Hockey fans in the New York area
would never believe that John Kenneth “Jiggs” McDonald, the former play-by-play voice of the Isles from 1980-1995 and one of the most respected broadcasters
in the history of the sport, would ever have a reason to doubt his own ability.
However, after a few years removed from full-time broadcasting duty, McDonald, who has called over
3,000 games for the Islanders, Kings, Maple Leafs and Panthers during a career that has spanned over 40 years, was asked to
cover the first seven games of the Islanders 2006-07 season; a request that conjured up a myriad of emotions. Despite covering
a few games last season for the Panthers, McDonald was initially unsure as to whether or not he could perform the way he used
"I had mixed emotions," said McDonald, regarding his return to the Island after an 11-year absence. "[I was] nervous and frightened. I didn’t
want to embarrass anybody, especially myself. I haven’t done that many games over the past three years; I hadn’t
done any games since last January. It’s almost like the mentality of a player; not knowing if you can get back up to
speed or if you’re in game shape.
"I didn’t know if I could get up to speed with the Islanders and what was going on with them
or be able to reach the standard that I set for myself over the years. I didn’t know if I’d be able to achieve
that immediately. There’s something in our makeup or in the back of the mind that drives us to be our best. Some people
think it’s a sign of professionalism, [trying to maintain that level], but I just didn’t know if I could or not."
During the seven games, however, McDonald did a remarkable job filling in for Islanders play-by-play
man Howie Rose and introduced himself to millions of younger hockey fans who may have never had the opportunity to hear the
Hall of Famer call a game. He also reconnected with millions more that missed the sound of his voice and the keenness and
candor he brought to every telecast.
"Getting back into the coliseum was really special," he said. "I really appreciate the way people went
out of their way to show their feelings towards me. It was a great trip down memory lane."
Despite his love for the game as a child, McDonald never thought of becoming a play by
play announcer. Rather, he pictured himself doing something in the radio industry until a once in a lifetime opportunity came
his way and started him on his eventual hall of fame career.
“I had a fasination with radio from the time I was seven or eight years old, never
thinking of doing play by play until I started working at a radio station,”
said McDonald, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a broadcaster in 1990, a full 14 years before he retired from
full-time broadcasting duty.
“I guess I pictured myself more as a disc jockey or a radio personality. However,
the first station I was with, I had the opportunity to get into sports and a play by play opportunity came along. I just felt
that you could be yourself and be more creative [doing play by play than being being a disc jockey]. This was during a time
when radio formats were so structured, you only had so many seconds before each record, you really couldn’t have a personality.
“That first job opened so many doors for me and I found out that I really liked
doing it and I came to excel at it. I was fortunate enough to get that first job with the NHL and just went from there. The
feeling there was that if I couldn’t do it
at the NHL level, atleast I would have tried it and would have had to accept the fact that I wasn’t good enough,
but if I had stayed back and never applied for an NHL job, I would have always been wondering in the back of my mind if I
could have done it. I had to take a chance at it. Thankfully, it worked out really well.”
For many Islander fans, McDonald’s voice holds a warm place in their hearts for many reasons.
The last Isles play-by-play announcer to call a winning playoff series, McDonald’s voice reminds fans of players like
Billy Smith, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and the 1993 team that beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins
in a thrilling 7-game series without their leading scorer, Pierre Turgeon.
To this day, McDonald remembers a lot about that ‘93 team and was especially candid when describing
some of the things that happened during that very special year on Long Island.
"The memory of Dale Hunter coming across the ice and nailing Pierre [Turgeon] after he scored that goal
and going to Pittsburgh without him comes to mind," he said. "I remember asking Al Arbour, ‘If the league said you could replace Pierre with one player from the team you just
eliminated, who would it be?’ He just looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Dale Hunter.’ Hunter had the
heart of a lion, he wanted to win at all costs, and Al recognized that.
"It just seemed that the Islanders had Washington’s number in that series, no matter what circumstance they found themselves in, they were always
able to bounce back. The Capitals had a very good team that year as well, but Pierre was a tremendously talented player and [Glenn] Healy
kept the Islanders alive and charged. I can’t say that there was one particular guy that stuck out on that team, instead,
there were several very special personalities."
Despite the great memories he had while in Long Island and all over the world, covering hockey for
over four decades, McDonald believes that his relationship with his wife, Marilyn, to whom he has been married to for over
40 years, was the biggest factor in why he was able to have any success in broadcasting.
"You have to have a very special relationship with home to be successful in this business," said McDonald.
"In any guy’s case, the wife becomes the person responsible for raising the family. It doesn’t weigh in as much
when you’re in the New York market, but teams like Dallas travel more than anybody. In New York, we were home when we played the Rangers, the Devils, Philadelphia and even Hartford when they were in the league; we were home after
the game. But when you’re living in Atlanta or Los Angeles, as we were when I started doing this after just moving from
Ontario with two small children, you need to have a very special partnership and I did."
In addition to having a loving relationship at home, McDonald was also flanked with very talented color
commentators during his career, like Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion
during his tenure with the Atlanta Flames and Eddie Westfall, whom he was paired with for his entire 15-year stay on Long
“Bernie Geoffrion as a coach was a motivator, not so much an x’s and o’s
kind of guy and on the air, it was similar. He was the opitamy of color because some of the things he said would leave you
in shock in some cases, but laughing too. On occasion, he even fractured the english language, but he had a personality that
was just great for TV. The fans related to him,” said McDonald. “He wouldn’t over anaylze the action on
the ice, he had a way of enhancing what you’ve seen.”
“Eddie and I used to kid that we had been together longer than some marriages,”
said McDonald. He was different [from Geoffrion] because he understood the mistakes on the ice that led to goals or penalties
and was great at telling the viewers at home why a team was being dominated or why certain players had problems during the
course of the game. He did a great job describing things for the fans at home.”
Now, at the age of 68, McDonald has taken a step back from broadcasting and is ready to settle down,
living in Florida with his wife, where he enjoys fishing, bocce and spending time with his grand children and friends. This
may not be as exciting as the life of an NHL broadcaster, but you won’t hear him complaining any time soon.
"It’s different, it’s been an adjustment for both of us, but it’s been relaxing," said
McDonald, who boasted when mentioning a 3-week trip to Europe he recently took with his wife; something that would have been harder to do if he was still broadcasting
full-time. "I know eventually though, I’ll need to find a hobby or get a job at Wal-Mart or something like that."