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New York's original Islander quite a catch

by Chuck Gormley
Born and raised in one of Canada's most productive fishing towns, Joey MacDonald has a keen understanding of what it's like to cast a line and reel in nothing but seaweed.

After seven years of hard labor in the minor leagues, MacDonald wanted to make sure the New York Islanders didn't toss him back into the murky waters like a useless piece of bait.

"It's been a long road for me and some thought I never could get here," the Islanders' 27-year-old goaltender said during a rare day off last week. "My parents taught me never to give up and to work hard every single day, and that's what I plan on doing."

Having played for five minor-league teams since turning pro in 2001, MacDonald has been a revelation on Long Island this season. He recently started 17 straight games in place of injured starter Rick DiPietro, and MacDonald's strong play has kept Scott Gordon's injury-riddled team above water.

"From my standpoint, if Joey is playing well, I'm going to take advantage of it for our team," Gordon said. "The way I look at it, when Ricky gets back and is playing well, Joey's going to have plenty of bench time. I want to make the most of a guy I feel is playing strongly."

Before he was thrust into the limelight, few Islanders knew much about MacDonald, who was signed over the summer as a replacement to popular backup Wade Dubielewicz.

Born in the coastal town of Pictou, Nova Scotia, MacDonald spent most of his summers working on his parents' cattle farm and helping his uncles during lobster season.

"I was up at 5:30 every day," he said. "Feeding the cows, cutting hay. It was a hobby for my parents, but it was work for me."

While MacDonald was making sure his family's 70 cows were fed, his parents were busy transporting tourists from Caribou, Nova Scotia, to Wood Islands, Prince Edward Island. MacDonald's father, Leonard, has spent the past 40 years as captain of Northumberland Ferries, which takes passengers on a 75-minute sail across Pictou Harbour.

His mother, Judy, has been head waitress on the ferry for the past 37 years.

The ferry is a popular tourist attraction and operates from May until mid-December, making two round trips across the strait each day.

"My dad would bring me up in the wheelhouse," MacDonald said. "He spent some long days on that ferry."

MacDonald also spent time on his uncles' lobster boats, rising at 3:30 a.m. and pulling up more than 300 traps during the busiest months, May and June. 

When the young Islander wasn't feeding cows, cutting hay or catching lobsters, he was playing hockey in his driveway with his friends and watching Hockey Night In Canada every Saturday.

At the age of 17, MacDonald got his first taste of junior hockey with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but managed just three wins in 17 games. He was waived after the season, and when no QMJHL team signed him, he hooked on with the Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes, where spent three seasons as their No. 1 goalie.

When the 1998 Entry Draft came and went without MacDonald's phone ringing, he kept playing for the Petes and hoped someone would notice. The Detroit Red Wings did, signing him to his first pro contract in 2001.

After a year with the Toledo Storm of the ECHL, MacDonald earned a spot with the Red Wings' American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. But with Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph, Chris Osgood and Manny Legace in front of him, MacDonald began to wonder if he'd ever get a taste of the NHL.

"I saw those guys come and go and when I never got the chance after four years in Grand Rapids, I thought maybe I'm not going to make it," he said. "I credit (GM) Ken Holland and the Detroit Red Wings organization for sticking with me."

MacDonald's first big break came in 2006-07, when his first NHL start came against the Edmonton Oilers in a game shown on Hockey Night In Canada.

"I think everybody in Pictou watched that game," MacDonald said. "It was a thrill for me."

The Red Wings lost the game in the seventh round of the shootout, but MacDonald's strong first impression was enough to put him on other teams' radars. He was picked up on waivers by the Boston Bruins that same season, and in the summer of 2007 signed a two-year contract with the Islanders.

MacDonald played most of last season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL, but his insistence that the second year of his contract be a one-way deal turned out to be a stroke of genius. It forced the Islanders to release Dubielewicz and insert MacDonald as DiPietro's safety valve.

It didn't take long for MacDonald to get called to duty. With DiPietro still recovering from offseason hip and knee surgery, MacDonald started the first four games of the season and went 2-2-0.

DiPietro returned to action but reinjured the knee three games later and underwent arthroscopic surgery Oct. 31 that is expected to keep him out of the lineup until later this month.
"I was up at 5:30 every day. Feeding the cows, cutting hay. It was a hobby for my parents, but it was work for me." -- Joey MacDonald

"I knew there was a good chance I'd be up with Ricky this year, but I had no idea I'd be in this situation," said MacDonald, who was 10-14-2 in his first 26 starts this season. "It's all about getting an opportunity and taking full advantage of it.

"Scott has had confidence in me and it took a lot of courage and trust to put me in there every night. I think I've proven to myself that I can play in this League and be a real good No. 2. And if given the opportunity, I can be a solid No. 1."

In addition to DiPietro, the Islanders have been without Mike Comrie, Mike Sillinger, Brendan Witt, Andy Sutton and Radek Martinek for long stretches, and face another month without young forwards Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen.

"It's already been a tough year," MacDonald said. "We get somebody back and somebody else goes down. But if we keep everybody healthy and get on a roll, anything can happen. It's a long season and good teams find ways to win this time of year."

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