“ENTHUSIASM” A HALLMARK OF NEW COACH MACDONALD

“ENTHUSIASM” A HALLMARK OF NEW COACH MACDONALD
9 Jul, 24
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CRANBERRY, Pa. – Kirk MacDonald steps on the ice with a stern look, ready for business.

To those who don’t know him, that intense look may suggest it’s just another day at the office for the 40-year-old coach. But it’s not long before a smile shows through.

MacDonald will often be seen between drills smiling with players or other coaches. There’s a joy that comes with this job for Kirk MacDonald, who was hired as the 12th coach in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins history in June. Pittsburgh Penguins Assistant General Manager Jason Spezza led the search for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s new bench boss, and for Spezza, MacDonald had one definitive attribute that helped him stand out from the pack.

Enthusiasm.

“I talked a lot of coaches over the last month, and Kirk’s a guy that just really stood out in terms of his knowledge, enthusiasm,” Spezza said. “I thought we saw the game philosophically the same way, and I could tell he was hungry for the job too, which I think the players feel the enthusiasm.”

In his first media availability since taking the Penguins coaching gig, MacDonald plainly explained his passion for the job.

“I think if you don’t enjoy doing it, why are we here, right?” MacDonald asked rhetorically. “It can be a grind at times, but personally, I enjoy the grind. That was the allure of going back to pro. I think it’s going to be fun. I think seeing these guys get better is really enjoyable. Like, when it clicks for a kid, and you’re like, ‘Well, man, he’s got it at this level.’ Like, that’s, that’s fun as a coach.”

MacDonald has been coaching since his playing career ended in 2013. First, he went back to his alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, for one season as an assistant. Then he joined the Reading Royals of the ECHL for three years as an assistant, followed by a five-season tenure as the Royals’ head coach. The past two years, he was the head coach of the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

In Dubuque, MacDonald worked closely with Joona Väisänen, who went on to be drafted by Pittsburgh in the sixth round (175th overall) of this past year’s NHL Entry Draft. This past year was Väisänen’s first season in North America, having only played in his native Finland prior to the 2023-24 campaign. He went undrafted the year before, but he made enough strides in Dubuque to get his name called by Pittsburgh this time around.

Not only did Väisänen improve under MacDonald’s tutelage, but the coach earned the young man’s trust very early in his first season away from home.

“He made me feel at home,” Väisänen said. “He let me breathe and take my time to adapt to the game. He had that trust in me. … It came pretty fast, that trust. It was a huge part of my game and the whole team’s success.”

While development is going to be priority No. 1 for the MacDonald era, the new coach also expressed his desire to win, and win now. MacDonald is coming off of a run during which his Fighting Saints reached the Clark Cup Final, the USHL’s Championship series. MacDonald sees winning as an irreplaceable element of development, and he knows the ingredients he wants to cook up a winning team.

“Attention to detail, work ethic, commitment, being relentless in how we play,” MacDonald said. “You can talk a lot about what’s the right way to play, systems, but to me, the systems don’t matter if you don’t compete.

“I think relentless is a mentality that you could have in it every facet of the game, and I hope to bring that to Wilkes this year.”

And as he stood in front of camera and microphones listing the elements he likes to instill in his teams, you could hear that enthusiasm in his voice.

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