Goaltending prospect Mason McDonald will be peppered with a lot of rubber in Calgary Flames development camp this week but chances are nothing will quite compare with what he stared down last summer.
“Duchene came down on my right side, he shot it off my left pad and Crosby had a wide open net for the rebound and I dove across and absolutely robbed him,” gushed McDonald, with a smile. “That one stuck out in my head. He just tilted his head back and said, 'How the hell did you save that?'"
In case you were wondering, that was, indeed, Matt Duchene and Sidney Crosby. The two NHL stars were part of a group that also included Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand and Jeff Skinner, who had booked ice for a week last summer at the BMO Centre in Bedford, Nova Scotia, just 10 minutes outside of McDonald's home town of Halifax.
“It was kind of crazy to see them coming down. Their shots are unbelievable. They can just pick whatever corner they want,” said McDonald. “If that opportunity comes again this summer, it's going to be awesome.”
How it all came together was renowned strength and conditioning trainer Andy O'Brien had organized the ice times for the group of Maritimes-residing pros but he needed help between the pipes.
“He got hold of me and asked if I wanted to go on with them,” said McDonald, who was joined by another Major Junior goalie from the area. “Just the two of us on with all those skaters, who are the best of the best. We aren't NHL goalies yet, obviously, but it was pretty cool.”
Outside of that week with the NHLers, McDonald spent the rest of last summer skating with the major junior guys in the area.
While the 19-year-old will spend lots of time at home again this summer and hopes to hear from O'Brien again, he won't be able to if it ends up being the first week of August as he'll be back in Calgary.
Dreaming of the World Juniors
In something he admits has been on his mind since last Christmas, McDonald is one of three goaltenders invited to Hockey Canada's U20 development camp in the first week of August. It is likely that Canada's two goaltenders for this year's IIHF World Junior Championships will come from that group.
“You watch it growing up. You watch it with your parents and your family at home every Christmas and I still did last year. It would be a dream come true to play in that, for sure,” said McDonald, who lights up as he talks about the possibility.
That camp, part of Hockey Canada's Summer Showcase that also includes development camps for U18 and U17, will also be in Calgary at WinSport, the same facility the Flames are holding their on-ice sessions over the next four days (see here for exact times as well as my take on 12 intriguing prospects to watch).
“I've envisioned it since the last one. Watching (Zach) Fucale and (Eric) Comrie, it just looked like they're having so much fun out there and playing in Canada. This year it's over in Finland. If I get the opportunity, I can see it being a great time.”
The other two goaltenders invited to the World Junior camp are MacKenzie Blackwood (Barrie, OHL) and Samuel Montembeault (Blainville-Boisbriand, QMJHL), who were drafted in the second and third round respectively by New Jersey and Florida in the 2015 NHL Draft.
“They're both good goalies so it's going to be a good competition come August but if I play as well as I can, I have a pretty good shot,” said McDonald.
Where Old Flames Goalies Come to Rest
That camp that runs August 1-6 will be the second Hockey Canada camp of the summer for McDonald, who was in Toronto a couple weeks ago for their Program of Excellence camp.
Interesting about that camp is three of the instructors were former Flames – Freddie Braithwaite (Hockey Canada goaltending consultant), Rick Wamsley (Ottawa Senators goaltending coach) and Dwayne Roloson (Anaheim Ducks goaltending coach).
While Wamsley was on the ice with the U17's, McDonald spent a lot of time with the other two.
“I learned quite a bit from Dwayne. He helped me out with my stick and blocker positioning quite a bit. Something new that i never really thought of before,” he said. “I used to play with my blocker square right to the puck. He had me change it to more of an angle. It helped my stick in deflecting pucks from the blocker side.”
As for the seemingly always smiling 5-foot-7 Brathwaite, who played three seasons with Calgary from 1998 to 2001, McDonald says he was a delight to be around. Yep, that's the same guy alright, who was a fan favourite back then, during some bleak years for the Flames.
“Freddie is a great guy. I love working with Freddie. So energetic. All the guys enjoyed being around him.”
Coming off a Terrific Season
Last year was a superb one for McDonald. His .906 save percentage in the regular season was second-best in the league, only behind an overager that was over two years older.
Unfortunately, McDonald's season came to a sudden and disappointing end less than five minutes into game 3 of Charlottetown's opening series against Sherbrooke.
“There was a shot, I kicked it out with my left pad. There's a guy in the face-off circle waiting for the rebound. I pushed over with my right leg and I felt a pop,” McDonald recalled. “I saved the second shot actually and I got back up. I didn't think anything was wrong at that point. But the play went out and came down again on a dump and I tried going down but I couldn't get my right knee down.”
The diagnosis was a type 2 MCL tear. Wanting to make absolutely sure that's what it was, the Flames flew their 2014 second round pick to Calgary for team doctors to have a look at also. After doing their own MRI, they agreed with the assessment and the season was over for McDonald. No surgery would be needed but it would be an eight-week recovery time.
Interestingly, that one day McDonald was in Calgary and at the Saddledome was the final week of the NHL regular season so the Flames were at home also, preparing for games with Arizona and Los Angeles.
“I got to come in the dressing room while the guys were there,” said McDonald. “It was pretty cool to be in the room at that time. To see the atmosphere and how intense it was. I got to talk to a few of them, I shook a few hands. They were all nice but you could tell that they were taking it pretty seriously.”
Big things are expected in 2015-16 from Charlottetown, who improved from 21 wins to 35 wins a year ago. The Islanders top two scorers – Daniel Sprong and Filip Chlapik – were both second round picks in the 2015 NHL Draft and are expected to be back.
“Going into this year, we're expecting a better regular season and a longer playoff run. It's going to be fun,” McDonald said. “I plan to be in net for a large chunk of those games and I expect to have more wins than I had last year. I expect to be better and play better and that's definitely possible with the team we'll have.”
Soaking Up His Final Year (or Two) in the Maritimes
If all goes according to his plan, this will be his final season of junior.
“I hope to have a good year and if I do, I'll be able to make the jump to the next level,” said McDonald. “I just need go to Charlottetown this year, have a good year, keep progressing, get better every day and as long as that happen, I think I have a pretty good shot at it.”
Meanwhile, McDonald will enjoy at least one more year of Maritime living and everything that comes with playing for a team just over three hours away from your hometown.
“My parents and grandparents come to quite a few of the games in Charlottetown. A lot more of the family comes when we play in Halifax. We played there five times this year so I had a crowd there after those games,” said McDonald. “It is always cool playing in Halifax. Playing in front of all of them, it's really fun.”
Whenever Stockton, California, and the West Coast does eventually become his new address, whether that's one year away or a couple, you just know that McDonald still be spending his summer months on the East Coast.
“It's my favourite place in the world. I love it out there. Everything's close. Everyone knows each other. Plus there's lots of opportunities with ice and skating with pros in the summer as a lot of guys come back there.”
Meanwhile, if McDonald's career keeps progressing like it has so far, perhaps he'll one day have the opportunity to thwart Crosby on some scoring chances in the winter months, as well as during the summer months.
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