By Paul Svoboda Total Sports Quinte
John McDonald knows exactly where he’s coming from.
He’s just not exactly sure where he’s going next. Like a lot of us.
McDonald, 78, is the director of hockey operations for the Trenton Golden Hawks, a position he has held for the last nine years during which time the club has been among the top franchises in the OJHL. The Covid-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2019-20 OJHL playoffs just when the G-Hawks were set to square off against their arch-rivals, the Wellington Dukes, and has left McDonald wondering what the future will hold for the league — and, hockey in general.
“It’s bothering me to be away from hockey,” said McDonald. “But, we’ve just got to keep going. We’ll wait for Hockey Canada to determine what we do and go from there.”
Communicating with fellow OJHL executives in May, McDonald said several potential re-start dates were being discussed, pending approval from Hockey Canada and contingent upon the provincial government lifting lockdown sanctions. Realistically, says McDonald, he doesn’t see the league resuming activity until the end of October.
Meanwhile, he says it will be “a whole different world out there” when junior hockey is allowed to resume. Most certainly, says McDonald, there will be financial hardships for OJHL teams, including the Golden Hawks.
“What was the economic impact of cancelling the series between Trenton and Wellington? Wow!” said McDonald. “That’s about $70,000 we lost. Probably more for Wellington. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
When the OJHL is allowed to rebound, McDonald says it’ll be tough sledding for some clubs.
“It will hurt sponsorships,” he said. “And it will hurt attendance if we are required to social distance. If we have to do that, for us, we could see crowds go from 700 to 300 people. That’s $4,000 per game in revenue. A lot of money.
“In Toronto, where attendance is not as important for GTA teams, where they’re asking kids to pay-as-you-play, some families are just not going to be able to afford it.”
When he arrived in Trenton 10 years ago, McDonald said he looked south to Wellington in an attempt to “pattern our franchise after the Dukes and the success they’ve had.” So far, so good.
But the post-Covid OJHL could present major obstacles on the road to success for all league teams. Still, McDonald believes the Golden Hawks will survive. And for that, he credits the town.
“People in Trenton have been just great to the team,” said McDonald. “You go back to those old Belleville and Trenton Bobcat Jr. B teams and remember what it was like at the rink. You’d go there and see the crowd and people cheering and the look on the kids’ faces. It’s the building of a relationship between the town and the team and that’s one of my highlights since being in Trenton. We’ve been blessed.
“The town understands what the town and team mean to each other. People can relate to the kids. We’ve got such great sponsors here. They all put their money where their mouths are.”
McDonald is also quick to praise the support of Trenton mayors, including the late John Williams and, now, Jim Harrison.
“John was a riot, a great guy,” said McDonald. “He would always tell us when we had a request, ‘just do it, we’ll worry about it later.’ Jim has been great too.”
Whenever the OJHL gets back on line, McDonald is making no promises about his future with the Golden Hawks. Except one.
“Once this gets going again, we could have one hell of a hockey team in Trenton,” he said. “I’m trying to retire, but it’s like that line from the Sopranos TV series — I just keep getting pulled back in.”
And that’s not hard to do, for supporters of a man who has spent most of his life in hockey. Growing up in Pickering, McDonald’s father was a friend of former Toronto Maple Leafs Hall of Fame goaltender, Turk Broda.
“So,” said McDonald, “I was going to be a goaltender.”
After stints in Jr. B and a “cup of coffee” with the Leafs at one of their pre-season training camps in Peterborough, McDonald eventually gravitated to coaching and discovered “I had a knack for it.”
McDonald worked with the Streetsville Derbys, Markham Waxers and Aurora Tigers long before retiring from his regular job with Canadian Security Solutions and later moving to Trenton where, of course, he got hooked up with the G-Hawks.
“I was at the rink one night and somebody spotted me and that’s the worst thing that could’ve happened,” said McDonald, laughing.
He was back. And, loving it.
“Hey, what makes a great coach is great players and I had some thoroughbreds,” said McDonald. “But, most of the time, I had a lot of Clydesdales. And I loved my Clydesdales.”
So what keeps him coming back to the rink?
“Hockey is what you put into it,” said McDonald. “It’s probably cost me a lot more money than I’ve ever made from it, but there are a lot of great memories. You meet a lot of great people. You meet a lot of great kids.”
NEED TO KNOW: McDonald is a former OJHL Coach of the Year. He won the league’s Executive of the Year award in 2016.
Photos by Tim Bates and Andy Corneau OJHL Images