A Way of Life

For over two decades Mike MacDonnell has laced them up and donned the stripes. From the grassroots of the game, to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the American Hockey League, the Riverview, New Brunswick product has seen and experienced it all when it comes to the game of hockey. Officiating the game of hockey for that long is a daunting task, for Mike MacDonnell it’s been a way of life. Saying his life is about to change would be an understatement, MacDonnell is stepping away from the game that has given so much to him. It’s one the toughest decision he’s ever made. “It’s really hard to put into words, it’s hard to say,” MacDonnell said when asked about his QMJHL and officiating career coming to an end.

“It’s a lifestyle, it’s just not a game, it’s part of your life. When you get into it you really have to be all in,” he added. 

MacDonnell realized very quickly that playing the game wasn’t necessarily for him, but the dream to make it as far as he could in the as an official was the driving force behind his path in the game.

“People don’t realize the amount of work that goes into it. It’s twelve months a year, it’s just not the hockey season, officiating becomes your life.”

Photo Credit Daniel St Louis

MacDonnell’s passion for the game and officiating is truly unparalleled. The common theme throughout his path in the game is giving back and being a mentor. That’s how he was brought up in the game.  He will never forgot the tutelage he received from other local officials over the years. Everyone involved the game needs a mentor. The refereeing fraternity’s as tight knit has any. That fraternity is as compassionate and fiercely intense as any hockey team. 

The bond shared between those that wear the stripes runs deep. When you wear the stripes it means something, it’s not about the pay cheque, it’s about upholding the honour and dignity of the game. You don’t have to talk to Mike MacDonnell too long to realize how serious he takes his place and role within the game he loves.

Like so many other Atlantic Canadians, the QMJHL is where dreams come true. The bright lights of the Q inspires players and officials alike.

“When the Q came first came to Moncton in 1995, I went to watch and as 15 or 16 year old kid. I had already been an on-ice official since first year Pee Wee.” 

Walking away from being a player was easy for MacDonnell, because he was hooked on being an official almost instantly.

“I had worked all the way through minor hockey and to be honest with you I didn’t really enjoy playing the game as much as being on the ice as an official. When the Alpines arrived on the scene we went to watch the games and as a young official you get to see guys like Guy Pellerin, Ryan Carrol, Andre Dupuis and my brother Dave. You go watch them at that level because you work with them at other levels of the game.”

The mentoring process in the officiating world begins with a lot of observations and evaluations, but nothing is better than the real thing the experience calling a game or doing the lines with people that so many officials looked up to and aspired to be. 

MacDonnell like an many others in the fraternity looked up to local officiating legends of the game like the late great Romeo LeBlanc, Bobby Jones, Tim Skinner, Larry “Magic” Christian during the American Hockey League days

Photo Credit Daniel St Louis

“I started working with them in lower levels and you just keep working your way up.”

By the time MacDonnell was in high school he was ready to take his officiating to new level. “By the time I graduated high school it just became what you wanted to do.”

Trips to the rinks three to five times a week were commonplace. That’s what it takes for any young official to cut their teeth in the game and in the profession. 

“By the time I graduated I was on with the Q guys.”

“We did a lot of summer hockey back in those days as well. I knew if I wanted to make to that level I would have to work.”

“I trained through all of 1997, worked hard and worked a lot of hockey.”

All the officiating through the early years literally paid off. MacDonnell put himself through college with the money he earned doing games. In 1998 the call for a try out with the QMJHL finally came, but adversity was waiting.

“I was told that year that I wasn’t big enough,” confesses MacDonnell. I was 6”1 tall and weighed 175 pounds. Back then they said that wasn’t big enough.”

“Doug Hayward at the time had a 6” and 200-pound rule.”

“He said if you weren’t 6” and 200-pounds chances of becoming a linesman in the QMJHL wasn’t really an option,” confessed MacDonnell.

At that point it could have all ended. The dream to officiate in the QMJHL and beyond might have over for MacDonnell. You could call it perseverance or persistence, those that know MacDonnell the best would call it passion and drive. You see Mike MacDonnell is relentless. He’s the type of person that would let an unwritten rule like the one Hayward mentioned be the motivating factor to proving everyone wrong and that’s exactly what he did.

“There were all kinds of guys that were bigger, older and better than me at that time.”

In 1998 with the arrival of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, the league would open up another tryout in this region.

“I didn’t get selected in 1998 either, so I went back again in 1999.”

“I put on a few pounds and if memory serves correctly, I think I weighed around 185 pounds. Doug said he would bring me aboard and give me a shot.”

The door of opportunity in the QMJHL had slightly opened, but for Mike MacDonnell it was a chance of a lifetime. “It’s been a dream come true,” said a reflective MacDonnell.

“Back then you set a goal and say this is what I’m going to do. It’s gone by so fast. I can still remember being that kid, and that feeling when you get the call.”

Photo Credit Daniel St Louis

All of the sacrifice, dedication and hard work would pay off. MacDonnell would get the call to the American Hockey League during its final year of existence in the Maritimes.

“I was fortunate enough to get in the final season of the AHL when the Flames were still in Saint John. I also worked the American League through 2002 and 2003.”

“That was a big surprise, because I never really had that in the list of goals,” admitted the quiet humble linesman.

The American Hockey League during that time frame was extremely tight and very established with their officials. To crack the professional ranks during that era speaks volumes to the character and professional MacDonnell possesses. MacDonnell was offered a contract to referee in Texas as well after the Flames relocated.

“Going to the states for minor pro hockey wasn’t really in the cards for me. I had established myself as a mechanic at Taylor Ford. Terry and Jeff Taylor and the Manager Rick Thorne were super supportive of me refereeing hockey. They knew it was a high level and that there weren’t a lot of us doing it at the time.”

“I really can’t thank them enough for what they did for me. They opened the doors up for me.”

“They always said if you want to go ref, that’s fine, you’ll have a job when you come back. That took a lot of pressure off and opened my availability up.”

MacDonnell would get to witness and be a part of some great hockey at that time. Experience is a referee’s strongest ally. Being mentored at every level is critical for the growth and development of any young official. MacDonnell embraced and experienced the grind. From his bay in the garage to professional hockey, he never lost sight of the value and impact that hard work and relentless passion could have.

MacDonnell has called the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League home for the last 23 years. The long road to get there and stay there hasn’t been easy. MacDonnell’s longevity and passion is truly extraordinary. MacDonnell’s resume as a linesman is truly stellar. He has worked the President Cup Playoffs for twenty of the twenty-three seasons.  With an exception of one year, MacDonnell has worked every President Cup semi-finals since 2004.  He has three President Cup Finals under his belt as well. From the amateur side of the game MacDonnell has also been a part of seven CIS University Cup Tournaments, working five gold medal games there as well as the Allan Cup working a Final Game there as well. MacDonnell is also no stranger to International assignments as well working the World Under-17 Championship, 2002 U-18 in Slovakia and the Summit Series 30 year reunion series with all the World Junior Teams in 2012.

“Being able to step on the ice with some of those guys was quite something. You turn on the television now and you watch hockey games you start naming off the guys that you drop the puck for and chase around the ice is amazing,” MacDonnell said.

The long list of star players and current NHLer’s that MacDonnell has shared the ice is memorable, but it’s his fellow officials that have made the largest impact on his life, they have left a lasting impression on and off the ice.

“It’s the guys like Jean and Ghislain Hebert, Jon MacIssac, Chris Lee, Guy Pellerin, Frank St.Laurent and the list goes on and on, it’s just been simply amazing.”

Photo Credit Daniel St Louis

The obviously question for any athlete contemplating retirement is why now?

MacDonnell has pondered the question a lot over the past few months. The hockey lifer gets emotional talking about the end, but knows now is the right time to step away.

“It’s really difficult to step away.”

“It’s been a really tough year knowing it’s coming to an end.”

“I have a lot of long conversations and a lot of heart to hearts with the guys over this winter.”

“There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the years.”

“You know you never want it to come to an end, it’s an amazing honor to be part of it, just the camaraderie with the guys and being a part of something at that level is amazing.”

“There’s not many of us, we are a small group of guys that do a big thing.”

“It’s going to be extremely difficult and I’m going to get really emotional over the next few weeks.”

“I can walk away from the game with my head held high,” confessed MacDonnell.

That’s an understatement. Mike MacDonnell has been a tremendous mentor for so many up and coming officials in this region and across the entire QMJHL.

“I haven’t nothing to be ashamed of with the career that I have had with the length that it has gone. The older you get the more difficult it becomes.”

“The players are more physically fit than ever and “the old man” injuries start happening more frequently and the recovery time definitely takes longer,” MacDonnell said with a wry smile.

“It’s just been an amazing journey and you never want it to end, you never want to home, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it to thirty years.”

“I wanted to get to 25 years, but that’s not going to be in the cards.”

MacDonnell passed the 700-game mark this season which is an amazing accomplishment in its own right. The quiet, humble and private MacDonnell gets emotional when talking about the word mentor. “For me around the 15-year mark I was having reservations on whether if I was going to return to the league or not.”

“It’s a huge time commitment, it’s twelve months a year, it’s just not the hockey season. You have to stay in shape. The older you get the harder it is to stay in shape over the summers, so you need to be willing to do the work after the season.”

“At the 15-year mark I was looking at it more as passing on what I had learned.”

“The guys I grew up with like Bobby Jones, Tim Skinner, Donnie Gaudet and Romeo LeBlanc wanted to hand down their knowledge and they opened the door for us to continue on.”

“They taught us how to do it, how do it the right way, what to look, how to look for it,” said MacDonnell proudly.

“The way I looked at it for the last number of years was I have to help these kids out and the guys coming a long that want to do it and to give back to the program, because the program gave so much to me.”

MacDonnell is quick to credit officiating for keeping him out of trouble as a young kid growing up. Officiating become a way of life so early on in his life. The game meant the world to him. The people within the game became much more than colleagues, they became lifelong friends.

“I wanted to give back to the game, and I will still give back,” he said.

Stepping away from the QMJHL now will provide MacDonnell more time to give back and help young kids who wear the stripes.

Photo Credit Daniel St Louis

“I find it very instrumental to be on the ice with the young officials to work with them. TV timeouts are a huge advantage now because you can talk with them a couple minutes after something happened instead of waiting after the period or game to discuss it.”

“I have watched Mike Mac for over 25 years,” said longtime AHL referee and QMJHL Supervisor of Officials Larry “Magic” Christian. “From days with Hockey New Brunswick to the QMJHL Mac also worked in the AHL after I had retired. Mac has great passion for the game.”

“He’s a great mentor for younger officials and was always a sponge in the dressing room.”

“His rule knowledge is outstanding and has helped other officials make the right call in sometimes difficult situations,” added Christian. 

Christian’s final thought on Mike McDonnell is perhaps the greatest compliment of all. 

“One thing I admired about Mike was he always open to constructive criticism, 9 times out of 10 he would tell me what went wrong or could improve before I could say anything. That’s the sign of seasoned experienced official, always looking to be better each game you really can’t ask for anything more than that.”

“The last few years I’ve really enjoyed working with the young kids in the league more so than the guys of my own age. I really enjoy seeing a kid coming up through working with them and talking to them and seeing them succeed,” explained MacDonnell.

Mike MacDonnell’s impact on one young official changed the trajectory of their career and propelled them to the National Hockey League.

“I still remember the night, I’m working the 2014 Moncton Wildcats Training Camp Red and White game and at that time I’m slowly coming up the ranks in the area,” said Boutouche, New Brunswick product and current NHL linesman Jesse Marquis.

“It’s my first game I’m working of that caliber and Mike Mac is in attendance to supervise the crew.”

“I don’t remember who both referees were, but I do remember who my partner on the lines was, he was four years younger than me. So, we all go out, work the game and Mike comes in after the game to give us his supervision.”

“I’ll never forget this, he walks in the room in kinda slow motion with his intimidating presence and he turns towards me and says “‘all the good things I’ve heard about this young guy from Bouctouche, I did not see any of it tonight.’”

‘“Did you even try tonight?”’

Photo Credit Daniel St Louis

“I was so shook by this supervision, I went home and cried,” confessed Marquis.

“The quality I like the most about Mike is that he’s brutally honest.”

“He gave me the kick in the behind that I needed to make me realize what needed to be done to make it all the way and he did just that by taking me under his wing for two seasons in the Q.”

There’s no question Marquis was on a fast track to the pros due in large part to MacDonnell’s tutelage and mentorship. What happened next is truly incredible. 

“When I got hired by the NHL, I made sure to call Mac and to thank him for everything he did for me along the way. I got to honour him by choosing his number for the rest of my career,” said a reflective Marquis. 86 in the QMJHL, 86 now in the NHL. 

“I really can’t describe what that meant to me and I get really emotional thinking about that,” MacDonnell said of Marquis taking his number.

A bond that can never be broken, forged by a raw, honest friendship and mentorship. Jesse Marquis and Mike MacDonnell share the same number and unrelenting passion and love for officiating and the game of hockey.  Being involved in the game of hockey is a lifestyle, but it can definitely take a toll on family life.

The sacrifices made for the game of hockey at times is truly insurmountable when it comes to loved ones. The trips through the winter months provide constant stress and worry is extremely difficult on families.

“Everyone on the outside sees us refereeing a hockey game at the Avenir Centre or they are running down after work to jump in the car and watch us on the ice and everything looks great, but the thing that people don’t see or realize is the driving for five hours and getting there right at 6 pm before the game, having to leave Moncton at noon, eating in the car, get out, work a hockey game and then get back in the car and drive home.”

“It’s hard when it starts to snow or freezing rain and two or three of the guys in the car with you have to get up at 7am to go to work the next day.”

The long hours in the car might be some of the best times with officiating friends and colleagues, but they are the most stressful at times for sure for all the stripes that call the QMJHL and CHL home.

“Being central and based out of Moncton definitely added to the career,” MacDonnell said with regards to the wear and tear and toll of travel over the years.

“As for the support system and family, well my family have been dealing with that since my brother entered the league in 1994-1995, plus working the American League and down through the states.”

“I’m sure my family doesn’t like to see it ending for me, but I think they pretty happy because when they are looking outside and seeing it snowing or storming that they know that I won’t be driving home from Bathurst, Cape or Halifax will be a relief for them. My fiancé will be really happy that there won’t be as many Friday or Saturday nights that I will be on the road or at games,” admitted MacDonnell with a smile.

“That’s another thing people or fans don’t see, we are doing five to six games a month, 80 percent of your games are on Friday and Saturday nights or on Sunday’s, so we spend a lot of time away from our families.”

“Everyone has to be on board, it just doesn’t affect yourself, it’s a complete lifestyle. Your employer has to be on board as well.”   MacDonnell is simply blown way looking back at the treatment he received at Taylor Ford and his current employer Medavie Health Services for giving him the opportunity to live out his dream as an official.

No one knows Mike MacDonnell better than longtime friend and QMJHL referee Moe LeBlanc.

“If I had to sum up Mike’s officiating career in a few words, I’d have to start off with the “Professional.” “Mike always represented himself to highest of standards on ice. His work ethic, resiliency and consistency that he put into officiating have been rewarded by working multiple high profile Tournaments, National Championships and International assignments and of course playoff games.”

LeBlanc and MacDonnell cut their teeth together coming up through the ranks. Friends and allies, LeBlanc and MacDonnell forged a bond like no other.

“Mike and I grew up refereeing in the Riverview Minor hockey system together since the early 90’s.” “We worked a lot of games together growing up, but lots of very important games. Not only was he a great linesman partner, but he was always your biggest competition to make it to the big game,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc gets emotional when reflecting and talking about his friend.

“All these years, all these games, you knew and expected that Mike would be one of the first guys to contact you with a “congrats” if you made it to the next round in the playoffs or chosen for a tournament or a big assignment, that’s the time of official and person he his.”

“The second and third words that comes to mind when I think about Mike is mentor and teacher. Later on his journey, Mike made the transition to becoming the calm old vet who would take a lot of young “green” rookies under his wing. He’s still going to rinks supervising and guiding young officials in all different leagues, which is really inspiring if you think about it.”

As for the other veterans of within the QMJHL well MacDonnell was the professor when it came to the rule book! “He was always the teacher for us old guys,” said LeBlanc.

“If we didn’t know the rules, it’s a guarantee Mike did, or he wouldn’t sleep until he found it.”

Class was always in session when Mike MacDonnell patrolled the lines in the rinks all over the Maritimes and Quebec. The “Professor” is stepping away from the ice, but that doesn’t mean he won’t keep teaching.

What advice would Mike MacDonnell say to any young aspiring official wanting to make a career out of wearing the stripes?

“You have to do it because you love the game. You have to do it because you want to be involved.”

“Don’t listen to the negative, if you’re having fun and it’s what you want to do, than just go do it.”

“As you’re working up through it, just be the best at every level you are at. Be the best that you can be in the moment or league where you are. I would tell them to ignore the negative, it’s extremely difficult especially for young people to ignore the abuse, most of the people that are yelling at them have got a clue, they are yelling because they can.”

“The hardest thing that young officials have to do is to stand up to adults, because we are taught to respect your elders and then all of sudden you have to reverse the role.”
“I would also tell them to hold their heads high, you have to be out there because you love it, you can’t be out there for any other reason.”

Mike MacDonnell’s time the QMJHL is coming to an end. It’s time  to leave the game and league that he loves and that has given him so much over the years.

“It’s been a complete honour to be involved in the game. It’s definitely going to be a shock to the system,” MacDonnell said of seeing his Q career come to an end.

“I’ll be a mentor, I’ll be around, I’ll keep working with the young people coming up and hopefully there will be another Jesse Marquis coming up through soon.”

“There’s definitely a sense of pride seeing the young guys that I have worked with having success by making it to the finals or get the big assignments,” said MacDonnell.

“Seeing the young guys come up and see them getting their assignments now is an accomplishment, it gives you some pride and makes me glad that I hung around.”

“There were a lot of years that you would focus on yourself to see how long or where I was going to go, the goals or making it to the finals. The last number of years for me it more about working with the young kids. Sure, the finals were important to me, but to see the young kids doing it and working their way up was just as rewarding and pride put into that for me than actually working the hockey.”

When MacDonnell steps on and off the ice for one last time who will he be thinking about and what will be going through his mind?

“You want to be able to thank all the people that have been there.”

“From family, to other officials, two in particular like the late Ron Smyth and the late Romeo LeBlanc will all be going through my mind,” said an emotional MacDonnell.

There’s no question a lot of officials that MacDonnell has worked with over the years won’t miss his final game for the world.

“To be honest with you I don’t know what will be going through my mind when I step off the ice.”

“I think I’ll be thinking of the support system and I’ll be also thinking about in particular Graham Black and the Moncton Wildcats organization, they have been tremendous to me over the years, they have a really good management group.”  

The game of hockey and officiating was a way of life for Mike MacDonnell, that life is about to change, but his impact on the game and those that throw on the stripes will continue to grow because of his willingness to give back.

One comment

  1. Great piece of work here Craig. Congrats and good luck to Mike on his retirement. He should an inspiration to all up and coming officials

    Like

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