Jets first captain will have Winnipeg arena renamed in his memory

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Alvin at birth but Ab to everyone, McDonald was famous during his 14-season NHL career for winning the Cup in four consecutive years with two different teams: 1958, 1959 and 1960 with the Montreal Canadiens, and 1961 with the Chicago Black Hawks.

He also was the first captain of the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins and assisted on the first goal in their history, scored by Andy Bathgate against the Canadiens on Oct. 11, 1967.

Ab McDonald in his 1968-69 Pittsburgh Penguins card. Above: McDonald with Canadiens teammates Ralph Backstrom (center) and Bernie Geoffrion (right) during the 1959 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

 

In 1972, changing leagues in the twilight of his career, McDonald was named the first captain for the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association. He scored their first goal Oct. 12, 1972, never forgetting the milestone achieved for his new team in its first game on the road against the New York Raiders. Back home in Winnipeg that night, his wife, Pat, was giving birth to Kristina, the couple’s fifth child.

McDonald remains an admired champion in his hometown and throughout his native Manitoba and is adored for his tireless volunteer work. His impact is still being felt, many local young people benefitting from the foundation that his family created in his name after his death at age 82 on Sept. 4, 2018.

Ab McDonald with his wife, Pat, and their children in 2015. From left: Kristina Gottfried, Steven McDonald, Lori McDonald, Dave McDonald and Cindy East.

 

McDonald, a legend on the Winnipeg sports landscape, will soon be immortalized when the St. James Civic Centre is renamed in his honor. Plans for the arena salute have been in the works since October 2019, when Winnipeg city councilors unanimously agreed to a request presented by a community committee and the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, which in 1985 enshrined McDonald as an honored member.

Like much else, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the process. But renovations are in high gear at the recreation center — an arena, swimming pool and gymnasium — and a reopening this fall will see McDonald celebrated with a sign outside the building and tribute panels and murals inside.

Ab McDonald (second row, seventh from left, between Jean Beliveau and Tom Johnson) with the 1958-59 Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens.

 

“It is such an honor for my dad’s legacy to be remembered by naming an arena after him in the city that he lived and loved,” said Cindy East, one of Ab and Pat McDonald’s five children. “He was so humble, and we are so humbled that his city and community wanted to rename the arena to honor him and have his legacy passed on to future generations.”

Born Feb. 18, 1936, the youngest of seven children, McDonald grew up in Winnipeg’s Weston district, his hockey career beginning at age 15 in St. Boniface, Manitoba, on a junior team sponsored by the Canadiens. 

His rights owned by Montreal, he played in their farm system and that of Chicago in a shuffle that was wasn’t uncommon at the time before being called up by the Canadiens from Rochester of the American Hockey League for two games in the 1958 Stanley Cup Playoffs, his name engraved on the Stanley Cup for that championship.

Ab McDonald (second row, sixth from left, between defensemen Elmer “Moose” Vasko and Al Arbour) with the 1960-61 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Black Hawks.

 

Between 1958-72, McDonald played 762 regular-season games and another 84 in the playoffs at left wing for the Canadiens, Black Hawks, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Penguins and St. Louis Blues. He scored 430 points (182 goals, 248 assists) and 50 (21 goals, 29 assists) in the postseason. He finished third in voting for the 1958-59 Calder Trophy, the NHL rookie of the year award won that season by Canadiens teammate Ralph Backstrom.

McDonald was in a nine-player trade between the Canadiens and Black Hawks on June 7, 1960. He kept his Stanley Cup streak alive in Chicago, winning the 1961 championship on the left side of the “Scooter Line” with center Stan Mikita and right wing Kenny Wharram. He scored the Cup-clinching goal in a 5-1 Game 6 victory against Detroit after Chicago had ended the historic five-year title run of heavily favored Montreal in the semifinals.

McDonald played his final two seasons (1972-74) for the Jets, who posthumously inducted him into their Hall of Fame on Feb. 26, 2019.

Chicago Black Hawks captain Pierre Pilote with the 1960s famed Scooter Line. From left: right wing Kenny Wharram, defenseman Pilote, left wing Ab McDonald and center Stan Mikita.

 

He retired to St. James, home for himself and his family since 1967, volunteering to coach two junior teams while playing on various NHL alumni and local old-timers’ teams. 

“I can’t think of a more deserving person than Ab,” Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame president Don Kuryk said in 2019 after the arena rebranding was announced, calling his longtime friend “a true sportsman and ambassador of the sport.”

The arena campaign was supported from the outset by Special Olympics Manitoba, for whom McDonald was a decades-long honorary coach, recruiter of volunteers, mentor, and committee member.

“When Ab passed, everybody took a deep breath and said, ‘We really need to do something,'” said Murray Peterson, Heritage Officer in Winnipeg’s department of planning, property and development. “This is such a great project to honor such a great man.”

Ab McDonald and his daughter, Kristina, with the puck McDonald used to score the first goal in WHA Winnipeg Jets franchise history on Oct. 12, 1972, the night Kristina was born; and McDonald with Chicago Black Hawks legend Pierre Pilote in 2011.

 

The multipaneled McDonald arena exhibit will celebrate his love of hockey, community, and his leadership on and off the ice.

“By his actions, Dad taught our family to help the community where we could,” Cindy said. “He left a lasting impression on everyone he met, and every community and small town. Dad remembered your name and your family members. He genuinely cared, and you always felt that in his presence.” 

Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame; Topps; McDonald family; Getty Images

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