At the age of seven, Jacob MacDonald was given a Colorado Avalanche jersey. It’s a moment he documents on his personal Instagram the day he received the call that he was being traded to the Colorado Avalanche.
“I am beyond excited to say that I get the chance to live my childhood dream with the @coloradoavalanche this upcoming season,” says MacDonald’s caption on his Instagram.
He lifts the jersey proudly high above his head, just a few months before his favorite team would lift the Stanley Cup over their heads, donning those same Burgundy and Blue colors. Now 18 years later, and a member of the Avalanche organization, Jacob MacDonald has come full circle, as he pulls the Avs jerseys over his head — this time it’s the real thing.
It’s been a long journey for MacDonald, one that’s taken him coast to coast in North America. The Colorado Eagles defenseman grew up in Portland, Oregon, where the game of hockey isn’t necessarily a main attraction, and it’s certainly not a hotbed of producing pro hockey talent like MacDonald.
A 2011 New York Times article ranked Oregon 47th among the U.S. states with an average of just two players per 10,000 in the state. The most recent data from USA Hockey has just 150 registered members in the age six and under class in the entire state, the same age Jacob would’ve been when he started playing in Oregon all those years ago.
Still, there were options out there, with the state’s main hockey attraction being the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks. For MacDonald and his journey to playing pro with his favorite organization, a Winterhawks game is where it all started.
“When I was five years old, my dad took me to a Winterhawks game...It was a good time for the Winterhawks and they were a good team,” MacDonald remembered, as he notes NHL players like Marcel and Marian Hossa were on ice for Portland during his first game.
“When I was a kid, I went there for my first game and then after that I told my dad I wanted to try it. After that, I put skates on the next week and then I never really did anything else. I always played hockey growing up and that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
His decision to pick up the skates and play the sport, however, came with limited options for the young MacDonald. He played for Mountain View in Vancouver, Washington, about a 35-minute drive on Interstate-5 northbound out of Portland.
The landscape of Oregon’s hockey scene has changed over the years as the interest in the game ebbs and flows — for a reference point, Winterhawks attendance average peaked at 7,500 during the season in which MacDonald attended his first game, while today the average sits at 5,500. Things have changed in Mountain View, too.
“That rink actually got bought out by a church,” MacDonald said of his old home ice. “It used to be two sheets and now the one sheet is like a church and the other one is the ice.”.
As the game grew smaller in Oregon, MacDonald’s passion only grew larger, and part of the reason for that — as is the story for so many other young athletes — is a credit to his youth coach.
Tony Finley was Jacob’s coach back in Mountain View, where he laid the foundation for MacDonald’s first few years on skates.
“Jacob trained with me for six years, starting at (when he was) six years old,” Finley recalled. “He picked up on the skating fundamentals and techniques very quickly...and Jacob’s skating aptitude is what really set him apart from the pack at a young age. Combined with his relentless work ethic and pure passion for the sport of hockey, not to mention his phenomenal parents — it was a recipe for success.”
MacDonald’s father, Will, also helped out the team and served as one of the coaches.
In a serendipitous twist of coincidence, the two youth teams MacDonald played for while Finley was coaching him were named the Eagles and Avalanche — the two clubs MacDonald now represents as a pro player in Colorado.
While hockey was a new experience for MacDonald at the time, it was also a learning experience for Finley, as it was his first crack at coaching.
“Jacob was one of my first hockey students,” Finley said. “I’m very proud of him and how far he has taken his hockey career from a little six year old.”
Coach Finley spent six years with Jacob at Mountain View and while the two haven’t talked in a while, it’s clear the impact each had on the other. For MacDonald, in particular, Finley laid down the groundwork of the necessary skills required to play hockey at a high level. His coach also inadvertently gave him a new pro team to root for.
“When I was a kid, (coach Finley) pretty much taught me everything I knew about hockey. He was from Denver...and he was an Avs fan so that just kind of rubbed off on me,” MacDonald said.
Finley found the Avalanche while he was attending the University of Denver and lived in Colorado during those years, where he developed a passion for its sports teams, in particular the recently-relocated Avs and the Denver Broncos.
“I’ve always had an affinity for Colorado teams since I moved to Denver in the early 80’s and saw John Elway play live during his rookie season at the old Mile High Stadium,” he said. “I was stoked when Colorado got an NHL club in the mid-90’s and I’ve been a huge fan ever since.”
Who would’ve known all those years later that one of his first students of the game would end up playing for his favorite team.
“Jacob was by far my top hockey student and player at a young age and my passion for the sport and the Avalanche club must have rubbed off a little bit,” Finley added.
Then, on June 29 of last year, MacDonald received a call from his general manager in Florida with the news that he’d been traded to Colorado. His story from six-year-old, Oregon-based Avs fan then getting the opportunity to play for that team had come full circle.
“It was excitement,” MacDonald said of the getting the trade call. “...having the chance to come up here, it was obviously really exciting to me.”
While the call didn’t come from Avs GM Joe Sakic — rather, it was Avs assistant and Eagles GM Craig Billington — the news was exciting nonetheless. Growing up, MacDonald always wore No. 19 on his jersey, an homage to his favorite player growing up.
“Joe (Sakic) was always my favorite,” MacDonald said. “He was also ‘Burnaby Joe,’ and I played a lot in Burnaby in Vancouver, B.C. because I would travel up there a lot for hockey since there wasn’t a lot in Portland. It was pretty cool to know who he was and he’s from Burnaby and all that cool stuff.”
Things are a little different now. For one, MacDonald now wears the No. 34 for the Avs and Eagles, and “Joe” is now “Mr. Sakic” to him.
“I got to meet him at camp and that was kind of a cool feeling. It’s a little different when he’s not a player and he’s more of your boss,” MacDonald admitted. “It’s definitely a different dynamic, but it’s still very cool to at least be able to say I met Joe, and my dad was pretty excited to hear that story.”
Now well-settled into his first season in Colorado, MacDonald is manning the Eagles blueline with the kind of skill that his former coach in Vancouver would be proud of. He currently leads all Eagles D-men in goals while maintaining a top-three position in points on the entire team at the halfway mark of his first season.
MacDonald is currently on pace to set a new personal best for himself in the AHL. And given his performance, it’s safe to assume “Joe” is keeping a close eye on him in his first season in Colorado.
“I love it here,” MacDonald added. “Obviously, the fans, they’re the best that I’ve played for. It’s been an absolute blast. I love Colorado and the guys here made the transition really easy too. This is a really tight-knit group of guys and when you come into an environment like that it makes it really easy.
“And added bonus, my dad’s over in Nevada now so he gets to come to more of the games here since it’s a little bit closer. That’s actually really nice, too.”