hitting a fastball or fielding a fly ball. It was about having fun.

“For me, it meant a lot more because I was doing something I wanted to do. I wasn’t getting paid. In fact, it cost me more money than anything. But it was a heck of a lot of fun.”

MacLean says he’s been asked if he wants to play baseball next summer, but he’s taking a wait-and-see attitude. “If everything falls into place, I’ll play again,” he says.

He’s hoping that he’ll still be playing hockey into early June, when the Griffins could be still competing for the Calder Cup. Right now, he admits that he’s never felt better.

“I may be 29, but I feel like I’m a 19-year-old kid again,” he says. “It’s amazing how light your feet feel when you’re happy. When you’re winning, you don’t hurt as much.

"When you’re happy, you don’t wake up thinking, ‘I’m tired and I don’t feel like going to the rink.’ It’s amazing how much of the game is between your ears.”

As he’s gotten older, he’s gotten wiser.

“I feel like I’m more mentally prepared to play every game. I don’t know how to explain it. All I know is it’s a joy coming to the rink every day – and that makes the biggest difference.”

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