MacDonald knows how to be patient

 

Sometimes, the only thing a hockey player can do is wait. You can perform just as well as the top dog in training camp, the one with the big-ticket salary, and see more action than the Swedish sensation who comes bobbing into town on a sea of hype, and it is not going to matter.

 
 
 
 
 

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Sometimes, the only thing a hockey player can do is wait. You can perform just as well as the top dog in training camp, the one with the big-ticket salary, and see more action than the Swedish sensation who comes bobbing into town on a sea of hype, and it is not going to matter.

Not if you are Joey MacDonald. Not if you are a goaltender who was never drafted by an NHL team and who was buried so deep in the minors for so many years that journeyman is the universal label people attach to your name.

"It has been a long journey to get here," MacDonald said yesterday. "I started out in the East Coast Hockey League, and [spent] years and years and years in the minors ..."

In his first seven seasons as a professional, he played 17 games in the NHL. And though he played 49 games with the New York Islanders last year, after starter Rick DiPietro was sidelined, MacDonald started this season in the minors again.

The journeyman cannot seem to change what he is.

But yesterday, when the Leafs placed Swedish rookie Jonas Gustavsson on injured reserve, they recalled the 29-year-old MacDonald from the Toronto Marlies, where he had stopped 32 of 34 shots in his first game.

Still, there is no guarantee Mac-Donald will play. Leafs head coach Ron Wilson plans to start Vesa Toskala the next three games. Gustavsson should be back by the fourth.

"It has been like that my whole career, just kind of waiting for the opportunity," MacDonald said. "It doesn't matter if you are number one, two, three--even number four, I have seen fourth-string goalies come in -- you just got to wait."

Toskala could determine MacDonald's fate. He was adequate in a 4-3 overtime loss to Montreal on opening night, then abominable in Washington last weekend where he was pulled after allowing three first-period goals.

Wilson expressed confidence that the Finn would find his form after practice yesterday, but also suggested he was perfectly comfortable with the team's current Plan B.

"Joey looked great in training camp and he was, last year, basically a number one goalie," Wilson said. "If things do not work out, I would not hesitate to put Joey in."

MacDonald won 14 games for a poor Islanders teams last year, and had a .901 save percentage that was 10 points higher than Toskala's. His season as a starter was, at the very least, a reward for his patience. Eight years ago, when he was playing his first professional season with Toledo of the ECHL, he was so homesick that he phoned his mom and dad in Nova Scotia and told them he wanted to quit.

"I thought: if this is what pro hockey is all about, I don't know if it is for me," MacDonald said. "It wasn't any fun."

His parents told him not to give up, that he was chasing a dream, and that sometimes dreams can take a lifetime to catch. So MacDonald kept on going with his journey. It led from Toledo to places like Grand Rapids, Mich., Cincinnati and Bridgeport, Conn., and to brief appearances with Detroit, Boston and the Islanders.

While with the Red Wings, he was blocked by Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph and Chris Osgood. On Long Island, it was DiPietro. And then the franchise player got hurt, and Mac-Donald was the perfect lunch-pail hero for a fan base searching for silver linings.

"The [Islanders crowd] used to get the Joey chant going," says Joey Mac-Donald. "And once you have an opportunity, you want to stay [in the NHL]. It doesn't matter if you are 20 or 30. It is all about opportunity, and making the most of it."

It is about waiting, and knowing that sometimes it is the best thing a hockey player can do.

joconnor@nationalpost.com

 
 
 
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