Friday November 4th, 2016

PHILADELPHIA – The long road back spanned 60-some miles on Interstate 476, the main highway extension connecting Philadelphia and Allentown, Pa., and opened for business on Oct. 6, 2015, the day Andrew MacDonald cleared waivers and headed to the minor leagues. It contained stops both humbling and illuminating, with signposts reminding the 30-year-old defenseman why his career had come to this. “Sometimes,” he says, “you just need a little push to help things out.”

Last season, according to CapFriendly.com, 139 NHL players carried salary cap hits of $5 million or higher. Aside from MacDonald, only one of those—then-Florida forward Dave Bolland ($5.5 million)—appeared in the American Hockey League at any point. Demoted on a conditioning assignment to cure his struggles, Bolland skated just twice for the Portland Pirates before persistent ankle injuries shut him down indefinitely. He is still recovering, currently residing as dead salary in Arizona.

MacDonald, on the other hand, spent four months and 43 games with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms after failing to make the NHL roster in training camp, facing an internal conflict unusual for others at his pay grade. “A lot of guys will go down, sit and pout: Poor me, poor me, poor me,” Flyers GM Ron Hextall says. “It’s not easy to be in the NHL for years and all of a sudden get sent down.”

The product of Judique, Nova Scotia, a small Cape Breton Island town of several hundred residents where “the idea of traffic is one car ahead of you on a rural road,” MacDonald handled the demotion with a calm befitting his roots. When Hextall offered MacDonald some time before reporting to Lehigh Valley, MacDonald was instead in the opening-night lineup against Syracuse on Oct. 10. Even then, some Phantoms wondered what kind of teammate they’d be getting. Those concerns quickly faded.

“We were all like, ‘Oh, man, if I was there, I’d be pretty mad too,’” says Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who was paired with MacDonald for a time in the minors. “But I think it didn’t even affect him. He just went through his daily routine.”

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To those around him in the AHL, MacDonald went all-in on the reassignment. He moved into the Renaissance Allentown Hotel, connected to the Phantoms’ home rink at PPL Center, while his wife, Hali, and son, Mason, stayed back in Philadelphia. Gostisbehere remembers MacDonald ponying up for everyone’s Chipotle during a road trip, buying a team meal after a big win, and shelling out for transportation for the rookie dinner in New York City, even though MacDonald never got to attend.

A 2016 Calder Cup finalist, whose mid-November recall to the Flyers’ coincided with their rise into the playoff picture, Gostisbhere also found himself learning from the intense nutrition regiment of his on-ice partner. “He’s got all these beet powders, crazy stuff I’ve tried,” Gostisbehere says. “That’s his thing. He’s the beet man.”

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Deep down, though, MacDonald arrived in the minors simply a beat man. He had slogged through a rough 2014-15 season after inking a six-year, $30 million extension with Philadelphia, and in hindsight says, “I just don’t know if my mind was totally clear. I was trying to put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. I guess it just got the best of me.” The assessment is brutally honest, and jives with what others noticed. “Unfortunately with players, you see it over and over when they sign a big deal, they want more from themselves because they feel like they owe it to the team, the organization,” Hextall says. “It’s one of the biggest mistakes.”

To his coach in Lehigh Valley, MacDonald’s on-ice issues were rooted in stagnancy. Scott Gordon had overseen MacDonald for two seasons with the Islanders, but received a different blue-liner than what he remembered. “He had lost his confidence,” Gordon says. “He became a bang-it-off-the-boards and get-it-out guy, not really play with the puck. He was playing a very conservative game just to survive. When you get into that rut of not playing with confidence, you’re always looking over your shoulder.”

Having Gordon, who allowed MacDonald to work through mistakes, helped. So did the presence of Mason, born May 4, 2015, now old enough to wave goodbye and give high-fives. And the recommendation of his Halifax-based trainer, who pointed MacDonald to a sports psychologist named Matt Brown. MacDonald began conducting telephone sessions with Brown, and on road trips dug into books with titles like Mind Gym and Confidence.

“It’s kind of a vicious cycle,” he says. “It’s that negative train you’re on where you’re like, ‘I’ve got to shake this.’ Then it happens again, and you’re like ‘I’ve got to stop making this mistake.’ You’re constantly worried about making that mistake instead of thinking that you’re going to fix it next time.

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“It just puts things into perspective for you. Sometimes you need someone from the outside that’s trained in that field to know what cycles you’re going through. Sometimes you get on a negative loop and you ride that, can’t really get out. You learn some ways to shake that and just how to deal with certain situations, how to overcome whether it be mistakes or feelings.”

Gordon, who in his eighth season as an AHL head coach says he’s never had someone handle a demotion better than MacDonald, believes his old charge rounded the corner around the fifth or sixth game. Hextall, meanwhile, saw enough to justify recalling MacDonald sooner than he did, but “quite honestly, I wanted to bring him up and we couldn’t. We had cap issues. We couldn’t.”

Though MacDonald played one game as an injury replacement Dec. 8, he wasn’t returned full-time to Philadelphia until around Valentine’s Day. He then finished the season with the Flyers, skating all six games during their first-round loss to Washington, spending roughly four-fifths of his even-strength ice time beside Gostisbehere.

“I think he knew that there was going to be an opportunity for him,” Gostisbehere says. “He’s an NHL player. Everything he did down there, you just knew he was going to get his chance again. I think that was his attitude—he was so positive down there, that he deserved everything.”

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Replicating the groove found in the minors, though, remains a challenge. His 5-on-5 shot attempt rate (47.18%), for instance, ranks last among all Flyers defensemen. Currently sidelined by a lower-body injury for at least the next week, MacDonald particularly struggled in a 5-4 loss to Arizona on Oct. 27, even though he struck his first—and through 10 games, thus far the only—goal of this season.

A ghastly first-period giveaway gifted a breakaway chance to Coyotes forward Anthony Duclair. A failed zone-exiting chip off the glass in the second led to former teammate Ryan White’s goal, after which someone hollered from the upper bowl at Wells Fargo Center, “You stink MacDonald.” Later, after finishing his scrum interview in the Flyers’ locker room, MacDonald was equally hard on himself. “Terrible game, personally,” he muttered. “No denying that.” Then that weekend, citing MacDonald’s need to rest and recover, coach Dave Hakstol scratched his second-highest paid defenseman.

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“That night and the next day, it was funny, it turned out that I got pretty sick and rundown that next day, and even Saturday, so the way it worked out, I guess they must’ve known before I did,” MacDonald says the following week, before logging a season-high 21:09 in an overtime win against Detroit. “Sometimes you just try to play through whatever it is, you’re not even noticing that you don’t really seem like yourself.”

To Hextall, though, it was a steadfast attitude that allowed MacDonald to earn another shot in the NHL. “He’s a quiet guy,” the GM says. “But to go down there as a six, seven-year veteran, whatever he is, and play your ass off every night, that’s enough right there.” His role might wane once Michael Del Zotto returns from a reported knee injury this month, but right now he’s still deployed with Gostisbehere, leading the team in shorthanded time and averaging 16:05 at even strength.

“I think the first full two years being here, really didn’t go anywhere near the way I imagined them to,” MacDonald says. “I just tried to keep a good attitude and focus that, hey, I’m going to get back up, I’m going to prove people wrong and show what I’m capable of doing. I still feel like I have more that I can do. It’s been a progression. I’m not happy with how it’s been so far, but I’m certainly not done yet.”

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