If there was one player who knew how to balance skill and grit for the Nanaimo Clippers it was Grant McDonald.
He recorded four stellar seasons with the orange and black, all while dealing with the likes of the Richmond Sockeyes, Delta Flyers, New Westminster Royals, and Powell River Paper Kings.
McDonald cracked the Clippers lineup as a wide-eyed rookie under head coach Rich Dutka in the 1985-86 season, where he scored 45 points in 49 games on the back end to go along with 74 penalty minutes.
“It was kind of a rebuilding year when I started with the Clippers. There were only three or four veterans who returned from the previous year so it was a nice clean slate for the team. It was community-owned at that time, so there was lots of local ownership and involvement. It felt like a really good team to be a part of.”
The Clippers finished with a record of 25-26-1, good enough for third place in the Coastal Division.
Taking his lumps
McDonald admits both he and the team endured quite a few growing pains.
“I remember it was challenging at the start because I was still in high school and not used to all the physical play involved in junior hockey. I eventually figured it out on the blueline, but after my first two seasons, I moved to forward (as I was) trying to develop some interest in getting a scholarship.”
“As you move up the ranks, you have to develop that grit and competitive edge because there were a lot more players who had better talent than I did. I think grit at that time carried you a long way in junior hockey.”
“There were lots of hits, lots of fights, and dirty play. I think there is dirty play now, but it’s more stick work. If that was happening in the old days that would have stopped with a drop of the gloves instead of getting back with your own stick.”
With the limited veteran presence they did have, McDonald thought the Clippers gelled nicely as the campaign progressed.
“By the end of the year, I would say we were quite a cohesive unit and fairly tight. We came from all over (to) the Island and the Lower Mainland and most of us didn’t even know each other when we first started. It was pretty interesting the first year to get to know the people and the players and how to deal with them on the ice.”
“Jennings was a rookie that year who could score and Cayford was one of the main leaders on that team. Brian de Leeuw and Bill Hardy were also really talented with good hands and Kent (Lewis) was a tough guy with hands and no one would mess with him because he was kind of a crazy player. It was good to have him back you up because if someone tried to take a piece out of you he would stand up for you.”
In 1986-87, the Clippers mired in mediocrity, going 24-27-1 and dropping to fourth in the Coastal.
McDonald felt the discrepancy in the standings was due to teams like the Sockeyes and Flyers getting the best players from the Greater Vancouver area.
“Back then, there wasn’t a lot of picking up players from other parts of the province. A lot of our players were strictly from Vancouver Island so there was less of a pool to pick from. There was quite a battle in picking from the larger pool in the south and I think we did fairly well.”
What Nanaimo lacked in skill, it made up for in toughness. The Clippers had no shortage of guys who enjoyed the rough stuff including Mike Knapton (239 PIMs), Laurence Amy (309 PIMs), Cory Manton (384 PIMs), and Craig Frankfort (542 PIMs).
“They were the tough guys who would never back down. Franky (Frankfort) would fight anybody at any time. It didn’t matter if he won or lost – that didn’t bother him because he would step up and stick up for his players. I don’t remember it being any rougher than the years before, perhaps we just had to start sticking up for ourselves,” added McDonald.
McNabb takes over
McDonald found his scoring touch in year three with Nanaimo as he moved from defense to forward and notched 63 points in 49 games. However, it was a coaching change that spurred the Clippers on.
“I am not going to bad mouth any former coaches on a team but I think Rich had just run his course with his style and a lot of us had been with him for almost three (years). We just needed a change. That is when Larry McNabb stepped in and he had quite the name and the character. He was a pretty tough, hard-nosed guy, but a huge heart to play for.”
“He was very generous to the players in giving us lots of leeway in what we could do, but if we did something wrong you didn’t want to be on the bad side of Larry.”
Nanaimo finished with a respectable 28-20-4 mark, only ten points back of the Sockeyes for top spot in the division.
McDoanld adds that the old Civic Arena in Nanaimo had a Boston Garden-type feel to it, which made the playing experience more special.
“It was a phenomenal place to play. The old Civic Arena was a very small ice surface and the stands were kind of steep so the fans were on top of the ice and we often filled the rink. The fans were very boisterous and it was a pretty nice place to be on that side of the coin.”
“I’m not sure we sold out every time but when we could get a thousand or so fans, it felt like there were five thousand. It was really cool.”
In his final season with the Clippers, McDonald took another step in securing a scholarship by registering 36 goals and 62 assists in 55 games under legendary bench boss Bill Bestwick.
Nanaimo finished 32-25-3 in 1988-89, eventually going toe-to-toe in a hard-fought seven-game series against the New Westminster Royals.
“I was fortunate to have Finner (Todd) and St. Cyr (Gerry) on my line and they worked really well together. They both fed me a lot of goals in the slot and when I fed pucks to Todd, a lot of times he would score,”
Wisconsin, here he comes
After exhausting his junior eligibility, McDonald headed to Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He admits (that) while the jump from Nanaimo to the US Midwest was tough, McDonald was happy to be in a region where hockey mattered.
“The Wisconsin, Minnesota, (and) Illinois areas are very much hockey states so it was a nice transition that way because they knew their sports and were very familiar with the game.”
“We had lots of community support because before I went there, they had won the national championship so I was walking into a place that had lots of success.”
McDonald played a combined 14 games in his first two seasons with the Pointers, but found his stride as a junior and registered seven points in 35 games.
In his senior season, McDonald was named team captain and recorded four goals and 14 assists in 31 games.
“We ended up winning the national championship and it was kind of cool that I got to take the trophy out of the presenter’s hands. It’s interesting, a lot of the players (on our team) had so much skill and never got a Division I scholarship. Wisconsin Stevens-Point had some history of success and it attracted all the players who didn’t get a Division I scholarship and wanted a successful program to go to.”
“We were tied up in the national championship game with about five minutes left and my defense partner coughed it up, and the opponents scored. A couple minutes later I walked into the high slot and scored, which tied it up and brought us into overtime, where we won it within the first few minutes.”
Today, McDonald is a chartered professional accountant for Church Pickard in Nanaimo, which he is also 50 percent owner of.