Jiggs McDonald’s parents figured his dalliance with broadcasting would be a short-term thing, that at some point he would come to his senses and become a school teacher.
“Fooled them, didn’t I?” he said with a laugh at Barclays Center before Wednesday night’s Panthers-Islanders game.
You might say that.
McDonald was preparing to mark an even half-century of calling NHL games on TV or radio by working the game for MSG Plus after being honored beforehand and dropping the ceremonial first puck.
“Just a matter of being able to say I had done a game in 50 seasons was enough,” he said. “This idea of honoring me for being old is above and beyond.”
McDonald, 78, began his NHL career as a 27-year-old with the expansion Los Angeles Kings in 1967-68 and also has been a voice of the Flames (in their Atlanta days), Maple Leafs and Panthers.
But it was his 15 seasons with the Islanders, beginning in 1980-81 and including their three most recent Stanley Cups, that forever bonded him with the team’s fans.
That bond was reinforced over the past decade when he filled in at times for his successor, Howie Rose, but with a new announcer on the job in Brendan Burke, it appeared McDonald’s Islanders days might be over.
Not so fast. McDonald was talking to then co-owner-to-be Jon Ledecky last spring when he asked McDonald how long he had been doing games.
“I said, ‘Well, if I get to do a game next season for somebody it’ll be 50 NHL seasons,’” McDonald recalled. “He said, ‘Well, I’ll see that that happens,’ and he has.”
Said Ledecky, “He’s part of the family. He’ll always be part of the family . . . I think the fans connect with him. Let’s face it: When Jiggs is doing the game, don’t we all feel a lot younger?”
Ledecky has emphasized maintaining connections with the team’s past. Before the game he spoke at length to Panthers analyst and Islanders Hall of Famer Denis Potvin.
Former Islanders GM and longtime Panthers executive Bill Torrey also was there for McDonald’s night. Bryan Trottier and Bobby Nystrom visited him during the first intermission.
MSG reporter Stan Fischler grew up listening to the iconic announcer Foster Hewitt, and called McDonald “a latter-day Foster Hewitt.”
“The fans in the New York area are no dopes when it comes to broadcasting,” Fischler said. “They sense it. It’s like the difference between a guy who is a natural scorer and a guy who’s always hitting the post. He’s a natural.”
McDonald grew up in Canada and was working at a small radio station in Orillia, Ontario, when a fellow Ontarian, Jack Kent Cooke, founded the Kings.
“My thought processes were if I don’t apply, I’m going to have difficulty living with myself,” he said. “If I do apply and don’t get the job, so be it. If I get the job and can’t do it, so be it, at least I tried.”
With the Flames moving to Calgary and Steve Albert leaving the Islanders job, Torrey approached McDonald about taking the job alongside analyst Ed Westfall.
McDonald recalled Torrey saying, “’We’ll win for a lot of years. Come along for the ride. You’ll enjoy it.’ And lo and behold I did, and it was 15 wonderful years.”
As he was introduced, McDonald made a heart shape with his hands to thank fans, who gave him a warm ovation. He said that regardless of who signed his checks, “basically my bosses, I always felt, were the fans.”
McDonald, who lives in Florida, had knee replacement surgery in October but otherwise is in good health.
Before the Islanders settled on Burke, he offered to be a bridge for one year if MSG had to wait for a new announcer to become available.
Unlike Rose, Burke has no Mets conflicts to deal with and has no plans for scheduled days off. So it is possible Wednesday night was McDonald’s last Islanders game.
Or not. Burke’s wife is due to deliver a child on Feb. 22, a day after the Islanders play in Detroit and a day before a game in Montreal.
Jiggs is on call. “If it happens, all well and good,” he said. “I’ll be ready.”