Sports & Recreation

A Hockey Star’s New Goal

After winning the Stanley Cup, Ryan McDonagh x’22 returns to finish his UW degree.

Ryan McDonagh on hockey rink

McDonagh: “Hopefully, I can at least tell my kids one day that I finished and got my college degree.” Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI Via Getty Images

When On Wisconsin caught up with Ryan McDonagh x’22, it was a rare day off for the defenseman between road games with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He talked with us from the safety of the NHL’s new COVID-19 regimen, a looser rendition of the “bubble” of daily testing and limited interactions that proved 100 percent successful in its fastidious protection of players, coaches, and staff during the 2020 playoffs.

The protocol is intense, but for McDonagh, it’s now routine, and one that he’s grateful for. After initial uncertainty about having a 2020 hockey season, the Lightning went on to win the Stanley Cup. The victory — in a fan-less arena after more than two months away from family — strayed from the glorious moment all Minnesota-bred hockey players imagine in their youth.

“Being isolated was very difficult,” McDonagh says. “It makes a world of difference, mentally, to be able to share experiences with one another and be around your family.”

But he doesn’t dwell on that part.

“It was definitely all worth it, and that’s what you talk about,” he says. “If you’re going to go through all this stress and protocol, let’s make it worthwhile and try to win the whole thing.”

This mind-set continues to serve McDonagh well as he takes on his next pandemic-defying endeavor: heading back to school. McDonagh is in Detroit for a series against the Red Wings, but as much as his head is in tomorrow’s game, it’s also in Madison, where he commutes virtually during his downtime to work toward finishing the degree he started at the UW back in 2007.

Upon entering his freshman year on the UW hockey team, McDonagh was drafted 12th overall by the Montreal Canadiens, who held the rights to McDonagh while he honed his skills at the UW. He was traded to the New York Rangers in 2009 and left the UW before his senior year to start his professional hockey career, a choice he said at the time was “the toughest decision I ever had to make.”

“We had just lost in the [NCAA] championship the year before, so you have goals of calling yourself a collegiate champion, and you come that close only to not get it. You only have one more year to possibly get it done, so that was weighing on me,” McDonagh says now.

Though he can’t return to win that missed championship, the nearly finished degree was another matter.

“I’d tried to do the best I could in my three years there while playing and going to school,” he says. “Hopefully, I can at least tell my kids one day that I finished and got my college degree.”

Prior to this year, pesky playoff appearances and demanding schedules prevented him from coming back to finish the job. Now, with most instruction shifted online, McDonagh is able to make it work.

“When you have a taste of success in something you’re really passionate about, you strive for ways to feel that again … that feeling of accomplishment, seeing your hard work pay off,” McDonagh says of opting to finish school after the hockey-career high of a Cup win.

McDonagh’s return to the classroom hasn’t gone unnoticed by his virtual peers, who took to social media to marvel at a classmate whose profile picture features a trophy that will soon bear his name and whose icebreaker fun facts likely relate to, well, ice.

“I was actually in a lecture this morning online, and one of the hockey guys for Wisconsin was in the little group that the teacher assigned us. It’s been fun to interact with kids who are 10 years younger [but who are] going to school at the same time as me,” McDonagh says.

Despite the age difference, he finds himself on the same learning curve of mastering college online: “It’s not just Microsoft Word anymore.”

No matter where his schedule takes him, McDonagh’s heart is in Tampa Bay, a city he’s called home since a 2018 trade. It’s not so much the city or the team, though, as the people who make it home: he shares in the world’s renewed appreciation for video chatting to get some long-overdue face time with his wife and two tots.

“I’ve been gone for a while, at times, but I talked to my daughter and said, ‘I’m trying to win a big trophy.’ So to be able to bring that home and see her grab the Cup and touch it was an awesome feeling,” he says. “It all clicked for her why I was gone and what I was trying to accomplish.”

And someday, a W-crested diploma may join the McDonagh family trophy case.

Published in the Summer 2021 issue


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