One For The Ages

Mike Donnelly’s Record-Setting Season Continues To Stand The Test Of Time
By: 
Joe Paisley

 

Mike Donnelly was ready. 

After three years of practice on and off the ice, the winger was given the chance to be a top-six forward on the power play by the late Ron Mason.

Donnelly made the most of his talent and opportunity.

The Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame member pumped in 59 goals during a breakout senior campaign, which sparked the Spartans to the 1986 NCAA championship and cemented his place in the Division I record books.

Compare Donnelly's 59 goals to Vancouver forward Adam Gaudette, who scored an eye-catching 30 for Northeastern during his successful 2018 Hobey Baker Award campaign. The college game has tightened up considerably since 1986 with more defensive-oriented systems, better equipment and more mobile defensemen.  

But even then, one of the most prolific college scorers in recent years tallied just three more goals than Donnelly did on the power play (27) his senior campaign, his first playing regularly with the man advantage. Donnelly had 51 goals combined his first three years.

"You see players get on a hot streak but it usually doesn't last the entire season," said Spartans linemate Kevin Miller, a 1988 U.S. Olympian. "It was fun to watch."

Miller centered the line with Mitch Messier on the right. 

"I was fortunate to have them," Donnelly said. "They were both pass-first guys and as the season went on they kept looking for me. I got the puck from them a lot. We were all speed and skill guys."

"Our power play was five forwards with (1986 No. 1 overall draft pick) Joe Murphy and Bill Shibicky, so we had a very productive power play," he added. "We moved the puck around really well."

Donnelly's record should remain unchallenged for a very long time. 

"Untouchable," said Wisconsin coach Tony Granato, who was a linemate with Donnelly on the Los Angeles Kings. "You get 20 or 25 goals as a freshman or sophomore, the NHL's going to come calling so you aren't going to see guys like that stay for 3-4 years. [Badgers incoming sophomore] Cole Caufield [19 goals, 17 assists last season] is not going to be with us for three or four years."

Playing that fourth year made all the difference, Donnelly said. He needed to be a well-rounded player and not just a speedster.

The talent the late Shawn Walsh, then a Spartans assistant, and Mason assembled was another reason. Walsh could not offer Donnelly a scholarship, instead asking him to be a relatively new thing - a recruited walk-on.

Being one of the team's two undrafted players, despite the NHL holding 12 rounds, motivated him to work even harder on his shot accuracy and release. Skating fast came easy for the 5-foot-11, 185-pound winger, now 56, who remains 18th all-time in Division I history with 97 points that season.

"He spent a lot of time working on his shot," Miller recalled. "You knew his shot would be on net, accurate and quick. That is a combination you need to be a great goal scorer."

"I was pretty driven," Donnelly added. "If not for [MSU coach] Ron Mason and that program I never would have developed. I had no scholarship. I was considered undersized. I was always battling for ice time. There was so much competition four days a week in practice. I only got better those first three years."

Donnelly's pro career mirrored his college years with him making the most of his hard work and abilities when an opportunity arose. 

He was struggling to produce consistently with the New York Rangers and then Buffalo, bouncing up and down from the American Hockey League, before landing with the Kings in 1991.

He emerged while playing on the third line and then enjoyed his most productive NHL season during the 1992-93 campaign (69 points, 29 goals), which ended with a loss in the Stanley Cup Finals. 

He often lined up that season with Granato and St. Cloud Norsemen coach Corey Millen on an offensive line built upon speed and skill.

"That system fit my style," Donnelly said. "We often had the other team's lines on their heels with our speed."

That line added additional scoring punch to a loaded Kings team led by Hockey Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Rob Blake, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Luc Robitaille.

Donnelly earned his minutes with a consistent defensive effort that made him a great linemate.

"You didn't have to worry about Mike," Granato said. "You never had to cover for him defensively. He was extremely reliable and dependable. He was good on the backcheck. He was one of those guys who always stepped up at key times."

An honest approach to the game is what Donnelly teaches now while working for the Kings since 2002, the last 10 focused on player development. 

"I love it," he said. "I think it's one of the best jobs to have in hockey. I get to work with younger players and teach them to play the game the right way. It's very gratifying."

Donnelly doesn't enjoy the attention surrounding the record, which usually builds during the NCAA tournament. The 1986 first team All-American garnered the tourney's Most Outstanding Player Award that year. 

He lost out on the Hobey Baker to Scott Fusco of Harvard, the team the Spartans defeated in the championship. Donnelly scored the game-winner with 2:51 left in a 6-5 comeback victory. 

"I don't think much about [the record]," he said. "It was awesome that I was able to do that and that the team was able to win a national title. That means more to me."

It is for others to shine a spotlight on a season of offensive brilliance.

"It's Gretzky's 92 goals [1981-82] and 215 points [1985-86]," said current MSU coach Danton Cole, who was one of 10 Spartans freshmen watching Donnelly's production firsthand. "It's such a big number you almost can't believe it. Mike was something special."

 

Joe Paisley is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs.

 

 

Issue: 
2020-10

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