On Feb. 9 of this year, Kenai River Brown Bears forward Sutton McDonald did all the little things right in getting to the net for a second-period goal to give his squad a 2-1 lead against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights.
Although the Bears would go on to lose the game, McDonald, of Eagle River, was unprepared for what happened when he showed up for the next day’s game.
“I was doing the little things right to get that goal so I was happy with myself,” said McDonald, 19. “The next day I went into the locker room and my name wasn’t in the lineup.
“I looked at the guys like, ‘What’s going on?’”
What was going on was Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich was happy about that goal, but not satisfied with almost everything else Sutton did in that game.
“He was really pissed when I scratched him,” Petrich said. “We watched the film on Monday and he understood why.
“He really took off from there.”
McDonald would finish the rest of his first season with the Brown Bears by skating with the top line and not getting scratched again.
Last season, he finished with seven goals and three assists in 49 games. This season, he already has three goals and two assists in eight games.
The McDonald name is one of the most famous in Alaska hockey. The Chugiak-Eagle River area’s indoor rink is named for Sutton’s grandfather, Harry McDonald.
Sutton is the son of Shanda and Reid McDonald. Reid played for Michigan Tech, while Reid’s sister, Lynn, is married to Brian Swanson, who played in the NHL.
Then there’s Sutton’s younger brother, Cam, who played for the Brown Bears last season before moving to the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the country, this year. Cam has committed to Providence College, one of the top hockey programs in the country.
Sutton said Cam has been a natural since putting on skates. For Sutton, it’s been a different story.
“I was never blessed with any natural skill,” Sutton said. “I had to work at everything.
“I had to work hard on a good shot. I have to work hard on having hockey sense. Nothing ever came easy.”
A common misconception when success runs along family lines in athletics is that it’s due to genes. Just as important, though, is parents knowing what it takes to succeed and showing their progeny the way.
Sutton said that has been the case for himself. Whenever he has hit a stumbling block in his game or his career, Reid has always been there to get to the rink with him at 6 a.m. until the hurdle has been cleared.
For instance, Sutton did not make an AAA team when he was 16. He reacted to that the identical way he would react to Petrich scratching him.
“My whole career, I’ve always been overlooked,” McDonald said. “It was the same thing.
“It made me realize I was missing some parts to my game. I got better and my game took off from there.”
When McDonald made the Brown Bears last year, he was a senior in high school with only one year of AAA hockey under his belt.
“Sutton was only a senior in his first year here,” Petrich said. “He had a lot of growing to do. That’s why you saw the ups and downs.
“The next level for him is being more consistent.”
McDonald said his confidence is making him more consistent this season. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound skater also pointed to the expertise of assistant coach Dan Bogdan.
“When I was 15, I grew 3 or 4 inches out of nowhere,” McDonald said. “It was hard to get used to it. I’m still not fully used to it.”
McDonald said the biggest casualty of the growth spurt has been his skating. That’s where Bogdan comes in.
“He knows what he’s doing, for sure,” McDonald said. “He’s helping us with whatever we want to get better at, so he’s helped me with my individual skills and skating.”
While the growth spurt has forced a tough adjustment, it’s a positive as colleges start sizing McDonald up. He has one year of junior eligibility left after this season.
“He has great hands and a great frame, but he still has to grow into his frame,” Petrich said. “He still needs 10 to 15 pounds on his butt and his thighs.”
McDonald, the billet son of Michell and Terry Johnston, is happy he has the chance to continue to mature in Alaska.
Sutton said he valued playing with Cam, who he calls his best buddy, at Eagle River High School in the 2016-17 season and with the Brown Bears last season.
“I always used the think when I got to this league, I’d want to play for a team out of state,” McDonald said. “Now, when we’re gone for three or four weeks, I really miss Alaska.
“I don’t get homesick when I’m down here. I just get homesick when I’m out of Alaska.”