Gerry McDonald understands how great the distance is from being a good hockey player to becoming a professional. After a Division III career at North Adams State in Massachusetts, with hard work and some luck, Gerry made it to the NHL for a brief stint as a defenseman for the Hartford Whalers.
So when Gerry’s son, Colin, after five years of battling through the Edmonton and Pittsburgh organizations, finally found a steady role as a contributor for a resurgent New York Islander team, he had no bigger supporter than Gerry.
Such is the level of empathy that when the Islanders secured a postseason spot for the first time since 2007, the elder McDonald started his own playoff beard. “I had to ask him, is this cool?” Gerry says laughing. “Is this going to be weird for you? But he was ok with it.”
The Islanders faith in Colin McDonald showed quick dividends. During the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, Colin scored seven goals and added two more during the playoffs. Gerry and his wife Suzanne made the two-hour trip from their home in Connecticut to Long Island to see a few of them in person.
“As a Dad, all you want is what is best for your children,’’ he says. “Knowing how hard Colin worked to reach this point in his career is a dream come true for me and for him. He has been committed to this for as long as I can remember.”
Gerry McDonald played only eight games for the Whalers in the early 1980s when he mostly skated for their AHL affiliate in Binghamton, New York. A trade from the Rangers – in which New York acquired star playmaker Mike Rogers for three players - turned out to be a life-determining move for the Massachusetts-born McDonald.
After three seasons with the Whalers organization, Gerry had the opportunity in the summer of 1984 to play in Finland. Instead of uprooting his family weeks before Colin was born, he decided to call it a career and start his next professional life in the Hartford area. Almost three decades later, there are no regrets for McDonald, who manages two Volvo dealerships.
He’s gratified and proud his efforts have blossomed into this chance to enjoy a next generation of hockey success with Suzanne and Colin’s younger siblings, brother Kyle and sister Kelsey.
“We’ve never been pestering parents,’’ Gerry says. “Our kids have kept our relationship strong. We’re tight the five of us, and the older we get the more we realize what we have is special. That’s why we don’t think twice about jumping in the car and traveling for a game.”
Colin, who signed a two-year contract extension with the Islanders through 2014-15, found his game with the gritty young Islanders who rode a strong second half into the postseason.
After five seasons in the AHL—three with Springfield, one with Oklahoma City and another with Wilkes-Barre—he simply kept striving towards the goal of earning a steady spot in the NHL.
Last summer, the Islanders signed McDonald as a free agent then made him captain of their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport – an easy drive for the McDonald family. The right wing had a strong three months with the Sound Tigers before the NHL started an abbreviated 48-game schedule in mid-January.
“In many ways, the lockout was the best thing to happen to me,’’ Colin says. “It gave me a chance to show what I could do and I built confidence heading into the NHL season.”
McDonald was on a line at Bridgeport with center Casey Cizikas, a pattern he continued on Long Island. His superior work ethic and gregarious personality made him popular with the young Islanders, who pushed the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the opening round of the playoffs.
Gerry and Suzanne were at Nassau Coliseum more than three hours before the noon start of the Islanders first home playoff game in six years. The pre-game reverie and packed arena were memorable enough but the moment Colin skated onto the ice was one they will always remember.
“As a spectator - and a former player - to be part of a sellout playoff crowd and witness your son playing a game he's committed to, there's no better time in our life than that,’’ Gerry says. “Colin was a big piece of the Islanders puzzle, a key contributor to their success. To enjoy that success with him as a family means everything to all of us.”
For Colin, the new season can’t arrive soon enough as for the first time he can focus on summer training instead of where he might sign.
“As far as I can remember, back in elementary school, when teachers asked what I wanted to be, I always said I wanted to be a hockey player,’’ Colin says. “I really wouldn't trade it for anything. I appreciate the path that I took and the experiences I went through.”
Even Mom can appreciate the message this Father’s Day.
“When Gerry and I saw Colin’s face on the Jumbotron before that first playoff game against Pittsburgh, we looked at each other and almost started crying,’’ she says, welling up again at the thought. “He’s living his dream. You take a moment to sit back and admire it because his accomplishment is our accomplishment.”