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McDonald Knows Speed is His Game

by Larry Wigge / St. Louis Blues
McDonald, who was acquired in a trade for Doug Weight in December, ranks third among Blues players in assists.

It was about this time a year ago that Andy McDonald was thinking about speed. How he got it ... and what it meant in the grand scheme of hockey ... after he beat the likes of Alexander Ovechkin and Patrick Marleau to win the fastest skater competition at the All-Star Game in Dallas last season.

The same sort of curiosity seems to be crossing the minds of more than a few people as they prepare to face McDonald and the St. Louis Blues these days.

Andy admitted recently that he reflected on the years of hard work he had gone through to convince skeptics that he could play well enough to make it to the NHL. Skating was always his weapon.

"No one ever said it to my face, but I could sense the doubt that a small player like myself could succeed in this game because I’d have to outplay guys much bigger and stronger than myself," McDonald said.

But Andy’s dad, Steve, a policeman in Strathroy, Ontario, and McDonald’s coach growing up, enrolled his son in a power skating program that gave Andy confidence that he could overcome just about anything.

"Genetics and my body type at 9 or 10 dictated that in order for me to compete with bigger and stronger kids I needed to emphasize skating ... and speed," McDonald remembered.

And after helping the Anaheim Ducks win the Stanley Cup last June, he’s now trying to help St. Louis prove a few skeptics wrong about the Blues as well.

McDonald was acquired from Anaheim in December in a trade for center Doug Weight. He becomes yet another piece of the puzzle that Blues President John Davidson and GM Larry Pleau have put together to quickly turn St. Louis from worst in the NHL in 2005-06 to playoff contender this season.

"The NHL game is quicker today than it’s ever been," Davidson told me the other day. "But the best speed is how fast you can move the puck. I think we’ve made strides to make the Blues faster and quicker in a short period of time. But we’re still trying to play catch-up."

"...In order for me to compete with bigger and stronger kids I needed to emphasize skating ... and speed." - Andy McDonald
Just before McDonald won the skills competition at the All-Star Game, the Blues hired Andy Murray as coach to replace Mike Kitchen -- and the team’s work ethic and grit were beginning to be noticed by more than just a few people around the game.

Now, opposing coaches are adding speed and quickness to the generic hard working and gritty descriptions of the Blues.

"The first thing you notice about the Blues is their speed," San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "They’ve done a good job of adding speed in almost every move they’ve made in the last two years. You definitely can’t let them back you up in your own zone with their speed."

"They become a heavy team to play when they use their speed and work ethic to get in on you with their forecheck," added Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock. "And when they cycle down low on you, they are really, really tough to beat."

Speed, hard work and grit. That’s a tough hat trick to beat. And it allows a team that maybe isn’t the biggest and stronger to compete in the new NHL where neutral-zone traps and hanging all over a skilled player is penalized.

"Ryan Johnson and Jamal Mayers have always been among the fastest players in the game. I always noticed how hard it was to play against them when I was in Anaheim," McDonald said. "To me, competing and skating and winning go hand in hand."

McDonald (left) won the NHL's Fastest Skater competition at the 2007 NHL All-Star Game.
Not too far away, Mayers chimed in; "We’ve always been pretty quick. Even big Walt (Keith Tkachuk) is quicker than you’d think. And now we’ve added a lot of young legs like Erik Johnson, David Perron, Lee Stempniak to the lineup. Yeah, I’d say we’re a lot faster as a team than we were a couple of years ago."

Maybe the rest of the hockey world is noticing a faster version of Blues is because name players such as Paul Kariya and McDonald and Perron and Stempniak and Erik Johnson are bringing more pace the Blues game.

"All you’ve got to do is look at those two little waterbugs buzzing around the ice," Blues goaltender Manny Legace said of Kariya and McDonald. "That kind of speed along with the hard work this team already has a way of grinding opponents down just as much as size and strength do."

The bottom line here is getting others to mesh with that speed, even if they might not be as gifted in the skating part of it.

"It’s not like we’ve got another gear hidden somewhere that I can all of a sudden call on to make me faster," laughed second-year power forward David Backes. "I just have to find ways to get from Point A to Point B a little faster."

"When I’m out there with Andy or Paul, I know they’re going to be ahead of me," said Brad Boyes. "I’ve just got to find a way to jump on it and get to the net."

Which Boyes has done for a team-leading 24 goals this season.

The bottom line in this equation is that in building a team in today’s game, skating is essential. Andy McDonald and the Anaheim Ducks won a Stanley with size, strength and speed. The Blues are looking for speed, quickness and hard work first -- and they think the rest will catch up to them.

"There are no secrets. We look up in the standings every day and see Detroit ahead of us," Davidson observed. "With them it’s like a double or triple whammy. They have speed and skill, plus they are the hardest working team in hockey.

"We keep that in mind with every decision we have to make."
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