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Of McNally and Miracles: Star Defenseman Returns to Ice

Patrick McNally participates in a practice at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y. a day before the ECAC tournament semifinals.
Patrick McNally participates in a practice at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y. a day before the ECAC tournament semifinals. By Michael D. Ledecky
By Michael D. Ledecky, Crimson Staff Writer

With ticks to go in the Game 3 rubber match of the ECAC tournament quarterfinals, the Yale men’s ice hockey team held a 2-1 lead, its anaconda-like defense suffocating Harvard’s attack in a seemingly inevitable fashion.

Yale had yet to lose a game in 2014-2015 when leading after two periods. The Crimson, meanwhile, had yet to win a game when trailing after two. The visitors had provided little indication of reversing that trend with a stifled effort out of the intermission.

“This game is over,” Josh Seguin of College Hockey News tweeted from the press box with about four minutes to go. “Harvard has done nothing this period.”

Around then, things began to change—innocently enough at first.

Harvard junior Desmond Bergin saucered a pass to fourth-year forward Colin Blackwell, who pirouetted over the red line. As he cut into the Yale zone, he took out the stick of Bulldog junior Ryan Obuchowski, who skated after it as Crimson forwards crowded the crease and Blackwell moved to his backhand.

Two seconds later, Obuchowski and the 2,500-odd witnesses at Ingalls learned a valuable lesson:

Never, ever count out Patrick McNally.

***

Bergin struggles to contain his amazement.

“From an uneducated point of view—I wasn’t in on all the doctor’s meetings and stuff—but just knowing his injury, it almost seems comical or miraculous that he’d be able to play in so short a time,” Bergin says. “But he kept saying that he was going to be back for the playoffs.”

Bergin is fielding a call about McNally—his partner on the Crimson’s first defensive pair. It’s Tuesday morning, three days before the ECAC tournament semifinals in Lake Placid, N.Y., where No. 17/15 Harvard (19-12-3, 11-8-3 ECAC) will play No. 7/7 Quinnipiac (23-10-4, 16-3-3).

Less than 36 hours earlier, Harvard had eliminated Yale, 3-2, in a double overtime contest—the longest ever in the schools’ 250-game series. With just over three minutes left in regulation, McNally had connected on Blackwell’s backhanded assist to tie the game. Then with just over three minutes left in the second overtime period, McNally provided the shot that led to junior forward Jimmy Vesey’s game-winning strike.

But for all the fourth-year defenseman’s late-game heroics, Bergin is just amazed that McNally was skating next to him.

Near the end of the call, Bergin tries to amend his comments, saying that he doesn’t want McNally to take them the wrong way. Later that evening, McNally reacts to Bergin’s words good-humoredly.

“I’ve never really dealt with an injury like this before, so I would not really have the knowledge to call it ‘miraculous’ or ‘not miraculous,’” McNally says. “I can’t really put a name to what I’m doing.”

***

McNally entered 2015 on a roll. By the turn of the calendar year, the Glen Head, N.Y., native was leading all NCAA Division I defensemen in points per game on a team that ranked first in every objective measure for ranking college teams—from win percentage to PairWise. He received a national nod as a nominee for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award—hockey’s Heisman—on Jan. 9.

But on Jan. 23 in Ithaca, McNally’s—and the Crimson’s—season changed forever. Less than six minutes into Harvard’s rivalry game at Lynah Rink, McNally’s left skate caught the stick of a Cornell forward behind the play near the Harvard goal. McNally vainly tried to support himself on his right leg, which crumpled underneath him.

Later that week, McNally learned that he would miss the remainder of the regular season.

“I will be out for probably the remainder of the season, but there is a chance that I could be back for the [ECAC Hockey] playoffs,” McNally told The Harvard Crimson on Jan. 30.

With McNally sidelined, Harvard’s performance sagged. The Crimson struggled with other injuries, yet no absence was felt greater than McNally’s. The team’s ability to possess the puck and break out of its zone declined dramatically, and Harvard lacked a consistent scoring threat from the point.

Meanwhile, outside observers were not so sure how serious McNally was about the possibility of returning. His injury seemed too severe, and rumors circulated that he had elected for surgery over rehab.

His return on Friday for Game 1 of the ECAC tournament quarterfinals surprised and intrigued the media at Ingalls. Did he come back too soon? Will he be a liability? Is he crazy?

Behind the scenes, Ted Donato ’91 knew that McNally was ready. The 11th-year coach had entrusted his star defenseman to Harvard’s ace team of trainers, which had successfully returned Blackwell to the lineup in peak form just two weeks earlier.

Under the watchful eye of Harvard trainer Chad Krawiec, McNally completed an intensive regimen of therapy that involved three hours per day of legwork. A week and a half before the quarterfinals, McNally returned to non-contact skates. A weekend out, he watched from the Bright-Landry Hockey Center stands as his team played Brown in the first round of the ECAC tournament, confident that his boys would get him to the next round. On Wednesday, McNally participated in his first full-contact practice.

Patrick McNally and Harvard coach Ted Donato '91
Patrick McNally and Harvard coach Ted Donato '91 By Michael D. Ledecky

“Our team definitely feeds off his confidence, his character, and his talent,” Donato said in a pre-Lake Placid teleconference Monday. “So getting Pat back, even in a limited health situation, is still a huge bonus to our team.”

In Game 1, McNally quickly dispelled most concerns on the ice. He was a step slow at first on the backcheck and seemed to choose his strides judiciously, yet he grew stronger with each shift. Breaking the puck out of his zone, he had a calming effect on his teammates with his crisp passes and confident puck-handling. And he was unafraid to take risks, driving to the net on multiple occasions.

“I know for me to be effective and for me to have a positive impact out there, I’ve got to kind of play the way I always do,” McNally said on Tuesday. “I just try to...play to my game and just try to help my team out as much as possible.”

***

Delia McNally remembers her first pair of rental skates. She was four years old, and her mother Jean had decided to teach her and her five-year-old brother, Pat, how to skate at the Port Washington Skating Center on Long Island.

“[The clerk] went to go get me the white figure skates ones, but I started screaming that I wanted the same black ones as Pat’s,” Delia says on the phone from the University of Vermont, where she just finished her final season of college hockey as a forward for the Catamounts. “I wanted to do everything that he did.”

That’s the way things worked with the McNally siblings. Pat set the agenda, and Delia followed. They weren’t born with sticks in their hands. Their father Thomas, an FBI agent in New York City, played football at Columbia. Jean, a longtime elementary school teacher, decided to teach her children how to skate because she simply considered it a life skill.

Rather, it was Pat who decided that hockey would be their sport. After each skating lesson with Jean during public ice time, he would beg her to let him and his sister stand behind the glass to watch the local junior team practice. He told his mother that he wanted to be a hockey player.

Pat and Delia would grow up together through the game, playing the same position. Despite their dispositions for offense, their size and reach made them prime defensemen. Only later in her career would Delia move up to offense.

Delia says that she always wanted to be around Pat because of his positivity and inclusiveness. On tough days in grade school, Pat would stop in between her classes to cheer her up. During recess, Pat was the most athletic kid on the playground, but he always made sure that Delia was in the game.

“He never made me feel like I was intruding or just tagging along; he always made me feel like I was part of his friends and one of the guys,” Delia says. “He always had that older brother, protective instinct, and then I think he always treated me as one of his friends too. That’s what really made me want to always be around him.”

Through it all, the two have shared their ups and downs. She was among the first to give him a hug when the Vancouver Canucks selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and she was among the first outside of Ithaca to learn of his injury.

She came back from a pre-game meal to find three texts and a missed call on her phone from her parents, who were at the game. Later, she received a text from Pat, who said that he would try to make one of her games at Boston University that weekend.

Pat ended up not making it. He was in too much pain. When Delia saw a video of Pat’s injury, her heart sank.

“It definitely was hard to see because you can definitely tell his knee locks out,” Delia says.

“And being an athlete myself, that’s always a fear, [injuring your knee]…. My mom said he was screaming on the ice and everything, and I knew half of it was pain and the other half was just…the fear of having that happen.”

Delia was surprised—and a little concerned, at first—when she learned that Pat might be able to come back for the season. Yet she ultimately trusted his judgment. Pat has the tendency, she says, to make the best out of a bad situation.

Early in the 2012-2013 season, McNally and three other players withdrew from the College. While his peers were young enough to play on junior hockey teams during their lost year, McNally had to find another means to stay sharp. He took a job at a construction management firm in Quincy, Mass., and he worked out at a local sports performance center.

Through a difficult year in which local and national media speculated on the nature of his withdrawal, McNally remained his positive self and packed on muscle. When Delia saw Pat for the first time that summer, she noticed that he must have been “working out like crazy.”

“When things happen that would knock normal kids down and make them give up, he just finds the best option from that,” Delia says. “When everything happened with school and stuff, he just found a great job to do; he found a great place to work out. I think that instead of letting it knock him down, he got so much stronger.”

McNally, an academic junior, does not yet know whether he will be eligible to play during his fifth year at Harvard. He will know by the end of this academic year. In the meantime, he’s savoring every shift.

“Right now I’m just enjoying the moment,” McNally says. “Enjoying the fact that we’re in the final four of the ECAC again.”

***

It’s Sunday at Ingalls.

Ten minutes after Vesey’s goal, McNally lumbers over from the visitors’ locker room to speak with the press. Something is off. It’s not the huge bandage on his forehead. Everybody saw McNally’s helmet cut into his forehead after sustaining an illegal hit from behind that sent him into the backboards late in the first overtime period.

No, what is unusual is his attire. Most players dress out of their game equipment before engaging with media. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound McNally is still in his skates and leg pads, towering over the reporters.

Perhaps he is just too caught up in the moment to change. Perhaps he wants to protect his knee from prying eyes.

“Some people were saying you were playing with one leg out there,” a reporter says. “Incredibly effective with one leg.”

“I wouldn’t say one leg,” McNally laughs. “I mean, maybe one a little bit stronger leg….”

The questions continue. Did he ever doubt that he would be able to come back?

“To be honest, I had no idea…. The doctors said at best a certain time, at worst a certain time. There was never really a conclusive date….”

How close was the quarterfinal to that “at best” estimate?

McNally grins and settles on an answer that is both cryptic and matter-of-fact.

“Uhh, this weekend we were playing Yale in the second round. Even if it wasn’t the best time, there was no way I wasn’t going to try and play. So that’s pretty much the answer for that one.”

***

McNally expresses his love for his team in an understated way. Given a similar situation, most elite prospects would likely focus on their long-term health. But for McNally, the decision to come back this season was a natural one.

“He’s always been the kid to put the team first and always wants to play for his team over the individual goals and stuff,” Delia says. “So I knew he was going to do whatever he could to get back in the game as quickly as possible.”

Nothing would mean more to McNally than a team championship. He’s been there once before, captaining Milton Academy (Mass.) to its first and only New England Prep School Championship under coach Paul Cannata.

McNally arrived at Milton from a relatively obscure Long Island club as a fourth-year junior. Nobody at the Massachusetts boarding school knew exactly how good the incoming defenseman would be. He quickly commanded a leading role in his first year and blitzed the prep circuit for the overall scoring title in his second, title-winning season.

“He led the world in points that year,” Cannata laughs over the phone on Wednesday. He recalls that McNally came to Milton with a “strong slant” toward committing to Yale. “Everyday he would come into the rink with that sort of optimistic, upbeat, let’s-go-play-hockey attitude.”

Cannata feels that McNally’s decision to return reflects a special mindset.

“Patrick has a stubborn streak to him that serves him well,” Cannata says. “And in this case, I know that there are some quality people around him who advised him that this was probably not a smart thing to do, and quite frankly, it probably wasn’t.”

That’s not to say that Cannata thinks that McNally shouldn’t have returned.

“If you’re going to do things at a high level, you have to have a different way of thinking,” Cannata says. “Whatever domain you’re in…to be that successful in your particular domain, you have to think differently than 99.99 percent of the rest of the people.”

For Cannata, McNally is part of that 0.01 percent—that rare breed of player who dares to think differently. This weekend, McNally and the Crimson will compete for a conference title at Herb Brooks Arena—the site of the 1980 Miracle On Ice. Whether or not McNally’s return is similarly “miraculous,” his story this last week has read like a Disney movie.

“To come from not playing...to then playing three games in three nights, to then getting the game-tying goal late in the third period and getting the assist on the game-winner in double overtime, it’s almost a script,” Cannata says. “People don’t realize the qualities of these kids who do those things. Let’s just say they don’t grow on trees, my friend.”

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