It probably surprised no one last week when the Knights of Columbus named Bill McDonnell citizen of the year — except him. As if to reinforce his worthiness, there were two separate nominations for the longtime teacher, athlete, and coach.
“I think he is most deserving because of all the work he does in the background that nobody ever sees, especially in sports circles and in our parish community,” says Joanne Chimenti, who has known McDonnell since the 1970s. “Bill is always ready, willing, and able. He gives of his time very unselfishly.”
She cites his work with local sports in general and KidSport in particular, adding he has a strong sense of community service.
“That’s Bill. He just wants to give back and he certainly has done that. He’s very honest and upright. And very humble. He doesn’t want any honour for what he does, but he still does it.”
Marina Bugarin and her husband, who have also known McDonnell for decades through church and sports, submitted the other nomination.
“He’s been a teacher for many years, a reputable individual, and somebody I admire who deserved to be recognized,” she says.
It’s not the only recognition he has received recently: last year, McDonnell was named the community’s official Olympic torch bearer and had the honour of lighting the cauldron.
The list of groups and organizations he’s been involved with takes up pages: the Ernie Gare Scholarship Society, Festival Nelson, Nelson Regional Sports Council, Trafalgar hockey academy, and Relay for Life, to name just a few.
He has also been a coach and goaltending consultant with the Nelson Leafs, Westside Warriors, and Kootenay Ice major midgets, and helped organize events such as Hockey Day in Canada, the World Junior A Challenge, and last November, the Civic Centre’s 75th anniversary gala.
FROM MAPLE LEAFS TO NELSON LEAFS
McDonnell was born in Ottawa in 1944, the second eldest of four siblings. His father was an auto mechanic.
“I came from an era where we played a lot of our hockey on outdoor rinks,” he says. “I played three different positions on three different teams.”
He didn’t settle in as a goalie until reaching juvenile hockey at 15. “Our goaltender had to go to a party or something. They said ‘Bill, you play goal.’ I did and never stopped.”
A year later, he was in net at the junior level and later won a championship.
At 18, he signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs — but discovered it made him ineligible to accept offers from American colleges and universities, though he badly wanted to go. Then, “just at a time when I thought I’m never going to get to university, I got this phone call from Nelson.”
His friend Gary McQuaid was coming to play senior hockey here, and knowing the Maple Leafs needed another goalie, suggested McDonnell. “I was the happy result of that conversation,” he says.
McDonnell arrived in 1966 on a scholarship arranged through legendary Notre Dame athletic director Ernie Gare, and roomed with McQuaid in the school dormitory.
On the ice, he backed up Don Holmes the first part of the season, “playing part-time, trying to get back to school and keep my head above water.”
On New Year’s Day, Holmes got hurt, and McDonnell carried the team the rest of the season. The pair then alternated through the playoffs and led the Maple Leafs to the Savage Cup.
McDonnell was named the WIHL’s rookie of the year and made the second all-star team.
‘UNIVERSITY IS THE THING’
That fall, he was invited to try out for the NHL expansion Philadelphia Flyers. Of the 85 players in camp, he was one of only two attending university.
He declined a low-level entry contract to go back to school, but returned to camp the following year and was called into general manager Bud Poile’s office.
“Are you going to be a professional hockey player or what?” Poile asked.
“I don’t know if I have the skill set to do it,” McDonnell replied.
“Well, we’re going to find out very quickly,” Poile said.
Players in camp practiced either with the big-league team, the minor pro team, or the amateurs. McDonnell was placed with the big leaguers and held his own.
During the second week, they began discussing a two-year contract. But it contained a clause that discouraged him from taking university courses while he played hockey.
“It really struck me. I thought ‘I’ve done two years of university and waited four years to go. University is the thing I want.’ It was the primary thing in my mind.”
He turned the offer down and instead became the first in his family to earn a post-secondary degree. He never regretted it.
“Coming out to Nelson and meeting people like Ernie Gare changed my life,” he says. “Through high school I was always introverted and not sure of myself. You can’t tell now, but I was very quiet. It allowed me to become a person I didn’t know existed for a long while.”
It’s a lesson he tells kids today: a professional sports career is a fine thing to shoot for, but if it’s not possible, the same skills can help you get a university education.
“I got five years at university all paid for. I’ve never taken my graduation ring off. My wife asks how come you don’t wear your wedding ring?”
THE WOMAN BEHIND THE COACH
He and Ann met at Notre Dame. She shared his passion for ice sports, as head instructor of the local figure skating club. After McDonnell graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1970, they married and moved to Calgary, where he took his teacher training.
They returned to Nelson a year later with the first of four daughters in tow. McDonnell spent the next two decades at Trafalgar, teaching physical education and math, and then becoming a counsellor and vice-principal. He rounded out his career with a dozen years at the distance education school and a couple of terms at L.V. Rogers before retiring in 2003.
All the while he coached minor and junior hockey and high school volleyball, something he says he never could have accomplished without his family’s support.
“Ann is an incredible person. When you think we had a young family and all the time I spent in rinks and gymnasiums, how did we ever do it?
“I know how I did it. I just went out and did my job. Ann was the one holding everything together and plugging all the holes I was leaving behind.”
When their youngest daughter was in elementary school, Ann went back to school to finish her degree and became a teacher herself. She is at Trafalgar today.
McDonnell isn’t sure how many of his daughters will be on hand to see him receive the award next month. Jennifer and her husband are pharmacists in Nelson, Erin lives in White Rock, Heather — who just gave birth to his fifth grandchild — is on Saltspring Island, and Megan lives in Vernon.
A COMMUNITY WITH VOLUNTEER SPIRIT
McDonnell says the honour of being named citizen of the year comes with the knowledge that many others have worked and continue to work for the betterment of Nelson: “All the other people who do a tremendous amount of volunteering for very worthy causes,” he says. “I’m amazed how many organizations — the vast majority non-profits — work for our community.”
McDonnell sometimes worries about tiring others out with his enthusiasm. “It dawns on me when I catch my breath that I have to slow down on some of these projects because I’ve dragged so many people along with me.
“I almost start to feel guilty about bugging them. But it’s incredible how receptive people and businesses and organizations have been.”
The banquet is April 9 at St. Joseph’s school. Tickets are $25 for adults, $12 for youths 16 and under, and are on sale at Sonja’s China Cabinet.