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A Day For Old Friends
Celebrating the 39th Wally McDonough Day
Today marks the anniversary of a Princeton men’s ice hockey record that has stood for 39 years and is among the least likely records to be broken. I have been informally observing it for the past half decade as “Wally McDonough Day,” in honor of classmate, goalie and all-around outstanding friend Wally McDonough, Princeton ‘84. He set a single-game record with 61 saves on 66 shots against RPI on February 4, 1984.
I celebrate a game that Princeton lost to RPI 6-3, a tough break in the midst of a tough season; I can’t name many other celebrations of the short end of the score outside of Rocky movies.
This is a story about that game, but it’s really about how pearls of adult friendships grow around the smallest of shared irritants, the grains of truth that we analyze with decades of hindsight despite having wiped them away in real time.
On that winter night in 1984, with graduation looming, facing the puck drop on our final semester of undergraduate education, and content in our social standing as seniors, it was an exhausting night and weekend between the pipes for Wally. 66 shots is more than one a minute, coming in waves with brief respites while the puck is chased to the attacking end of the ice. Before fantasy sports, online statistics, or even laptops on which to record the game’s events, the statistic sheet was a best effort of over-tired students trying to capture the flow of a hectic game. Shots on goal are an even finer gradation of trust and judgment; a shot is “on goal” if it would have gone in absent a goalie. Hit the post, go just wide, or get tipped past the blade of the goalie’s stick and it’s a sharp angle movement without a tick on the shot register.
I sincerely believe this record will stand until we are old men. The game has gotten faster and the rapid-fire shot scrums in front of the net are fewer. Equipment is better such that defensive players will block shots knowing that knees and shins are protected by the best of high impact plastic and Velcro. Goalies are more mobile and protected by larger leg pads while their statistics are infringed upon by video, multiple camera angles and better tabulation.
That February 4th game scoresheet was signed by the coaches, phoned in to the league, taken to the hockey office and scoured for stand out performances. Wally put in a game for the ages – two full generations of hockey players have yet to top his performance, and given the statistical variation in shot-counting, his actual work load may have rivaled that of a Stanley Cup playoff game that went into multiple overtime periods.
Seven of the RPI players who fired a collective 33 pounds of rubber at Wally went on to play in the NHL. Adam Oates was a sophomore on that team, on his way to set an RPI record for points in a season (which he would break again the following year), and an NHL Hall of Fame career that set records for points and games played by an undrafted player.
We don’t always perceive greatness in its early form; we marvel at an hour’s stop time accomplishment and then go back to studies, parties, work, family, friends. Over time, those events grow larger in the rear view mirror as significance and context of the people involved are slowly exposed along their own post-event paths.
We don’t always recognize the people who will be our friends in the early minutes of friendship.
I don’t have a personal story about the game. I wasn’t there as I was likely setting up for a party on campus. My experience with hockey that year was limited to watching Patty Kazmaier play on the women’s team (more greatness) and an intramural team. I scored my first ever hockey goal assisted by my roommate and long-time friend Tom but didn’t keep the puck because it cost about as much as a beer, and the beer tasted better after the game.
My casual observance of Wally McDonough Day is a celebration of years of friendship. As I learned more about the game, and coaching, and experienced adult life (and loss) Wally and I began exchanging stories, usually rooted in our love for the game, or late hockey writer Jack Falla, or a bit of Boston Bruins trivia. Of all of the religions in Boston, hockey is the most fervently practiced, and Wally has been a Bruins acolyte since his youth. My ten years cheering for the black and gold pale in comparison but are appreciated.
Hockey re-entered my life as a hockey parent, manager and coach and in 25 years of youth hockey I’ve worked with a few dozen goalies. Each season I give a deserving under-8 year old player who is absolutely shellacked during a game a puck that says “Wally McDonough Game,” telling this story about my friend and some famous NHL players. I want them to know that good memories capture the dynamic range of experience, not just winning.
During one youth game at the Prudential Center practice rink, we ran into Chico Resch (the NJ Devils first goalie in 1982) in the parking deck, who asked my team’s goalie, after having just lost by a dozen goals, “Did you have fun with your friends?” Friends, fun, a sport we can love into our seventh decades, and waiting to see where the path goes next. And all of the stories along the way.
Happy Wally McDonough Day, and thanks Wally for your permission to share this story and for being a true teammate on the bench of life.