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February, 2016

Blades' athletic therapist aims for 'zero injuries’, works to prevent them


Scott Larson, Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Published on: December 29, 2015

James McDonald’s goal at the start of every season is an unattainable one, but that doesn’t mean he won’t strive to get as close as he can to that goal.

“My goal is zero injuries and that will never happen,” says the Saskatoon Blades athletic therapist. “There will always be a demand for my skills from our players.”

Another goal he has is to have the team’s 20-year-olds not miss a game. That goal was still intact going into Tuesday night’s game against Regina. 

“They have the most miles on their body, most minutes in a game, and they are the most depended upon,” he says.

This is McDonald’s second season with the Blades and it is his passion for sports that first directed him into athletic therapy a few years ago.

Dealing with finely-tuned athletes is appealing because they have the drive and will to get back in the games soon as possible, he says.

“I don’t work in a factory making widgets,” McDonald says. “I take someone who loves to do what they do — it could be running, walking, golf, playing hockey — and I help them get back to it if they were hurt, and hopefully get back to it in a better condition.”

McDonald’s calling to become an athletic therapist has come a little later in life.

Growing up in downtown Toronto, McDonald went on to earn a BA in political science at the University of Toronto and even thought about law school. Instead, he wandered off to Banff where he worked at backpackers’ hostels for a year.

From there, he travelled to the United Kingdom working in a hostel and bar in downtown London for a year before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland, to help manage a bar and hostel.

It was like coming home in a way as his father’s family is from Scotland and McDonald is a lifelong Celtic fan.

There, he lost about 100 pounds and became a personal trainer working with a number of highly motivated clients.

That experience helped him decide to return to school and he went back to York University where he obtained an undergraduate degree in kinesiology and athletic therapy. During that time McDonald worked with a number of university and amateur teams ranging from soccer to rugby to hockey to kick-boxing.

“Not only do you give them back the thing they might have lost, you might also give them a new level that they couldn’t have before because they were missing something.” says McDonald.

Hockey

His first paying hockey job was in Port Alberni, B.C., in the BCHL where he spent two seasons with the Valley Bulldogs.

In his last year with the Bulldogs, McDonald was chosen to work with Hockey Canada at the World Junior A Challenge where Canada won a bronze.

Blades’ assistant general manager and former athletic therapist Steve Hildebrandt heard about McDonald and hired him to become the Blades athletic therapist in August 2014.

His job with the Blades is wide-ranging — primary injury care (what happens on the ice from cuts to concussion), treating chronic conditions, assessing minor injuries, developing treatments and personal training programs.

Preventing injuries is high on his agenda. For instance, McDonald will meet with the goalies to go through hip issues because that is something netminders need to worry about, or develop a long-term plan with defenceman Mitch Wheaton, who has had three shoulder surgeries, in the hope he won’t need a fourth.

“You need to know the guy, their position and their history,” he says. “So if Wheaton, who has had multiple shoulder injuries, comes off with a shoulder injury that is a completely different reality than someone else who hasn’t.”

To keep everyone up to date, McDonald gives a report to the coaching staff every day on the progress of everyone that has an issue.

McDonald likens himself to a high-performance mechanic that must understand the nuances of the athletes he is treating.

“If you drive a $100,000 car, do you take it around the corner where they service everything, or do you take it to the place that specializes in cars worth $100,000?

“If you spend all of your time with a sporting population you are going to understand it in a way that a person who only dabbles in that sport doesn’t,” he says.

Motivation

Getting players back in the game they love and performing at their peak level is what motivates McDonald.

“Not only do you give them back the thing they might have lost, you might also give them a new level that they couldn’t have before because they were missing something.

“It also challenges me, because I know these people care so much about the thing they are doing,” McDonald says. “I like that drive and encouragement both from them wanting to be better and from them pushing me to learn new things and develop more skills to maybe allow them to not need my skills in the future.”


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