MiStory: How a college hockey pipe dream became a reality (by Chad McDonald)

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In MiHockey’s new MiStory feature, we let hockey people tell their own stories with their own words. Battle Creek native Chad McDonald shares his story of how he turned his college hockey dream into a reality through hard work, determination and support from people throughout the hockey community in Michigan. (Cover image photo courtesy of Ferris Athletics)

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By Chad McDonald –

Some of my first memories of college hockey are attending Western Michigan University games with my dad. I cherish the times we went to watch the Broncos at Lawson Ice Arena; we would look over the rosters in the game program to see who these guys were and where they came from. I never thought when looking over those rosters with him that I would one day be a player in one of those game programs fortunate enough to play Division I hockey.

Fast forward to October 2015, when I got to play my first game at Lawson Arena against those very same Broncos. This game was special for me. I wouldn’t say Western is home for me, but I do have a soft spot for the arena due to the memories my dad and I created there.

Before the game, I couldn’t help it; I sat in our old seats and thought about all the hard work, the early-morning practices, the sacrifices, the different cities – the obstacles that I overcame to get me to where I am today. Though my dream may have first started watching those games in Kalamazoo with my dad, I never thought it could be achieved. Today, I am not only a Division I hockey player, but I am also a Division I hockey player on one of the best programs in all of college hockey – Ferris State University.

Playing the majority of my youth hockey in Lansing, it was at Munn Ice Arena watching the Spartans where I was able to see many great college hockey players. It’s here where my love for college hockey grew even more.

Photo by Andrew Knapik/MiHockey

Photo by Andrew Knapik/MiHockey

 

One player that sticks out to me more than others is former Spartan and current NHLer Torey Krug. Torey is a role model for me really and was the first player who played at a higher level that showed me that maybe my dream of playing college hockey wasn’t just a pipe dream. I had the privilege to train with Torey because he, along with other Spartan greats like Jim Slater, Jeff Petry, Justin Abdelkader and Jared Nightingale, were training with my coach at the time, Ron Gay.

Training alongside Torey showed me not only the hard work it took to get to the Division I level, but the passion and love for the game that it takes as well. Love for the game cannot be taught. You either want to make it or you don’t, plain and simple. Not only was Torey the star and captain of Michigan State, he was also just another guy who was down to earth. He is a small guy who has and continues to defy the odds of being a small man in a big man’s sport. He showed me that in order to make it as a small player, the only things I can control are my work ethic and my attitude. Torey made me believe that if I continued to work hard, I could, like him, prove people wrong and one day play college hockey.

Making it to the next level in hockey requires sacrifice of all sorts, and not just by the player. I decided that in order to give my dream the best shot, I needed to move to Lansing for my senior year of high school to focus solely on hockey. But this was no easy sell to my parents. How hard would it be to let your kid leave home to chase a dream that seemed to be nothing more than heartbreak at the time?

Ultimately, they said yes, and I officially moved to Lansing. At this time, I lived with the Flood family, who had a profound impact on not only my career, but my life as well. As hockey players know, billet families have a special place in our hearts.

But I wouldn’t label the Floods as my billet family. They’re more than just billets to me, more like my second family.

Their son, Brandon, was on my team at the time and continues to be one of my best friends today. That’s not to mention that Torey ended up marrying one of the Floods’ twin daughters, Melanie, and I even got to witness their first date to Grand Haven. I still think back and laugh about us asking Melanie what she thought of Torey. She said, “I’m not really sure. We’ll see how today goes.” Well, obviously, the date went pretty well.

Living with the Floods was a great experience, but it was not easy to move away for my senior year of high school, because I was leaving behind my friends, my routine and, most of all, my family. Moving away from home came with sacrifice. A lot of hockey players have to sacrifice the normal teenager routine, and it is not unusual to live away from home; however, this does not make it any easier.

Photo by Andrew Knapik/MiHockey

Photo by Andrew Knapik/MiHockey

 

The original plan when I moved in with the Floods was that Brandon and I were going to attend Mason High School together. Well, at least I thought this was the plan until Brandon decided to transfer to another school the morning of the first day of school, which left me not only alone at Mason, but also late to my first class: the biggest fear of any new student.

Not only was I late, but I also enjoyed my lunch in the bathroom that first day because I was alone with no familiar faces. Again, it’s just another example of how moving away from home is never easy for anyone. I find it mind-boggling because it seems to me that young hockey players nowadays are always looking to get to the next level and move away from home as soon as possible. I can tell them that even with the best second family taking them in, no place is like home. Players need to take their time in order to fully develop their skill, their bodies, and their hockey knowledge.

Another person with a huge impact on my hockey career is Jim Greene, whose son, Matt, is an assistant captain for the Los Angeles Kings. Mr. Greene gave me perhaps the best advice I ever received. He said, “It’s almost best to be too ready for the next level, rather than not be ready enough.”

More MiStory Features: School or junior hockey? Why I chose both (by Andrew Dzierwa) | My life as a third-string goalie (by Nate Phillips)

Mr. Greene mentioned that you never hear about the players who took too long to develop or waited too long to make it to the next level; you only hear about the players who rushed to the next level before they were truly ready and ultimately didn’t make it because of their impatience. So, my first piece of advice for younger players out there is exactly what Mr. Greene told me: take your time, be patient, and move on when you’re truly ready to be an impact player at the next level.

Of all the people who helped me get to where I am today, no one (other than my parents and sister) has had the most impact on my career then my youth coach, Ron Gay. I played for Ron during all of my high school years with the Capital Centre Pride AAA program. He was more than a coach to all of my teammates; he was a second father figure in our lives.

Photo courtesy of Ferris Athletics

Photo courtesy of Ferris Athletics

 

Above all, Ron showed me that hockey is much more than just a game, and it had much more to offer than the on-ice accolades. He showed his players that lessons on the ice easily translate to life off it. Ron would always stress that without hard work, you are just an average person, and no one wants average. Ron embedded the mentality in us that there is always someone out there who is working hard to take our spot in the lineup or working hard to take the food off your table. He would emphasize that the one thing you can control is your work ethic; if you consistently outwork your opponents and competitors, you can achieve all that you set your mind to.

Playing for an underrated Midget AAA program in Lansing had its challenges. However, I’m a firm believer that it doesn’t matter where you play; it’s who you’re playing for. Ron is great at developing talent, and from that team alone, he moved on six of his players to the Division I ranks and another five to Division III. It didn’t matter that we were unrecognized, or that the only league we could get in required us to drive cargo vans to Houghton, or Thunder Bay, Ontario; what mattered is we were all a family playing for a coach who put development first and because of that, more than half of us moved on.

Personally, I was not a highly sought-after player; I wasn’t drafted in any league, and I never made it past the second round of Selects, but that never stopped me from working hard. I remember in my senior year I would email coaches from all different junior leagues around the United States begging them to come watch me play.

College hockey seemed like a long shot at that point.

But in the end, Ron was right; hard work eventually paid off. And after all the blood, sweat, and tears we shared over those four years, I signed a tender with the Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings of the North American Hockey League (NAHL). I had moved away for my senior year, and now I was headed back home to live with my parents and play for the Jr. K-Wings. I had the ability to play junior hockey and live at home while I did. What could be better? Not your typical path, but regardless, it was the next stop on my hockey journey.

Part of getting to the next level is hard work, and the other part is a little bit of luck. After my senior year of high school, I devoted a whole summer to weight training and off-ice conditioning. I was very fortunate that at this point in my career all of my hard work and knowledge of the game came together at the right time. Marc Fakler, my coach in Kalamazoo, believed in me as a player, and that only helped my confidence. My time with the Jr. K-Wings was brief, though, because after just 10 games I was traded to the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League.

Not that long ago, I was begging junior coaches to come watch me play – now I was playing in the USHL and getting looks from Division I hockey programs.

Photo by Michael Miller/MiHockey

Photo by Michael Miller/MiHockey

 

The recruiting process started during my time in Des Moines. This process is something all hockey players dream of, and my advice to any younger players is to take it all in. As a player, it’s stressful. Not only are you trying to go to the best team, but you’re trying to go to a school that has a great social life; you’re weighing the pros and cons, such as where the school is located, whether it’s big or small, and if it has the area of study that you want.

Before I went to Des Moines, I was considering schools from out of state. After essentially being traded over night from Kalamazoo to Des Moines, I had to rethink this idea.

I now lived eight hours away from home instead of one, and this was extremely difficult in many ways. Many of you may think “why” or “how” because I was playing at the level I always dreamed of.

Yes, you are correct. However, as a junior hockey player, you do not live the lifestyle many believe you do.

Sure, no responsibility and waking up at noon was nice, but it also gave me a lot of time to be bored. Here I was tucked into bed at 10 p.m. every night in Des Moines terrified that if I stayed out late the coach would call for a curfew check. I also had to see all of my friends back home on social media living it up at college. It was hard seeing that and feeling like I was missing out, not to mention I was living with a family that I had never met before. I was very home sick, and I’m not sure if that is common or not to be honest.

One way or another, I realized that Michigan was where I needed to be for school. I needed to be where my family could see every game, and I wanted them waiting for me after every game.

In youth hockey, all players dread the long walk out to the lobby to see their dad after they just had a bad game.

I actually missed that.

As a Michigan kid, you want to play for either Michigan State or Michigan. I really wanted to play for Michigan State because I wanted to follow in Torey’s shoes. It was my dream school, but I also knew in the back of my mind that maybe it wasn’t the right fit for me.

The right fit for a player is hard to find, but I thought that the first school to show interest in me and put an offer in writing would be my best fit. A lot of the recruiting game is a waiting game. It’s a “who is going to make the first move” kind of game.

In my situation, Ferris State stepped up and offered first.

Photo courtesy of Ferris Athletics

Photo courtesy of Ferris Athletics

 

Even being a kid from Michigan, I vaguely knew of Ferris State. Ferris? Big Rapids? Oh, so like an hour north of Grand Rapids? Regardless, Ferris was the place for me.

If it were up to my dad, I would have committed on the spot after my visit. Our parents know us best, and my parents knew I would thrive in a small-school, small-program environment, rather than the big-school, big-program environment.

Of course, coming to grips with not committing to your dream school is hard, something a lot of kids have to come to grips with. But ultimately, you need to go where you’re most wanted and where you have the best chance to play and have an impact from day one. You also need to go somewhere where you believe you can further develop, not just as a player, but as a person, too.

That, for me, was Ferris State.

This ultimately brings me to my second piece of advice to the aspiring hockey player: Go where you are wanted.

Forget about the social life because you get that everywhere, and the facilities do not matter because you will spend more time in the library and in class than you will at the rink. Also, do not undermine the fact that school is bigger than hockey at the NCAA level. When picking a school, think about if you want to be one student in a class of five hundred, or if you want to be one in a class of thirty to forty.

Going back to my time in Des Moines, it was there I first realized that hockey at these higher levels is a business. I was no longer playing for a father-figure coach who knew me best. I was playing for a coach who was working to keep his job. At that level, you’re just a piece to the puzzle. There is no emotional connection between the coach and player because there can’t be. Coming from a tight-knit team, this was hard to understand at the time.

I ended up playing the rest of my first year of junior hockey for the Bucs. It was a rough year, and ultimately our coach got fired, and we ended the year on a 17-game losing streak. In the end, I was named the rookie of the year for the Bucs and was looking forward to returning the following year.

However, that wasn’t going to be the case.

Apparently my coach, way back at the trade deadline before he was fired, traded me to the Muskegon Lumberjacks. My rights weren’t to become Muskegon’s until after the season was over. I headed back home to Michigan after one year spent in Des Moines and was there to stay.

In Muskegon, I played for a great coach, Jim McKenzie. McKenzie was a longtime fighter in the NHL and had loads of experience to bring to the team.

I’ll never forget our first practice when Jim decided to give us a fighting lesson afterward. He told us that he couldn’t show us how to win a fight, but he could give us some tips on how not to get killed. He told us to grab a partner and come over to him. I initially thought he was coming to pair himself up with me, and instead he told me, “there is no way you’ll ever fight, so why don’t you just go sit on the bench?”

So there I sat, on the bench, by myself. Great start.

Photo by Michael Miller/MiHockey

Photo by Michael Miller/MiHockey

 

The year in Muskegon definitely had its ups and downs. We started off the season on a seven-game unbeaten streak, and I was having a great year.

Then, I got hurt and had to have surgery for the first time. This not only tested my physical skills but my mental ones as well. I tore my triceps tendon and had to sit out 30 games.

Injuries are never fun and, unfortunately, I’ve had plenty of them. I ended up coming back in mid-January and played out the rest of the season.

Some of our assistant coaches left the team mid-season, so Muskegon was looking for an assistant coach. I went to our general manager at the time and said that he should take a look at someone who would do a great job at developing talent: Ron Gay. Fortunately, he was hired.

It was great to have Ron there for the end of my junior hockey career. We had a lot of talent and made the playoffs, but drew the eventual Clark Cup Champion Dubuque Fighting Saints in the first round where we ended up getting swept. Not the ending I wanted for my junior hockey career, but I’ll never forget hugging Ron before I stepped off the ice with him for the last time. I will definitely cherish that forever.

From that point forward, I was officially a Ferris State Bulldog.

Stepping on to the Ferris campus for the first time was a bit of a shock for me.  I was where I always wanted to be. I was now one of those players in the game program that as a kid I was looking at every game with my dad. Ferris State hockey turned out to be the perfect fit for me. It seems like throughout my entire hockey career I’ve had to work to prove people wrong.

Ferris Hockey, in a way, is the same; every year we have to work to prove people wrong. That is the Bulldog mentality. Work, work, and work more.

Most of my teammates and I share the fact that we were all over looked by those bigger schools, and we all are the same in that we work extremely hard to prove people wrong. Nothing is better than pulling on that Bulldog sweater and beating those big-time programs who passed on us before.

A few games that stick out after three years at Ferris include the first time we played Michigan State at Munn my freshman year, and we shut them out on their annual Teddy Bear Toss night. That was like a dream come true for me.

Next would have to be when we beat Michigan at our very first home game to start my sophomore year in front of what felt like a beyond-sold-out crowd at Ewigleben Ice Arena.

This past year, my junior year, obviously winning the last Final Five Tournament Championship at Van Andel Arena and beating St. Cloud State, the No. 2 overall seed, in the NCAA tournament tops the list. I have three years in at Ferris and have two Final Eight NCAA Tournament appearances and a WCHA Regular Season Championship, and I was also a part of the first team in Ferris Hockey history to win a Playoff Championship.

But it’s much more than hockey that makes Ferris State so special.

The community support we get, our student section, the faculty, the athletic administration, our coaching staff – all of it is second to none. Honestly, what other university president plays in the school’s pep band at the NCAA Tournament?

In the past four years, Ferris Hockey has been ranked 13th in the country for wins with 83, and we are tied with the University of Michigan for the most wins in the state of Michigan. Ferris has shown me success on the ice and has set me up for success off it.

My degree paired with the relationships and friendships I have made at Ferris State will last me a lifetime, and I am proud to be a Bulldog. I am excited to have one more year at Ferris where we all have one goal in mind: a National Championship, and who’s to say we can’t do it?

In closing, I will leave you with my last piece of advice, which is simple: remember where you came from and who helped you get to where you’re at. No one can make it to the next level by himself or herself. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication on our end, but also from our parents, family, and coaches.

It’s never too late to say thank you. With that said, thank you to the people who have helped me get to where I’m at today.

Sit back, enjoy your ride, and know that when you do make to the next level, the hard work has only just begun.

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