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A Season of Firsts

by Staff Writer / New York Islanders

Andrew MacDonald
When defenseman Andrew MacDonald stepped onto the ice on Saturday to skate against the Buffalo Sabres, he became the sixth skater to make his NHL debut with the Islanders in 2008-09. For MacDonald, Josh Bailey, Joe Callahan, Mitch Fritz, Kurtis McLean and Trevor Smith, their lifelong dreams of reaching the NHL was realized this season.

 
"There are a lot of jitters before your first game," admitted MacDonald. "It was great to see all of the guys, who were all really nice, which made things a lot more comfortable. It’s nerve-racking in your first game because there is a lot going on. It was definitely an experience I won’t forget."
 
While everyone would like to be like Mario Lemieux and score a goal on their first shot of their first shift in their first NHL game, most players like to "keep it simple" in their debut—especially defensemen, who don’t want to be the cause of a goal against.
 
"I just wanted to limit turnovers, play solid defensively and move the puck when I had a chance," said MacDonald.
 
Every player will admit that they dreamed of playing in the NHL since they were young. And there’s no doubt they all pictured how that game would play out. Whether it’s scoring in overtime, or pitching a shutout, their perfect scenario almost never plays out in reality.
 
Joe Callahan
"When I dreamed about my first game in the NHL, I always dreamed I would score about five goals," said Callahan, who recorded three blocks in his debut in Philadelphia on December 9th. "That obviously didn’t happen. But my first game was a really good game. We played well. That’s a tough building to play in because the crowd is really loud and right on top of you. I know everyone says it, but it’s a day I’ll never forget."
 
What has made the transition easier for many of the players making their NHL debuts with the Islanders this season is that there have been many familiar faces to greet them once they made the trip from Bridgeport to Long Island. A total 14 players have suited up for at least one game for the Islanders and one game for Bridgeport in 2008-09.
 
"It helps to know a bunch of guys in the locker room," said MacDonald. "The familiarity with them helped a lot. A few of us hung out the last couple of days. I’m just really enjoying it. They told me to just make the most of it and cherish it."
 
The journey from junior or college hockey to the NHL was short for some, like Bailey, whose only pro hockey has been in the NHL. For others, however, it has taken much longer. Callahan finished his third year at Yale in 2003-03, before turning pro at the end of the season. His road to the NHL has taken him to five AHL cities in six seasons.
 
"I don’t know if it’s better to be called up in your first year or your sixth year," said Callahan. "I’ve waited so long that you want to make an impression and do well. It almost made me more nervous. You think for so long that you can get there and then you finally get there and you think I better play well. It’s just about getting better every day and showing everyone that you belong here."
 
Kurtis McLean
Like Callahan, who played for a school not known for producing many NHL players, McLean also took an unlikely path to the NHL. Despite being from Ontario, McLean elected to not play for a Canadian junior team or a Division I American college. Instead, he played for Division III Norwich University in Vermont, which has produced only one other NHL player—Keith Aucoin. After three-and-half years in the minors, he played in his first NHL game on January 19.
 
"I take pride in the fact that I’ve worked my way up to this level," said McLean. "With my background, I understand that a spot will not just be given to me so I have to work my way up and be ready to take advantage of the opportunities when they come up."
 
One thing for sure is that anyone who makes it to the NHL has been helped along the way by family, friends, coaches and mentors. When they make their NHL debut, it’s as if a team of people have accomplished something, not just an individual.
 
"My phone was vibrating off the hook on my drive down from Bridgeport to Long Island," said Callahan. "When I returned all of the calls and texts after the game, I felt my fingers were going to fall off. The support was great."

UPDATE: On Monday night, Jesse Joensuu became the seventh skater this season to play in his first game for the Islanders. He is the 15th player to play in at least one game for both the Islanders and Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Joensuu made the most of his debut, scoring a goal against the Colorado Avalanche.
 
Below is list of the first six skaters to make their NHL debuts with the Islanders in 2008-09 and how they fared in their first games.
 
PLAYER DATE TIME ON ICE KEY STAT
Josh Bailey Nov. 11 12:30 Won 7-of-11 faceoffs/4 penalty minutes
Joe Callahan Dec. 9 13:45 3 hits/2 blocked shots
Mitch Fritz Oct. 10 3:32 2 penalty minutes
Andrew MacDonald Feb. 28 7:14 2 blocked shots/1 takeaway
Kurtis McLean Jan. 19 9:13 2 shots
Trevor Smith Dec. 31 10:55 3 shots/2 blocked shots



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