ST. PAUL, Minn.---On the Cretin-Derham Hall High School baseball team that won the state championship in 2007, the designated hitter was none other than… Ryan McDonagh.
“I had separated my shoulder during hockey season; I played centerfield before that,” the 22-year-old defenseman recalled today before his first visit to Xcel Energy Center as a Ranger. “Much respect for the DH,” he said with a smile. “Played all my life, love the sport.”
But McDonagh, a St. Paul native, also won the Minnesota state hockey championship in 2006, moved on to the University of Wisconsin, and is forging a career in the NHL. That’s why about 80 of his family members, friends and former coaches were here to watch him face the Wild last night.
“I’m familiar with the building because I played in high-school tournaments her and some college games, so the rink itself isn’t new,” he said. “But there’ll be a lot of energy and emotion with a lot of family and friend and coaches who worked so hard to get me where I am today. I can’t thank them enough.”
McDonagh was one of three Minnesota youngsters sharing a homecoming at Xcel. Center Derek Stepan, 21, who was born in Hastings, also attended Wisconsin.
In fact, two years ago on this day, they helped the Badgers to a 5-3 victory here over St. Cloud State, clinching the NCAA West Regional. Defenseman Stu Bickel, a little older at 25, was born in Chanhassen, a small town southwest of the Twin Cities, attended the University of Minnesota and played one season for Golden Gophers.
McDonagh, however, a former Mr. Hockey---an award given to the best high-school senior---didn’t choose that route. “That’s (the Gophers) the team you dreamed of playing for, that’s the team on TV every Friday and Saturday night,” said McDonagh, a former first-round pick of the Canadiens. “But when I had the opportunity to choose a college, I wanted to find the right spot. Wisconsin had everything I was looking for in a school, the coaching staff, the tradition, the passion for winning.”
No one held any grudges for bypassing the Gophers for a rival.
“They’re all happy for me,” he said. “My high school coach (Jim O’Neill, who attended the game) played for the Gophers, and he was 100 percent supportive. It seems like everybody you know has a strong bond, but they want to see people have success.”
Stepan, who played here against the Gophers, but not in high school (“We lost to McDonagh’s team. He knows not to go there and put salt in the wound.”) didn’t offer any advice. “He played here quite a bit, he knows what to expect.” Stepan is the Rangers’ fourth-leading scorer with 47 points; McDonagh has a team-high plus-24 rating, 171 blocked shots, and six goals and 21 assists.
Bickel, who played in 45 games with the Gophers in 2007-08 before he signed a free agent deal with the Anaheim Ducks, was thrilled to be able to say hello to his family in person. “You don’t get a lot of opportunity to do that during the season,” said the rugged Bickel, one of this year’s surprises. “But I’m not going to change anything as far as my game-day routine.” Just being home was enough.
After five games as a healthy scratch, Anton Stralman was back in the lineup last night, as coach John Tortorella continues his evaluation of defense pairings for the playoffs. Stralman, 25, who has two goals and 14 assists in 46 games since being signed as a free agent on Nov. 5, was partnered with Michael Del Zotto.
“He has the ability to help us offensively, he has the ability to really improve defensively, ” said Tortorella. “Since the first time I met him, he’s been a much better player, we just need to see it consistently, especially competing.”
Another defenseman, Steve Eminger, who sprained his right ankle against the Penguins on March 15, skated lightly for the second consecutive day and hopes he’ll be ready for the playoffs.
Erik Christensen, who was traded to the Wild on Feb. 3, is settling in.“It was tough at first,” said Christensen, who was pointless in his first 15 games. “I wanted to come in and try to make an impact. I was trying to almost do too much. Once I started to figure it out…I got hot there for a couple games.”
Christensen, who scored four goals in four games through March 19, said he wasn’t “overly disappointed (with the trade) because I wasn’t playing. The team was having success, but I really had no part of it. I was worried that my career basically was going to end.”
The skilled, 28-year-old center led the WHL in scoring in 2002-03 with 54 goals and 108 points in 67 games, but nothing close to those numbers emerged in stints with four NHL teams, including 2 ½ seasons in New York. “I want to come back to the NHL next year,” said Christensen, an unrestricted free agent. “I’m trying to make it happen.”