A Hockey Dream Comes True

The afternoon sun bathes Downtown Evansville on a cool crisp day in early November – Sunday the 3rd, to be exact.

It’s 3:30 PM. In just 90 minutes, the Evansville IceMen will host the Toledo Walleye in ECHL action at the Ford Center.

The doors will not open for another half-hour, but a few hundred IceMen fans have already gathered at the arena’s main entrance on Main Street, ready for another fun-filled reunion with their hockey family.

What many of them don’t know is that one of their very own is about to enter the building via the rear entrance, his lifelong dream of playing professional hockey about to come true thanks to a series of unusual events.

Craig MacDonald, the 37-year old Hockey Director of the Evansville Youth Hockey Association, is hastily preparing to make his pro hockey debut as Evansville’s emergency backup goalie.

NOT THE HAMBURGER

He was born Craig John MacDonald – that’s MacDonald, not McDonald (“like the farmer, not the hamburger”) – in Buffalo, New York. At the age of 2, his mother and adoptive father rechristened him as Craig John Cotterell, a name he maintained until 2007 when he legally reverted back to his birth name.

The family moved to Chicago when Craig was just a toddler, but they still visited Buffalo often. His godfather, Greg Kolbas, was a “beer league” goaltender in Buffalo. “Every time I came back to Buffalo to visit from Chicago, I would put on his gear and pretend I was Tom Barrasso,” Craig recalls.

“I lived and breathed hockey growing up,” Craig proudly states. Fitting, given his link to one of hockey’s most well-known families. “My aunt MaryAnn MacDonald, the family historian and cultivator of our Canadian roots, tells me that the famed Sutter brothers of the NHL are our third cousins by marriage,” he boasts.

Another cousin of Craig’s, Don “Smokey” McLeod, was a goaltender in both the NHL and WHA. During the 1973-74 season, McLeod was a WHA All-Star while playing with Gordie Howe as part of the Avco Cup champion Houston Aeros. McLeod and Howe also represented Canada in the 1974 Summit Series against the Soviet Union. As one of the first goalies to use a curved stick, “Smokey” was an innovator who aggressively played the puck before it was common practice. He piled up an astounding 38 assists during a four-year stretch in the WHA.

In large part due to family, Craig indeed caught the hockey bug at an early age. “I started skating at age 3 and never looked back,” he says. As a youngster, Craig played every type of hockey imaginable – ice hockey, pond hockey, street hockey, roller hockey, knee hockey, bubble/dome hockey (USA vs USSR), quarter hockey (on tabletops), card hockey (with playing cards), and (like many young puck-heads in the 80′s and 90′s) Nintendo Ice Hockey.

On the ice, Craig played hockey all over the place, including a stint in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove – home of former IceMen forward Brian Bicek. He “absolutely LOVED to play goalie” but did not play it all the time because his parents wouldn’t let him. They wanted him to “skate out” as a forward or defenseman as well.

After 7th grade, Craig moved back to Buffalo and continued playing the game he loves. In 1992, Craig’s Bantam AAA team won the USA Hockey National Championship, beating Detroit’s powerhouse Little Caesars team. As a senior in high school, he participated in the Chicago Showcase, a national all-star event for high school hockey players. Craig captained Team Western New York and was named Most Valuable Forward with 12 points in 5 games.

AN UNUSUAL DEMAND

Fast-forward to 2006. Craig was working for Harland Clarke (a finance company) in San Antonio, Texas. A lucrative sales position within the company became available in Evansville.

Craig knew nothing about Evansville – “to be honest, I’d never heard of it” – but there was only one thing about his potential new home that mattered to him.

During an interview for the job, Craig revealed his lone demand to Harland Clarke’s Vice President of Sales: “I won’t move anywhere that does not have a hockey rink with a 30-minute drive from my residence.”

When the baffled VP asked if he was serious, Craig confirmed: “As a heart attack.”

Craig did some research and found out about Swonder Ice Arena. When visiting Evansville for a tour prior to officially accepting the sales job, Craig insisted to his would-be manager that Swonder must be the first stop.

That first stop was the deal-maker.

“I stepped inside of Swonder and knew right away that this was the place for me. I made the move to Evansville knowing that I would make my career change to hockey in the very near future.”

COMMITTED TO GROWING HOCKEY

Craig always wanted to have a career in hockey, but had never been able to make it happen. Evansville gave him the opportunity he had long desired.

He noticed that there wasn’t a youth hockey director or anyone teaching hockey lessons. He took one look at Swonder’s schedule and realized that there was ample room for growth. “Adults playing hockey before 10 PM is just about unheard-of anywhere north of St. Louis or Indianapolis,” he says in reference to the fact that packed ice schedules at many Midwestern rinks typically result in adult leagues playing before sunrise or after midnight.

So Craig began volunteering with EYHA soon after arriving in Evansville. He also started teaching Swonder’s adult hockey classes and running the rink’s Learn To Skate program as well.

Then in 2011, Craig took the ultimate leap of faith. He left Harland Clarke, giving up a six-figure income, to fully pursue his passion as EYHA’s new Hockey Director – a job he was not officially offered until a few months after voluntarily joining the ranks of the unemployed.

As Hockey Director, a new position that did not exist until the EYHA Board of Directors created it with Craig’s hiring, he earns a modest salary without benefits. Craig is the only paid employee of EYHA, which is otherwise an entirely volunteer-driven organization.

He works long days for EYHA, especially during the winter months, and he continues to teach Swonder’s adult classes too. It is not unusual for Craig to spend 12 to 16 hours at the rink in a given day. “People often ask me if I have a cot in my office,” he jokes.

Craig loves his job so much that the drop in income is of little concern to him. “What I do is extremely fulfilling,” he remarks. “I made the decision to make a career change not for financial reasons, but because this is where I know I can make the biggest impact. I felt it was my calling.”

And an impact, he has had. Since Craig took the helm with EYHA, Swonder’s youth hockey participation has increased by over 30%. More than 400 kids played under the EYHA banner last season, and Craig wants to see that number top 500 within the next few years.

The popularity of the IceMen (now in their sixth season) has certainly helped the sport’s grassroots growth as well, but Craig’s role in EYHA’s expansion should not be overlooked. The IceMen have absolutely boosted hockey awareness in the Evansville area, but for EYHA to truly benefit, someone must turn awareness into interest – and interest into action.

“I do everything I can to help grow hockey in the Tri-State,” he says. It’s a mindset that is clearly referenced whenever you interact with him online. Craig’s e-mail signature simply states “Committed to Growing Hockey.”

It’s not just an empty catchphrase, either. Longtime IceMen fan Stacie Miller, whose 8-year old son Nate has taken private lessons with Craig since age 5 and is now part of EYHA’s Squirt Division, attests to Craig’s passion.

“Craig is awesome! He is the reason EYHA has been so successful,” she said. “He lives and breathes hockey for these kids, and he truly cares about growing hockey here. He is an excellent coach and mentor, and the kids absolutely love him. I was commissioner of the 8U program for the last two years. I got to see firsthand how he is with the kids, and how extremely detailed he is with the program. He really puts his whole heart into it.”

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

In addition to captaining the EYHA ship and teaching novices of all ages at Swonder, Craig also regularly plays in the rink’s adult leagues. He used to split time between “skating out” and manning the pipes, but now he typically plays goalie because “I’m not a spring chicken and it takes less time for me to recover from playing in net.”

Craig initially played in Swonder’s “A” League but has since dropped down to play in the “B” League with the Evansville Trashers, a team that also occasionally travels around the Midwest to participate in USA Hockey adult tournaments. This past summer, the Trashers participated in one such tournament in Nashville at Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL’s Predators.

“There is nothing quite like a team of hockey players traveling, playing hockey, and all the extracurriculars that go along with it,” Craig says. “We party like rock stars and therefore play like, well, not all-stars.”

Craig says that the Nashville tournament was his favorite adult hockey experience – until Sunday, November 3, 2013.

IceMen goaltender Allen York had just been called up to the AHL. York started for Evansville on Friday night, then reported to the Texas Stars on Saturday – an off day for the IceMen.

To fill York’s spot alongside Mike Clemente for Sunday’s game against Toledo, Evansville re-acquired rookie goaltender Garrett Bartus from the Idaho Steelheads. Bartus had already served as Clemente’s backup for two games earlier in the season when York was previously called up by the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers, and had been released upon York’s return – only to be claimed on waivers by Idaho. When York got his second AHL chance in as many months, the IceMen quickly made a trade with the Steelheads to bring Bartus back to Evansville.

But while IceMen Head Coach Jeff Pyle was ready to roll with Clemente and Bartus against the Walleye, Mother Nature had other plans. Bartus’ flight back to Evansville was cancelled due to inclement weather, and the search was on for a last-minute replacement.

GETTING THE CALL

At 2:38 PM, exactly 2 hours and 22 minutes before IceMen game time, Pyle called Craig. The latter was, of course, at Swonder – working on jerseys for a 3 PM EYHA game. Craig answered the call, but politely told Pyle he’d have to call him right back. Those jerseys weren’t going to prepare themselves!

At 2:43 PM, Pyle texted Craig about his urgent need for a backup goalie. Craig didn’t see the text come in. He was still busy with jerseys and fielding questions from EYHA parents.

Finally, at 2:56 PM, all immediate EYHA crises had been averted and Craig took a look at his phone. “Come on down right away,” it said.

It wasn’t the first time Craig had been contacted by the IceMen about serving as an emergency backup goaltender, or “EBUG.” But it was the first time he was able to actually fulfill the request.

Predictably, Craig was “really excited” – but he admits that his first thought “was to make sure that the kids were taken care of.” He says the most stressful part of his entire EBUG experience was speaking to all of the proper people at the rink to ensure that EYHA’s kids all got what they needed in his unexpected absence. Craig especially credits EYHA Vice President of Lower House Karen Lutgring and EYHA Squirt Commissioner Mike Miller, along with Swonder General Manager Bill Nadeau, for stepping up and keeping things running smoothly.

SCRAMBLED CRAIG

With everything squared away at Swonder, Craig rushed home to grab his equipment. “Getting my gear together was a circus,” he recalls. “I almost left without my skates. Got those, started pulling away, and realized I had forgotten my leg pads!”

He arrived at the Ford Center at 3:30 – just 54 minutes prior to pre-game warm-ups for his pro hockey debut, and long after the rest of the IceMen players.

Craig had been told to park behind the Ford Center in the small lot that is reserved for players and staff. The lot requires a special parking tag. Given the last-minute nature of his addition to the roster, Craig did not possess said parking tag.

He told the security guard that he was the emergency backup. “You don’t have a tag,” the guard sternly observed. Craig reiterated that he was the backup goalie who was literally JUST added to the roster. After a phone call to someone inside the building, the guard finally granted Craig the clearance to park and subsequently told him which door to use.

Once inside, Craig first came upon IceMen Trainer Brian Patafie, who took him to see Equipment Manager Ross Hoerman. Hoerman jokingly gave Craig a hard time about the length of his last name, while preparing his jersey. He would wear #36 for pre-game warm-ups, then transition to #32 for the game itself.

With his jerseys nearly ready, Craig ventured into the main locker room, where he almost immediately caused his new teammates to groan by accidentally committing one of hockey’s cardinal sins. In his haste and also in trying to avoid all of the sticks and legs in the room, Craig unwittingly stepped right on the IceMen logo at the center of the room. He jokes that he thinks the players purposely made it difficult for him to reach his locker room stall without falling victim to the logo faux pas. “I’m pretty sure I was set up!”

Before Craig could recover from his blunder and settle into his stall, IceMen Captain Josh Beaulieu called for a brief team meeting. So Craig, half-dressed at the time, listened as the team went over a few key points – strategy on the forecheck, opposition players to focus on defensively, and the like.

After the meeting, Craig changed into a pair of IceMen shorts and a t-shirt in order to stretch and physically prepare for hitting the ice. It was then that he realized he only had the dress shoes he had been wearing all day, so he borrowed some sneakers from Patafie.

IceMen forward Matt Schepke informed Craig that on-ice warm-ups would begin at 4:24 PM, with 16 minutes on the locker room clock – which mirrors the scoreboard clock that starts its 40-minute countdown exactly one hour prior to game time. (The countdown ends at the conclusion of warm-ups, and the clock is then reset for a 20-minute intermission before the game begins.) “Sixteen, NOT ZERO,” Craig reminded himself as he began his off-ice warm-up routine.

Muscles stretched. Reflexes activated. Reminder forgotten. “I totally had in my head that I had plenty of time because the clock wasn’t close to zero,” Craig sheepishly laments. “Needless to say, I had to rush to get out there, which is why I’m pretty sure I was second-to-last or last to get out on the ice. That got my heart racing.”

Craig MacDonald exits the Evansville IceMen locker room to hit the ice for pre-game warm-ups, prior to making his professional hockey debut as the team’s emergency backup goalie.
(Photo courtesy of Jared Ransom.)

GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS

Once on the ice, Craig was “all business.” He just wanted to stay out of the way and avoid ruining his teammates’ routines. “I really did not want to look like a fish out of water,” he says.

Clemente guided him through all of the warm-up drills. In time, Craig started to feel somewhat comfortable. “All in all, I felt really good out there. I don’t think I let many in. I’m pretty sure I made a sweet glove save on Dylan Clarke, for which the boys gave him some (grief) upon our return to the locker room.”

When the puck dropped, Craig was “totally into the game” and didn’t allow himself to put on his “fan hat.” Positioned at the end of the bench, he had just two concerns – not getting “smoked in the face” by a puck flying out of play, and hoping Clemente would stay healthy and play the entire game. “I did not wish anything bad on Clemente. I wanted him to finish that game! Not that I don’t think I could do a serviceable job. I just wanted the best for the team, and I know that’s Clemente in net!”

Clemente did indeed play the whole game, although he was rarely tested. The IceMen gave up an early goal on a defensive lapse, then stiffened defensively and cranked up the pressure offensively. The score remained 1-0 in Toledo’s favor through two periods, but Evansville was out-shooting the Walleye 22-7 and generally controlling the play.

Craig was impressed by the team’s poise heading into the decisive third period. “There’s a lot of great leadership in that room. There was never any panic. Those guys knew they were out-working them, and they just needed to keep coming at them.”

Sure enough, the IceMen finally broke through in the final frame with goals by Matt Lowry at 3:21 and Daultan Leveille at 10:53, then held on to secure the come-from-behind 2-1 victory. Clemente earned the win in net, but it was a total team effort – the IceMen only surrendered 11 shots on goal for the entire game.

Craig MacDonald (#32) sits at the end of the IceMen bench next to defenseman Joe Lavin (#5), before standing for the national anthem and settling in for the game.
(Photo courtesy of Jared Ransom.)

MEMORIES MADE

Craig joined the rest of the team at center ice to salute the 4051 fans in attendance, then was reminded by Beaulieu that the evening wasn’t quite over yet. His pro debut just so happened to precede the season’s first post-game skate and autograph session for IceMen season ticket holders.

Thus, Craig stuck around to experience the event from “the other side” for the first time. Hundreds of fans of all ages – including many EYHA kids – hit the ice to skate, meet the players, take pictures and get autographs.

In hockey, it’s often said that when a team is struggling, the backup goalie is the most popular player on the team.

But on this day, that was perhaps the case despite the fact that the starting goalie improved to 4-0-0 on the season with the IceMen victory. To say that Craig was swarmed by those who know and love him would be an understatement.

“That was one of the best things about the night,” Craig says of the post-game skate. “Seeing the look of amazement on some of those kids’ and parents’ faces was priceless.”

It was the perfect ending to an unexpectedly wonderful day. And in the days that followed, Craig was finally able to start wrapping his brain around what had just happened.

“It was an amazing experience. Cool thing is that most of my family in San Antonio and Buffalo listened to the broadcast. I’m thankful that ‘The Mouth of the IceMen’ Derick Benigni had nice things to say about me and EYHA. It was nice to have family realize the impact I’m having on the kids and families here, through hockey. I appreciate everything the staff did to make my experience a memorable one. I’m extremely grateful to all of the players – especially Clemente, Beaulieu and Schepke – for being so gracious and helping me minimize the negative impact I could have had on the team. My main goal was to keep a low profile and stay out of their way, so they could get the job done. Mission accomplished. BIG WIN!”

Craig MacDonald poses with a quartet of EYHA kids during the post-game skate.
Clockwise, from left: Gabe Dennis, Ty Smith, Nate Miller, and Landon Koester.
(Photo courtesy of Stacie Miller.)

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