McDonagh is old school at early age
Katie Strang [ARCHIVE]
December 15, 2013
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NEW YORK -- Watch Ryan McDonagh during the singing of the national anthem and pay close attention when it ends.

While other players disperse, shaking out their skates, strapping on their helmets and taking one last mini-lap before the puck drops, McDonagh remains at the blue line, still.

It's not until the American flag, and often the U.S. serviceman or woman carrying it, exits the ice that he skates off for the last few seconds of pregame preparation.

It's just a thing he does, he says, to show appreciation for his country and those who serve. It's a simple token of respect.

At a time in the game when the very notion of respect is a hot topic of debate, McDonagh represents a throwback of sorts. Still young at just 24, he embodies the old-school, blue-collar, meat-and-potatoes hockey player of previous generations, a player who embraces the concept of loyalty, commitment, honor and, most importantly, respect.

Respect is not just something McDonagh has shown, it's something he has earned -- from coaches, management and teammates alike -- in his time with the New York Rangers, during which he has quickly developed from a top prospect to one of the team's brightest stars.

"He's been by far our best defenseman," coach Alain Vigneault said in a recent pregame briefing. "Probably one of our best overall players."

In a season that has already been muddled with some tough stretches, including an abysmal nine-game road trip to start the season and the team's recent four-game slide, McDonagh's steadying presence on the back end has become even more critical for a Rangers club fighting to remain in the top eight spots in the Eastern Conference.

The head coach indicted his team's compete level and called out the team's veteran leadership this week, but McDonagh was one of the few players actually praised for his play.

Through 33 games this season, McDonagh is fourth in team scoring and top among Rangers defensemen with six goals and 19 points. He leads all Rangers in ice time with 23:52 per game, averaging almost two minutes more than his ironman defensive partner, Dan Girardi.

Those minutes might actually increase now with Marc Staal out with a concussion. His value to the team, now without both Staal and sparkplug captain Ryan Callahan (knee) due to injury, has never been more important. And his leadership role is certain to expand.

It has been steadily growing anyway since he inked a six-year, $28.2 million contract extension with the Rangers in July. The team's decision to lock him up long-term, rather than the standard "bridge deal" given to most players coming off their entry-level contracts, was a good indication of their plans for the young blueliner. McDonagh has tried to live up to such expectations accordingly.

"I feel like I'm taking a lot more of a role in that [leadership] department, speaking up a little bit more in team meetings, in between periods, stuff like that," McDonagh told "More importantly, for me, I think, is just to continue to stand up in my role on the ice."

It is a commonly accepted truth that an NHL defenseman is the position that takes the most time to develop. And though McDonagh's ascent has been rapid, his career arc has been somewhat unorthodox.

A standout at Minnesota's famed Cretin-Derham Hall High School, the St. Paul, Minn., native actually played forward in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, simply because he had so much offensive potential and the team needed some scoring up front.

Eventually, his phenomenal skating was just too hard to ignore. McDonagh was moved to his natural position in his junior year, when he helped the team to the school's first hockey state championship in 2006. He went on to be named Minnesota's Mr. Hockey in 2007.

"I've never seen someone skate laterally so well at that age," Cretin Durham-Hall coach Jim O'Neill told

That's saying something, especially considering O'Neill is now in his 34th year coaching. He coached McDonagh in baseball, too. The star athlete, a first baseman, outfielder and exceptional left-handed hitter (he also played safety on the football team for a spell) was always finding ways to impress his coach.

Most of the times it was on the ice or on the field. But sometimes it was not. Like the time McDonagh came to speak to a group of freshman kids as a mentor in a life lessons class, dishing out a preternaturally mature message.

"He said the only thing that was going to stop him from the NHL was not being good enough," O'Neill said.

McDonagh, whose even-keel countenance has often led people to believe he's much older than he is, was always mature.

"He's just a wholesome, solid kid and such an outstanding guy from every angle," said McDonagh's agent, Ben Hankinson.

Those around him credit his parents, Sean and Patty, and a strong family structure that also includes his uncle, former NFL quarterback, Steve Walsh.

The first time agent Chris McAlpine met him was while coaching him for a local fall league of the area's elite players. As a former NHL defenseman himself, McAlpine obviously recognized his skating ("he skates faster backward than most guys do forward") but was immediately struck by his commanding presence.

"He just seemed that much more mature than any other kid I'd met at that age," McApline said. "He does just have that presence, on the ice in the way he competes and plays, and off. He's a good teammate and he just exudes that, 'I'm a leader.'"

McDonagh went on to the University of Wisconsin, and this is where his development took an interesting progression. Heralded as a high school player for his offensive acumen, he was encouraged to embrace the defensive side of his game in college during his three seasons as a Badger.

No one was more instrumental to that end than former assistant coach Mark Osiecki, now assistant coach of the AHL's Rockford IceHogs.

Osiecki helped guide a young player with a special talent set -- "unbelievable athleticism" and an "incredible ability to pivot backward to forward" -- and further equip him with the tools to succeed. They worked on his positional play, his stick presence and his overall game. Osiecki never had to worry about the intangibles, though, because those McDonagh always had in abundance.

"He's so even," Osiecki told when reached by phone this week. "Hockey is a game of mistakes, but his ability to handle the ups and downs -- not losing the intensity -- but his pulse is even almost all the way through."

McDonagh insists that he's not entirely unflappable. He gets jitters before the game. He gets agitated when stuck in traffic. Even in the moments before his wedding this past summer to his high school sweetheart, Kaylee (also a college hockey...
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