At just 5-foot-9, 165 pounds and 17 years of age, Eagle River’s Cam McDonald is leading defensemen in assists in the second best junior hockey league in the United States.
Junior hockey is for those with 1997 birthdates and later. So how does McDonald excel despite a strength and size deficit among players as old as 21?
Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich says the answer is skating technique, vision and will to compete.
McDonald has quite the hockey pedigree, so it’s no surprise he started honing his skating technique at the age of 3.
McDonald’s grandfather is Harry McDonald, who played such a large role in bringing indoor hockey to the Chugiak-Eagle River area that the indoor hockey rink in Eagle River is named for him. Cam’s mother is Shanda and his father is Reid, who played for Michigan Tech. Reid’s sister is married to Brian Swanson, who played in the NHL.
Cam said Reid did not put his son in hockey right away. Instead, Cam said he worked with a figure skating coach for a year or so before worrying about pucks or sticks. Cam has continued to make use of a figure skating coach, seeing one as recently as a few years ago.
Once he had the fine point of technique down, he made it sharper and sharper with practice.
“I loved to get outside when I was a kid and skate,” said McDonald, the billet son of Michelle and Terry Johnston. “I’d also skate in the morning with my dad all the time at the McDonald Center.”
According to Petrich, all that work paid off.
“He’s an unbelievable skater,” the coach said. “He’s probably one of the best skaters this league has seen. Even with his size, that allows him to get out of positions most kids can’t get out of. It also allows him to torture opponents.”
Combine that skating with McDonald’s vision, which allows him to anticipate where opponents are going and read the ice when the Bears are on the attack, and suddenly he can be successful among giants.
“He has great vision of the ice and probably is one of the best passers I’ve coached,” Petrich said. “It’s always tape to tape, even when it’s off the boards.
“It comes down to vision and seeing the geometry of the game. Not only seeing it but having the ability to accomplish it.”
McDonald says his passing ability comes from repetition.
“I’m a pass-first kind of guy,” he said. “A lot of guys like to shoot first, but I’m one of those guys that likes to pass and make a play.”
Even while speaking in glowing terms about McDonald’s skating and vision, Petrich is quick to point out those two things are not what makes the defenseman special.
“To me, what’s most impressive is he is playing in a man’s league where he is 2 1/2 years younger than most team’s average age,” Petrich said of McDonald, the second-youngest player in the league. “He’s probably one of the most competitive kids in the league.
“He will battle and compete every night and it’s impressive and almost addictive to be around. His compete level is why he is as good as he is.”
Cam said he is on good terms with his brother, Brown Bears forward Sutton, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t develop a competitive edge growing up and always competing against his brother.
“When you are going into the corner with a guy that is 6-3, 200 pounds, you need to have it,” McDonald said of his competitive streak.
It was the competitive streak that sold Petrich on McDonald during main camp. Petrich immediately saw McDonald’s skating ability and vision, but still questioned what would happen when a 20-year-old got sick of watching McDonald dance around the ice.
“A 20-year-old ran him hard into the boards and I thought Cam would get shy and turn away,” Petrich said. “The next shift, Cam hammered him at center ice. The selling factor was the compete factor.”
Skating technique, vision and compete factor have put McDonald’s career on a meteoric rise. Last year he played his hockey for a U15 squad and Eagle River High School, helping the Wolves to second in the Cook Inlet Conference and a state berth.
This year he has 32 assists in 51 games for the Bears, the most assists for an NAHL defenseman. He also has a goal and is tied for fourth among defensemen in points.
“It makes me think about getting better, getting to the USHL, college hockey and maybe pro,” McDonald said. “That’s what I’m working for when I’m out there every day.”
Petrich said Cam remains humble, and that helps him keep trying to improve. McDonald points out that when there’s a family like his critiquing the games, it’s hard to get too high on yourself.
“The sky’s the limit,” Petrich said of McDonald’s career. “He’s a Division I hockey player, no doubt. He’s probably talked to more Division I teams than any player in the league.”
McDonald’s immediate goal is to move up to the Muskegon (Michigan) Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League next season.
“We’re about what’s best for the player,” Petrich said. “If he can go there and run the first power play, get big minutes, do that kind of stuff, we’re not going to hold him back.”