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CALM BEFORE THE STORM

Goalie Joey MacDonald's personality and temperament — not to mention his ability and skill — make him an ideal candidate for success.

Story and photos by Mark Newman

Weddings are invariably fraught with anxiety, especially outdoor affairs where one can only guess what Mother Nature will bring.

Of course, you plan for months and months, just hoping and praying that she won't shed any tears on your special day. And when it doesn't rain during the latter days of July leading up to the event, you think you just might get lucky.

When August 2nd comes, the clouds roll in quicker than the 180 guests.  An hour before the ceremony it starts to pour in almost biblical proportions, sending the entire wedding party and invited guests for cover.

Most people, of course, might go bonkers. But Joey MacDonald? Well, it's pretty obvious why he is perfectly content playing goal for the Grand Rapids Griffins.

It's not just that MacDonald is incredibly mature for a 22-year-old kid. It has more to do with the nature of his personality, his uncanny capacity to buffet the waves and ride out the storm.

His temperament has a lot to do with his upbringing in Pictou (pronounced Pick-toe), Nova Scotia. Pictou is a small town of 4,000 on the northern edge of the province, home to one of the maritime province's largest lobster fisheries as well as an active shipbuilding center.

His father, Leonard, is the captain of Northumberland Ferries, which takes passengers and vehicles on a 75-minute journey across the strait to Prince Edward Island. He's worked for the ferries for the past 35 years. MacDonald's mom, Judy, has worked on the Northumberland for the last 33 years, currently as head waitress.

MacDonald spent many a summer sailing across the strait with his parents. “I've probably been going since I was five years old, or younger,” he says. “My dad would bring me up in the wheelhouse.”

As advertised, it was a place where you “could stretch your legs and your mind. A chance to feel at one with the sea. To listen to the soothing rhythm of the waves. Taste the salt air on your lips. And let the cool sea breezes caress you.”

So when MacDonald goes to work on water, it matters little that it's frozen. He has the same even-keel personality that has allowed his father to safely navigate the Northumberland Strait thousands of times.

“If anything goes wrong, my dad's the one who gets the blame,” MacDonald says, unknowingly drawing a parallel to his own predicament as a goaltender.

Things go bad, you cope. A bad goal? You forget about it. It rains on your outdoor wedding. You laugh it off and move on.

Amazingly, MacDonald's new bride, Alyssa, is cut from the same cloth. “She's from a little town about 10 minutes away and we're the same kind of people,” he says. “We'd been dating almost five years, so we know each other pretty well. When it started drizzling — well, what can you do? You can't control the weather.

“I think it's just the way our families are. If something doesn't go right, you don't panic. It's the way I grew up and I haven't changed.”

Of course, it helped that Joey and Alyssa were prepared for the worst. They had a big tent set up on the grounds of his uncle's large estate where the wedding was held.

The young Red Wings prospect approaches hockey the same way. Last season was his first in the American Hockey League and he realized his job was to serve as a backup to veteran goaltender Marc Lamothe.

“You've got to be sharp in practice because if you're not trying, you're not going to be sharp in the game,” he says. “You've got to be always ready because you never know what could happen.”

It doesn't hurt that MacDonald loves playing hockey. It's pretty obvious from the way he's always smiling, although he takes the challenge of improving his skills very seriously.

“I played a little soccer and baseball growing up, but hockey was always No. 1,” MacDonald says, recalling countless games on the driveway of his parents' home a couple of minutes from the wharf.

“We'd get off the bus and there would be like 15 of us — all my friends lived within walking distance — playing road hockey in the driveway every night, every single night,” he recalls.

MacDonald, who got the sticks and ball out this past summer for a couple of games, says he started playing ice hockey when he was five years old. He was playing in the nets regularly by his second year. “I think I got a shutout my first game and I thought, ‘Hey, I like this.' Plus there was a lot less skating and I wasn't a big skater.”

He worked his way up through the pee wee, bantam and midget ranks, then got drafted by the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. “We didn't have a strong team, but we'd have 8,000-9,000 fans at every game. The atmosphere was unbelievable.”

Unfortunately, he was deemed expendable after Halifax drafted Pascal Leclaire, a goaltender now in the Columbus Bluejackets organization. MacDonald packed his bags for Peterborough.

Peterborough is legendary in junior hockey circles, having produced countless NHL players, including Steve Yzerman, Chris Pronger, Mike Ricci, Tie Domi and Ron Tugnutt.

“Being 17 years old, it was tough leaving home, but I had three wonderful years there,” MacDonald. “We didn't win any Memorial Cups but we had a couple of good teams.”

He enjoyed a particularly solid season during his overage year at Peterborough and earned a tryout at the Red Wings' training camp two years ago. “They didn't have a spot for me at the time, but they told me that if I went to Toledo and worked hard, they'd hopefully have a contract for me by Christmas.”

The Red Wings lived up to their end of the bargain, signing MacDonald as a free agent. “Last year I came in fighting for a spot in Grand Rapids, conquered that, and ended up having a pretty good year,” he says.

MacDonald was 14-6-0 last season with a .916 save percentage and a 2.20 goals against average. His contributions, together with those of Lamothe, allowed the pair to win the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award for fewest goals allowed.

Even so, MacDonald is hoping to improve upon his numbers this season. “I don't set personal goals, but I know how I played last year and I think I can play a little better,” he says.

Ultimately, he would like more playing time. “I want to play more games this year, so I'm going to try to push Marc more,” he says. “When you have two good goalies pushing each other, good things usually happen.”

He is prepared to take the bad with the good. Regardless, he'll be the same Joey MacDonald. “I just want to keep getting better and better,” he says.   

MacDonald has hardly been in need of role models. In addition to building a good relationship with Lamothe, his roommate since last season, he has been able to watch Curtis Joseph and Dominik Hasek.

“Being as young as I am, you can learn so much from watching goalies like Hasek, Joseph and Manny Legace,” MacDonald says. “You can learn so much from them, from playing the right angles to the little things.”

MacDonald has singled Joseph out as his favorite player, so naturally he found the Red Wings' goalie situation awkward to say the least.

“It's tough,” MacDonald says. “I thought CuJo had a fairly good year — the team had 110 points, after all. I'm glad the decision is up to (Red Wings general manager) Ken Holland.”

MacDonald admits that he was impressed by Hasek's conditioning considering that he is coming back after a year of retirement.

“You'd think a guy his age might start cutting corners and not work as hard, but he's on the ice after practice, getting more shots.,” MacDonald says. “You watch him and it's just incredible.”



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