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MacDonald Has Come a Long Way

By Jon Paul Morosi

Albany Times Union, December 8, 2004

TROY - For six days in the summer of 2002, Kirk MacDonald didn't know his life had changed.

He arrived at RPI on Aug. 17 and did what freshman do. He set up his dormitory room. He picked classes. He thought big thoughts about hockey, the big sport on this small campus. He was getting used to a new time zone, a new country, a new culture.

He was 3,000 miles from his hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. He was 18. And he was oblivious.

Ten days after he moved in, his father, Wayne, athletic director at the University of Victoria, had a massive stroke in his sleep. His left side was paralyzed. The doctors told Nancy MacDonald they were unsure if her husband would live and were fairly certain he would never walk. They would know more in a week.

Nancy wondered if she should call her only child, at college across the continent. She wondered if it would be worth it, to tell someone who was so removed, so powerless to help.

She was in the habit of talking with Kirk once a week. She chose to keep it that way.

"You're three time zones away," she said. "You can't just come home and see how things are."

But she thought someone at RPI had to know. She called her son's coach, Dan Fridgen.

Fridgen had been in a similar situation before. Earlier in his career, he learned a player's parent had died before a game and told the player afterward. The news was less stark with MacDonald but still delicate.

"It was very tough, knowing what I knew," Fridgen said.

Days passed. Finally, Fridgen received word from Nancy that Wayne, then 54, would survive. Fridgen brought Kirk to the back deck of his home to tell him.

"You always remember where you were at moments like that, and I think being in a family environment, in a home atmosphere, is the best place," said Fridgen, who lives in Troy with his wife and two children. "That's better than bringing him into a coach's office or going to the dormitory or anywhere like that. You do it in an environment they can relate to. We all have family."

"There's no handbook on that, when you're dealing with emotions. But that was something he dealt with very, very well."

At the time, Fridgen told him he could go home. But Kirk wanted to stay, a decision his mother shared.

"Being away from home almost helped because I didn't have to see how bad it really was," Kirk said Tuesday. "My mom didn't tell me a whole lot. All I could do was go to school and play hockey and worry about the things I could control."

So hockey became Kirk's haven. Practice started. The Red & White Game. Soon it was time to fly to Wisconsin for the season opener. MacDonald was "probably my best forward," Fridgen said.

Kirk called his parents. Nancy remembered that he was "so excited." But Kirk mentioned he wasn't feeling well. He had a cough. His father, wisdom unaffected, advised his son to get checked out. So he did.

Good thing. He had mononucleosis. "That," Nancy said, "was the end of going to Wisconsin."

And that, more or less, was the end of high hopes for his freshman season as well as his social life. "He wasn't even allowed to be around us with the mono," recalled Brad Farynuk, an RPI co-captain. "He'd be sleeping or in the trainer's room. That makes it kind of tough."

Wayne MacDonald remained in the hospital for five months. He did not lose his speaking ability but had to retire.

His father was in the hospital when Kirk came home for Christmas. Wayne gave his son a list of things to buy and errands to run. He checked it twice. "He did what he needed to do for us to have a Christmas," Nancy said.

Nancy said her son was "self-reliant." Fridgen called him "very low-maintenance."

"He's self-motivated," Fridgen said. "A lot of times, if he wants the puck, he'll go get it."

Gradually, father and son have improved. Together. Wayne is relearning to walk. Kirk emerged as a scoring threat last season, with 34 points in 39 games.

"His first year was so hard, but he survived it," Nancy said. "That says something about his character. That kind of thing sets you up for life. It shows you how to keep it all together."

Not that it is easy for the MacDonalds. Wayne, now 56, still cannot use his left hand and last week returned to the hospital for hip replacement surgery, which might help him walk better. Nancy expects he will remain there through the end of this week.

Kirk, once the leading scorer in Division I, has gone eight games without a goal - a solid month of pipes, crossbars and missed nets. RPI, meanwhile, is off to its worst league start (2-5-1) in two decades.

MacDonald, a management major, has a lot on his mind now. His father. His two final exams Thursday. A switch from wing to center, a position he hasn't played since midget hockey. He is relearning how to take draws. He takes regular shifts on the power play and penalty kill.

His fast start drew the attention of pro scouts, intrigued by his undrafted status. His potential to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars could hinge on how he plays each night.

And, oh by the way, he is 20 years old.

He has his friends, his hockey and his schoolwork - which, according to his mother, he quietly admits to enjoying.

He skates tonight against Providence. He may score a goal. He may not. RPI may win. RPI may lose.

"In sports, you have these cycles. It's unfortunate, but you can't get too discouraged. Sooner or later things get turned around."

Those are not the words of a hockey player or hockey coach. They belong to Nancy MacDonald, herself a living, breathing turnaround. Just like her husband. And her son.