Of all the places that would have Ryan McDonagh recalling the emotions he felt the night his Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders played for a state hockey championship, who would have believed it could be Madison Square Garden?
Imbedded in the heart of New York City -- where cabs and passersby rarely even recognize the men preparing to wear the red, white and blue sweaters of their hometown Rangers -- the building is to many the Mecca of American sports.
“It’s such a special place, but it can be intimidating,” McDonagh admitted. “Fortunately, I have some memories to look back on that make it easy for me to handle.”
One of those took place at a jam-packed Xcel Energy Center, where McDonagh capped his junior year by making a seemingly impossible task look relatively easy.
Cretin-Derham Hall roared to a state championship that year, beating Grand Rapids 7-0 in the final to conclude a tournament in which the Raiders outscored their three opponents 16-4.
“It wasn’t as easy as it sounds, I can promise you that,” said McDonagh a full five years later. “I remember how nervous I was, but I think the way we handled those nerves as a team then has gone a long ways in helping me out in those types of moments since then.”
There certainly have been plenty. McDonagh had offers to play in the United States Hockey League or the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., but came back to high school the following season to finish his prep career with Cretin-Derham Hall.
His senior season ended with an overtime loss one game short of a repeat trip to state – though he did add a Mr. Hockey award for his mantle.
The next year he was a freshman at Wisconsin, where by his junior season the Badgers would be at Ford Field in Detroit facing off with Boston College for a national championship.
In the middle of his college career, McDonagh, who was selected 12th overall by Montreal in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, was dealt to the Rangers. To him, the trade came in part because of the same desire he had in high school to return for that senior year.
“I wanted to come back and play as a senior in high school, and I wanted to come back and play as a junior in college,” McDonagh said. “I don’t think that was what Montreal wanted to hear, so they traded me.”
Like the responsibility he felt to reunite with his teammates at Cretin-Derham Hall in his senior year of high school, it was much the same at Wisconsin.
“There was a lot in common with the two decisions,” he said. “I knew we had a good team coming back at Wisconsin, and I wanted to be a part of it, just like we had at Cretin. I wanted to experience that season with my teammates.”
Thus, his professional career would be on hold, but not for long.
McDonagh signed with the Rangers shortly after the Badgers lost that title game to Boston College, and he was with the Connecticut Whale of the American Hockey League for 38 games before being called up by the Rangers midway though last season.
He played 40 games with the Rangers in 2010-11, and his first and only NHL goal thus far was a game-winner against New Jersey that clinched the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs for his club.
“Yeah, that was pretty cool,” McDonagh said. “I mean, just to get a chance to play in the postseason was going to be huge, but for it to be my first goal, yeah, that was cool.”
It still wasn’t enough to get him recognized on the busy streets of New York. That much has allowed McDonagh to find different and unique ways to make his way to the Garden.
Those travels, however, started long ago in Minnesota.
“I felt so comfortable at Cretin. There was no way I was leaving, and I wouldn’t trade that decision for anything,” McDonagh said. “Obviously we didn’t get back to the state tournament [in his senior year], but being able to graduate and be at home and be with the family for one more year was perfect for me, and I got to play baseball, and we ended up winning a state championship there. If I leave, that experience is gone, too.”
And because of it all, Madison Square Garden isn’t so intimidating after all.
“There is no place you would rather play as an athlete,” McDonagh said. “You get on that ice, and there is nothing like it. But when you get to go out on the ice at the Xcel Center for the state tournament, or at the Kohl Center in Wisconsin, you take those experiences and they help you kind of keep you emotions in check.
I honestly don’t know if I’d be able to play the way I do if I didn’t have those experiences before.”
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