Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Dr. Pete' scores with Jets

Team's lead doctor knows how to handle pressure

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Dr. Peter MacDonald first heard it on the radio, just like thousands of other Winnipeg Jets fans. The skate blade of Don McSween of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim had cut the ankle of Teemu Selanne on a night in late January 1994. The Jets' star sophomore, a forward already feared throughout the NHL for his freakish quickness and uncanny ability to bury the puck, felt waves of excruciating pain fire up his leg as he was guided off the Duck Pond ice.

"I knew right away that it was pretty bad," Selanne said at the time. "I didn't know exactly what it was, but I knew it was serious because I had so much pain."

The Finnish Flash had torn his Achilles tendon.

It fell upon MacDonald, the Jets' lead physician -- then, as he is today -- to fix it.

"That was a lot of pressure," recalled MacDonald, 53, from his office in the Pan Am Clinic, where he's an orthopedic surgeon and the medical director of the department of surgery.

"I remember telling the anesthetist that we would have to do this case, and he saying, 'No. I don't want to do it. It's too much pressure.' "

With the eyes of the hockey world and the hopes of all Jets fandom upon them, MacDonald and his team repaired Selanne's tendon.

"He was such a big name in those days. He'd just broken the rookie record for goals the year before," MacDonald said. "But once you start an operation, it just becomes like any other. You kind of forget who you are operating on."

"Besides, (Teemu) is a pretty relaxed guy. He put everybody at ease," MacDonald said. "Teemu was listening to CJOB on the headphones and telling us what the scores were."

Former Jet and Manitoba Moose Randy Gilhen can speak firsthand of "Dr. Pete's" work and bedside manners. Gilhen's shoulder, knee and elbow have all visited MacDonald's operating room.

"He's operated on me five times over the last 20 years," said Gilhen, who today sells surgical equipment. "I can tell you he cares about his patients and the team, whether it be the Bombers, the Moose or the Jets. He's just invaluable. He's there all the time. He, along with the rest of the medical staff there, is simply world class."

Gilhen, who won the Unsung Hero Award with the Pittsburgh Penguins, added, with emphasis, "Pete is a Winnipegger and he's had offers to go other places. But he's stayed and all I can say is we're lucky to have him."

You could be forgiven for mistaking Dr. MacDonald's resumé for a phone book. He's contributed to more than 50 academic publications, made hundreds of presentations around the globe, and received scores of research grants. He's also been instrumental, along with Dr. Wayne Hildahl, in the expansion and evolution of the Pan Am Clinic.

Graduating from St. Paul's High School in 1976, Dr. MacDonald completed his residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of Manitoba, and his fellowship in sports medicine at the University of Western Ontario.

While in London, Ont., he came into contact with, and worked with, some of the world's most influential orthopedic surgeons. Doctors Peter Fowler, Richard Hawkins and the late Robert W. Jackson all figure prominently in the genealogy of MacDonald's medical education. Photos of these men sit on a shelf in his office in the clinic. Fowler and Hawkins have operated on sports superstars ranging from Steve Yzerman to Kobe Bryant and Greg Norman to John Elway. Sports Illustrated recognized Jackson as one of the 40 innovators who most dramatically changed the world of sport for bringing arthroscopy to North America.

Despite such heady company and breadth of accomplishments, MacDonald is at times painfully and almost embarrassingly modest. It's as if he's wrestling in an apologetic way with pride.

Here he is explaining how he approaches an operation of the gravity of Selanne's: "Try and think positively. I mean somebody's... you got to believe you're the best person for the job. Best person locally, anyway. Or best person anywhere. Just because of your knowledge of the lay of the land and what goes on. Just because of how you know the players."

MacDonald returned to Winnipeg in 1991 and started working with the Jets in 1992. By the time the organization left in 1996 for Phoenix, he had forged a strong connection with the team.

"The Jets' leaving was quite devastating to me, as it was to everyone else," he said. "It had become a big part of my life. You see, while it's a small part of your practice, it's a big part in terms of your emotional ties."

MacDonald, whose roots in River City run deep (his father, D.I. MacDonald, was once the chief commissioner of the City of Winnipeg) seriously considered leaving with the team. His wife, Sherry, "brought me back to earth."

The return of the Jets after a 15-year absence didn't surprise MacDonald. Having stayed and worked with the Moose, having watched and been increasingly impressed by the leadership of the Chipman family, he'd become confident the NHL would return to Winnipeg. "But when it actually happened, you ask yourself, 'Do you really want to go back into this?' It's a big commitment in terms of time. You have to be at all those games," MacDonald said. "But there's something nice about coming full circle and going back to something you lost before."

Of course, he knows it's not quite a full circle. The NHL of the early 1990s isn't the NHL of the 2010s. The "homey" feel of the "old Jets" has given way to the more professional, calculated and guarded feel of the "new Jets." It's not uncommon for him to talk to a player's agent as much as to the player. And where once the physician-run Canadian Medical Protective Association was a willing malpractice insurer, it's no longer interested in covering the steep financial risk posed by major-league sports.

"Things are a little more complex now," he conceded. "Privacy and secrecy have become more a part of the game, as it's become a bigger and bigger business."

Regardless of these changes -- some of which likely involve new players acclimatizing to a new community, some that are probably coloured by his older and "less naïve" perspective -- MacDonald admits he finds the pull of the reborn Jets almost irresistible on many levels.

On a personal level, he feels a sense of loyalty to the Moose organization that became the "modern Jets" and to the Chipman family, who are good friends.

Professionally, "it's the epitome of being a sports medicine doctor to treat athletes at the highest level," he said. "It's kind of what you're all about."

A big part of the draw is MacDonald's keen sense of public duty.

"It's, in many respects, a community service. The work is not that lucrative," MacDonald said. "It's more about doing your part to help the cause.

"It wasn't that long ago when it seemed like there wasn't a lot to look forward to in the city. But the city now, on multiple fronts -- with the Jets, the economy is better, new airports and new stadiums -- there is a better feel. I want to do my part. I'm really glad I stayed."

If the City of Winnipeg ever hands out Unsung Hero Awards, "Dr. Pete" ought to be among its first recipients -- not that his resumé needs any more padding.

gdicresce@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 26, 2012 A5

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