, Salem, MA

November 22, 2013

Hockey remains labor of love for Prep grad, Blues assistant GM

By Phil Stacey
Sports editor

---- — BOSTON — Kevin McDonald considers himself one lucky guy.

He’s happily married with two children and three stepchildren. He lives one town over from where he grew up. He loves his job and, unlike many in his line of work, doesn’t often have to stray far from home to do it.

A 1983 graduate of St. John’s Prep, McDonald is the Assistant General Manager of the St. Louis Blues, who were in town last night to play the Boston Bruins in a battle of two of the NHL’s premier clubs.

Having spent the last 26 years working in the National Hockey League -- 13 with the New York Rangers and the last 13 with St. Louis -- McDonald is one of the fortunate few who was able to turn a passion into a profession. He has worked in a myriad of roles, from communications and scouting to player development and management, and still carries the same enthusiasm with him to the rink as he did as a 23-year-old New York Rangers’ intern in the fall of 1988.

“It’s been good timing and a lot of luck,” said the 48-year-old McDonald. “I’ve had a lot of great experiences with a lot of great people. I’ve been able to get a ton of experience in different areas of the game and the business, all in a sport that I love.”

His primary job these days is coordinating the transfer of players (from the NHL to the American Hockey League and vice versa), as well as acquiring pro players. He works closely with Doug Armstrong, the Blues’ Executive Vice President and General Manager, while travelling to rinks in the NHL and AHL (with occasional college games thrown in) to evaluate talent. McDonald helps research and negotiate with the the agents of players who might start in the minors.

A self-made scout -- during the NHL lockout of 1994-95, he moved back to his parents’ house and basically taught himself how properly evaluate players -- McDonald is always on the lookout for players who can help the Blues.

He also provides reports on opponents and how they respond at the sport’s highest level. Last night, for example, he was taking a good look at Bruins rookie defenseman Kevan Miller, playing in his first NHL game.

Vladimir Sobotka is a good example of one of his ‘finds’. A Bruins’ forward for parts of three seasons, McDonald watched him play at both the NHL and, particularly, the AHL level in Providence and saw that he had all the intangibles the Blues were looking for in a bottom six forward: speed, skill, grit, tenacity, etc.

So while Sobotka (traded to St. Louis in June 2010) isn’t lighting the league on fire (3 goals, 6 assists, 27 PIMs in 21 games), he fits perfectly into the Blues’ scheme as a third line faceoff specialist and tenacious three-zone player.

“The Bruins and Providence Bruins are easy for me to see because of where I live (in North Andover),” said McDonald, rasied in neighboring Lawrence.

McDonald grew up playing for renowned power skating guru Paul Vincent of Beverly (”I still see him all the time, where he works for the Providence Bruins,” said McDonald) with the North Shore Raiders hockey program. Many of his teammates were from Marblehead and matriculated to St. John’s Prep, so McDonald went to see the school for himself.

“It was a good match and a great opportunity for me,” said McDonald, a forward who played for the Eagles under Joe Yannetti, then Frank Salvucci as a senior in the 1982-83 season. His teammates included guys like Shawn Shaughnessy, Eddie McCarthy and defenseman David Delfino; younger players such as Kenny Hodge Jr., Mike Kelfer and Andy Donahue also wore the Prep crest at the same time he did.

From there it was on to Boston College, where he played two years of junior varsity before “it was the end of the road for me.” Still, the experience proved invaluable.

“I just loved hockey, going to games and being around the game. It was a passion,” said McDonald. “I was roomates with Kenny Hodge and Eddie McCarthy there were both on the BC varsity, and I went to as many games, home and away, as humanly possible.

“As it turns out, I went to graduate school for sports management and had to do an internship (in 1988). My friendship with Kenny helped set up an interview for me, through his dad (Ken Hodge Sr.) with Phil Esposito, who was the GM of the New York Rangers. I wound up doing an internship with the Rangers for the entire 1988-89 NHL season.”

Esposito was fired by the Rangers in 1989 just as McDonald was ending grad school, and 35-year-old Neil Smith was hired by the Rangers. As the youngest general manager in the NHL Smith wanted to make some changes, and one of those was promoting the person McDonald did his internship with. That, in turn, created a full-time job for him as Director of Public Relations. Working closely with both Smith and the assistant GM, Lynn native Larry Pleau, he gained “a ton of experience.”

During the ‘94-95 lockout, he’d go with Pleau to college and AHL games (the Rangers’ minor league team was in Binghamton, N.Y., 5 hours away) and cut his teeth as a scout. Pleau would tell him what the organization was looking for in its game reports, and they’d spent the car rides home discussing what they had just seen.

McDonald won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994 and began scouting full-time for them in 1995. When Smith was let go by the Rangers in 2001 Pleau had already moved to St. Louis, so McDonald followed him and has worked for the Blues ever since.

“There’s a lot of similarities between the Rangers then and the Blues now,” said McDonald. “That year (1994) we were fortunate enough to win the President’s Trophy and the Cup with a whole lot of pressure on us. Now, St. Louis is up and coming and already considered a solid team, but we’re getting to that stage of no matter how you do in the regular season, it’s all about what you do in the playoffs. I hope, like the Rangers did, we can reach that final step.”