On Colin McDonald, Perseverance, And The Masterton Trophy

USA TODAY Sports

Dear PHWA; When you fill out your nominations for this year's Masterton Trophy, please remember that returning from an injury isn't the only criteria.

The 2003 NHL Entry Draft is considered by many to be not only one of the strongest draft classes in NHL history but also one of the deepest. The draft was littered with players who have gone on to have long NHL careers of varying degrees of success, from can’t miss superstars like Carolina’s Eric Staal, to players who blossomed into superstars like Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber, to late-bloomers like Dustin Byfuglien and countless other role players who carved out NHL careers. It is a draft class where all 30 players selected in the first round have appeared in the NHL, even if two of them (the now infamous Hugh Jessiman and Shawn Belle) only just made it for a cup of coffee.

Amazingly, even though the players selected in the draft are closing in on a decade in pro hockey, the draft class is continuing to add NHLers to its already impressive resume. The Edmonton Oilers record from the 2003 draft is not particularly impressive; they found a quantity of players to have an NHL career, but not much quality. Kyle Brodziak in the 6th round represents their best selection; Marc-Pouliot, selected 21st overall, had an underwhelming 192-game NHL career, and they landed a couple of 4th line/AHLers in JF Jacques and Zach Stortini. The rest of their draft either never made it or had one or two seasons at best.

But nearly a decade after the draft took place, the Oilers 2nd round selection, 51st overall, has clawed his way into a regular spot in an NHL line-up. NHL rules prevent players over the age of 25 from being eligible for the Calder Trophy. And while his stats don’t merit consideration for such an award, New York Islanders winger Colin McDonald is, by any other definition, an NHL rookie this season. At 28 years old.

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According to the NHL website, the Bill Masterton Trophy is awarded to “the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey”. Of every honour given out by the NHL, it has the vaguest definition of what constitutes a suitable winner, because the qualities the winner is supposed to possess mean very different things to different people. Unlike other awards, which represent a who’s who of the game’s elite players, looking at the list of past winners represents a unique cross-section of the types of players that play this game. Every single player that simply puts on an NHL sweater has had to persevere, remaining dedicated to the sport they hoped to make a career from. The Masterton Trophy, at its core, is a nod to the individuals within the game that have given that little bit more; it is the very definition of the mythical “giving 110%”. *

McDonald’s road to the NHL is long and winding.

Drafted out of the EJHL (a Tier III Junior A league in the North-eastern United States), McDonald then went off to Providence College where he played four years without much in the way of offensive success (a career high of 28 points in 36 games as a 21-year old junior).

Despite not receiving an NHL contract offer from the Oilers upon completing college, McDonald still joined the Oilers organization by joining their AHL affiliates in Springfield. After two seasons in Springfield, he earned the faith of the Oilers organization and was given a one-year contract with the Oilers. At 25 years old, he would play the first two games of his NHL career in the 09-10 season, where he also notched his first career NHL goal.

McDonald would spend one more year in the AHL with Edmonton’s affiliate (now in Oklahoma City) in 2010-11, scoring an astonishing 42 goals and 58 points in 80 games, but he was not re-signed, and would move to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. A solid season earned him another chance in the NHL, adding 5 more games to his career. Again, he was not renewed.

This season the New York Islanders gave him his third chance with an NHL organization. During the lockout, he compiled 27 points in 35 games with Bridgeport (his highest ever AHL points per game record), and earned a call-up to the Islanders. Through 33 games, he has 7 goals and 10 assists for the Islanders, playing roughly 11 minutes a night.

For the first time in his career, McDonald goes into the summer with security. He doesn’t have to worry about finding a new job, and he doesn’t have to worry about accepting a two-way contract. The Islanders have already given him a 2-year contract, a one-way contract at that.

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In the last 20 years, only twice has the Masterton Trophy been awarded to a player who did not have some sort of injury or ailment which affected his ability to perform; in 2001 when Adam Graves won the award in recognition of his all-around dedication to hockey, and in 2009 when Jose Theodore returned to prominence as an NHL starting goaltender following the tragic death of his newborn son. In all other years, the player who won the award typically overcame some sort of illness or injury which threatened to end their career or even their life.

When you read back further into the history, however, you see that the award used to mean more than simply recovering from some sort of injury. It was a means of honouring somebody for their contributions to the game. Los Angeles great Dave Taylor, for example, was honoured for having played all 17 seasons with the same team.

There is no possible definition for perseverance, or dedication to the game. It is an entirely subjective award which relies on the interpretation of the voters. For all the flak that the PHWA, who vote on the award, receive for assigning narratives to the game of hockey where they shouldn’t, this is a clear-cut example of where they should be doing exactly that in casting their vote for the Masterton Trophy, and for the past two decades they have punted. They have fallen into a formula, taking the easy option and bypassing so much of the character of hockey which makes the game so great. It has become an award for the best recovery from injury, which is maddening.

When Mario Lemieux overcomes cancer during the season and still wins the scoring title, when Bryan Berard resurrects the career he thought was lost due to an errant stick that deserves recognition. But compared to those examples, Max Pacioretty’s adversity doesn’t really compare, does it?

They have abdicated their privilige as writers to tell us a story, in one of the areas where we want them to do so.

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Colin McDonald is never going to win an individual award in the National Hockey League. If the Islanders weren’t a dirt poor hockey club he might not have even gotten the chance to get to the NHL. He was probably told countless times that he was never going to make it, and after 4 years of college and 5 years in the AHL, you wouldn’t have blamed him one bit if he’d ever decided to try his hand at something else.

Before this season, McDonald had spent a decade searching for a route to the NHL, and all he had to show for it was a cup of coffee in Edmonton and Pittsburgh. This year he finally got his chance and he’s flourished; if he’s lucky and his head coach Jack Capuano continues to show faith in him, he will get to participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With recent news that Ottawa Senators star defenceman Erik Karlsson has recovered from an Achilles tendon injury that many thought would end his season (and judging by Ottawa’s reaction, his life may or may not have been in danger), Karlsson is almost a shoo-in for the Masterton award. The combination of a star player returning from an injury, Ottawa media hyping his return as some sort of god-like feat, and the lack of imagination of the PHWA. Minnesota’s backup goalie Josh Harding’s fight to continue to play pro hockey while being diagnosed with MS is also incredibly notable and is worthy of recognition.

There are a handful of guys like McDonald across the league every year; Toronto’s own Mike Kostka, playing his first ever NHL season this year at age 27 is another example. These are the guys who waited forever and a day to finally get their shot. And they have to know that they may not ever get another chance. But if you want to reward perseverance and dedication to the game of hockey, a guy like Colin McDonald seems like the sort of guy that you need to give praise to now and again.

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