Behind the Music
Quinnipiac AD Jack McDonald Had a Vision for What Hockey Could Be
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Athletic director Jack McDonald has seen this Quinnipiac baby grow into a man over these last 18 years.
And now, after years of putting this program together, not only does McDonald get to enjoy his team's run to the Frozen Four, but he will get there with a rival, Yale, that's just seven miles up the road. And they will both get there as the first double-ECAC-entrant to the Frozen Four since the conference split with Hockey East in 1984.
"This is a dream I hope I don't wake up from," McDonald said.
Players and coaches may win championships, but, in college sports, the ability to win them comes from the top of the institution on down. You don't need to have a win-at-all-costs mentality — you don't need to be Auburn — to succeed in college sports, but you do need a leadership and a president that values athletics as a positive force on campus.
The seeds for Quinnipiac's Frozen Four run were laid long before most people ever heard of Quinnipiac, back when it was still a college and not a university. Before it was in the ECAC or even in Division I hockey.
It started when Jack McDonald was hired by president John Lahey in 1995. Lahey was open-minded to raising the profile of athletics, and he hired an athletic director that helped him achieve it.
McDonald, though a track star at Boston College (he's a member of that school's Hall of Fame), arrived at Quinnipiac with a passion for hockey. He grew up in New England, the oldest of 11 siblings, and his brother, Gerry, played professionally for the Hartford Whalers. Gerry's son, Colin, went to Providence and now plays for the New York Islanders. McDonald arrived at Quinnipiac from Denver, where he spent five years, and hired George Gwozdecky to be the hockey coach.
Of course, McDonald had other sports to work with at Quinnipiac, but he foresaw the upside of a men's hockey program.
"Step one was to discuss with the president that men's ice hockey had a chance to get on the national stage a lot quicker because there's only 60 teams," McDonald said.
McDonald also inherited Rand Pecknold, at the time barely out of school, able to get by because he was coaching a team no one expected anything from in the first place. He might not have been sure what he had at the time, but McDonald stuck with him.
"He's the best AD on the planet, he's phenomenal," Pecknold said of McDonald. "He's hands off when it comes to me coaching the team, which is nice, but he gets me all the resources I need.
"Jack and our president are visionaries. In our early years, Jack was always saying, 'We can win in hockey, we can win in hockey.' I was saying it too, but it's great to have your AD saying it."
But having the plans in your mind is one thing, executing them is another.
"Even if you're on the right track, if you just stand there, you'll get run over," said McDonald.
At the time, the program was holding midnight practices on antiquated rinks, and playing a Division II/III schedule, a mish-mash of teams in the old ECAC structure that was untenable. So the first step was to take a leadership role in trying to get a new league formed. Soon came the MAAC, the first brand new Division I conference since Hockey East was formed.
Scorned and ridiculed at first, the MAAC, by increasing the Division I-playing membership, eventually enabled the NCAA tournament to grow to 16 teams. And spearheading that effort, as a member of, and then chair of, the men's ice hockey committee, was Jack McDonald.
"Nobody wanted (me) on the men's ice hockey committee, and we wanted to make a contribution then to get the tournament to 16 teams," McDonald said. "And here we are benefiting from that."
There were many skeptics. Why was this guy taking on all of this national responsibility from measley Quinnipiac? Was it to raise his personal profile? Maybe some of it was. But what's wrong with that? The bottom line is, McDonald's efforts clearly helped college hockey, and most obviously have helped Quinnipiac.
"I wanted to get on the committee, and let the committee know that we wanted to help the sport, which we did," McDonald said.
As the MAAC became Atlantic Hockey — McDonald helped push for the name from the beginning because it came first alphabetically — plans were being made for a new state-of-the-art facility that would house both men's and women's ice hockey, and men's and women's basketball.
That's when a little luck intervened.
Vermont decided to apply for admission into Hockey East, and was ultimately accepted. This opened the door for a new school to join the ECAC. As much as McDonald appreciated what the MAAC/Atlantic Hockey had done, this provided him with an opportunity to step the program up in class, to play with 18 scholarships instead of the 11 Atlantic Hockey was then limited to.
It came down to Holy Cross and Quinnipiac, and on the strength of the new building plans, Quinnipiac was selected.
"After that, the ship was moving," McDonald said. "We bought the land for a facility, and ... we built it the right way, for men and women, for hockey and basketball. It's state of the art. And from there, six years after, we're reaping the benefits."
All of the pieces were now in place, the scholarships, the conference, the arena. Pecknold was able to get better and better recruits, the league itself had been re-energized by its success and that of the Ivies.
"The rink, it's as good as anywhere," Pecknold said. "We don't get Matthew Peca and Connor and Kellen Jones with, not just a rink, but a phenomenal rink."
A rising tide was lifting all boats, not just within the ECAC, but at Quinnipiac itself.
"The men's ice hockey team is contributing to the great growth of Quinnipiac," McDonald said. "And sometimes athletics gets more attention than the other programs at a school, but we're thrilled to be part of it. ... Sports are a major part of the newspaper, it's a major part of the evening news. It gets probably too much exposure, but it is what it is. Quinnipiac is famous for our poll and our men's ice hockey team, and our medical school and law school. Those things are what drives the most traffic to Quinnipiac."
The Bobcats struggled to get over the hump for a few years, and just as they felt ready to, there was one final hurdle — keeping their coach. Pecknold came close to leaving before this season to take the job as Massachusetts. He ultimately decided to stay.
It's safe to say that McDonald and Pecknold are both pleased with that choice.
"I knew in my heart that he really liked Quinnipiac, but as an athletic director, you need to allow your coaches to explore those kinds of things," McDonald said. "But a favorite quote of mine is from Jimmy Valvano — 'Don't mess with happy.' And I said, 'Rand, do what you need to do for your family and your career, but give Quinnipiac your last at bat.' And he did."
And so here we are. It's hard to ask for more when you've already gone through a storybook season as it is, but allow McDonald to dream just a little bit further.
"The greatest rivalries are amongst the best of friends," McDonald said of Yale, which allowed Quinnipiac to play ECAC games in its building while the Bobcats' new one was being built. "We wouldn't be in the ECAC without their support. And I'd say the same thing about UConn. They were (both) by far the most helpful and cooperative. So to think, (next Saturday) we could both be fighting for a national championship ... don't wake me."