A chance meeting with Max Ivanov sent Lowell MacDonald into recall about his first encounter with European hockey and how it has influenced the NHL.
MacDonald was left with the irony of having enjoyed his best years in the National Hockey League when he was a star left-winger with the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the current edition benefits from the instruction of skating coach Max Ivanov.
MacDonald met Ivanov while he and his IHPRO staff were leading a recent hockey camp at the Pictou County Wellness Centre. MacDonald had just finished a workout at the Pictou County YMCA, and Ivanov was about to be driven to the airport for his return to Pittsburgh.
“I was going up to work out and got talking to people who were saying they were impressed with Ivanov’s skating drills,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald’s son Lowell Jr. broadcasts Penguins games and has seen both the skating and hockey skills of Ivanov up close.
“Max plays with ex-Penguins players, so Lowell has seen Max and is impressed with him,” MacDonald said. “Lowell said, ‘He can play; he’s not just a good skater.’”
Born in New Glasgow, Lowell Sr. grew up in Thorburn and starred with the East Pictou Rural High School’s boys’ hockey team, including their Nova Scotia Headmasters championship team of 1958-59.
Upon graduation, he played three seasons with the Detroit Red Wings’ sponsored junior hockey team in Hamilton, Ont.
In his last season before turning pro, MacDonald collected 46 goals and 39 assists for 85 points for the Hamilton Red Wings in 1961-62, the season they won the Memorial Cup. He had 17 goals and seven assists in 14 playoff games.
As defending champions, they were given the opportunity to play an exhibition game with a visiting Soviet hockey team and could bring back graduating team members, such as MacDonald.
“Nine of us had just turned pro and they brought us back to play on the team,” he said. “It was one of the first (Soviet) teams to come here. We were saying ‘Who were these Russians to think they can play with us?’ They impressed us, but not enough. They would finish a practice, go back to the hotel and start running, come back for a hockey practice and then play a soccer game.”
The Soviets enjoyed a 9-2 lead after two periods, and MacDonald recalled then Hamilton coach Eddie Bush entering their dressing room.
“He was embarrassed,” MacDonald said. “We played better in the third period and it ended 9-7 but it was a wakeup call for all of us. We’d never seen people train like that, and they could skate. They’d play off-wing. That’s just the way it was for them.”
That took away for MacDonald the shock of future successes by Soviet and post-Soviet teams.
“I thought I was a good skater but they had lots of good skaters,” he said. “I never made it to those Canada Cup teams, but I knew they were good and going to get better.”
MacDonald played briefly for the Detroit Red Wings for parts of four seasons and got acquainted with Pittsburgh during the three seasons he played with Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Pittsburgh Hornets.
He was part of a multi-player trade between Detroit and the Toronto Maple Leafs. There was only a narrow chance for him to meet someone he still holds in high regard — former Red Wings defenceman and Leafs centre Red Kelly.
The Los Angeles Kings chose MacDonald during the expansion draft in 1967 and named Kelly their head coach after he ended his playing career.
MacDonald, who suffered through a series of knee surgeries during his playing career, played all 74 regular-season games and ended with 21 goals and 24 assists. Kelly astounded the hockey scribes by leading the Kings to first place. They lost the opening round in seven games to the Philadelphia Flyers, but MacDonald contributed three goals and four assists.
It was also his last time playing on the same team at goaltending great Terry Sawchuk, whom he thought was the best goalie ever until he saw Dominik Hasek play.
MacDonald split the next season with the Kings and their AHL affiliate in Springfield, Ma. Injuries sidelined him for most of the next two seasons.
And Kelly entered his life in a big way. He was now coaching the Penguins and convinced MacDonald to join the team. MacDonald played 10 games at the end of the 1970-71 season, but Kelly also inserted in his off-wing instead of right wing. NHLers rarely played on their off-wing — Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Paul Henderson were two exceptions.
“You couldn’t get a nicer human being than Red,” he said. “After two years of not being able to play, he still wanted me. I never thought I’d play again. Then I got four and a half of the best years of my life.”
MacDonald flourished with his right-handed shot on left. He played two full seasons, recorded 34 goals and 41 assists and won the Bill Masterson Trophy in 1972-73 and in 1973-74 had his most productive season with 43 goals and 39 assists.
Knee problems eventually ended MacDonald’s playing career, but he followed that with rewarding work that combined sports and education in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee and has been living in comfortable retirement.
Former Pittsburgh Penguins star Lowell MacDonald, left, stands with Penguins skating instructor Max Ivanov beside the sculpture at the Pictou County Wellness Centre. (Goodwin photo)