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From KOHA to K-Wing: Things Come Full Circle for Saar and McDonald

Monday, March 11th
From KOHA to K-Wing: Things Come Full Circle for Saar and McDonald

BY PAM SHEBEST

When Zach Saar and Chad McDonald reported to the Kalamazoo Wings training camp last fall, they did not have to look far for a familiar face.

The two forwards are not just teammates this season but good buddies dating back to their junior hockey days.

Both started out in KOHA youth hockey and played two years of Juniors together with the USHL Des Moines Buccaneers and then the USHL Muskegon Lumberjacks.

From there, they took different routes back to Kalamazoo.

Saar, who grew up in Plainwell, played four years of college hockey at Penn State before turning pro last year.

Signed by the AHL San Diego Gulls, Saar was assigned to the ECHL Utah Grizzlies.

McDonald, a Battle Creek native, played four years at Ferris State, then opted to play his first pro year in France.

Varsity hockey was a new sport at Penn State in 2012 and when Saar went there in 2013, it was the Nittany Lions’ first year in the Big Ten. Four years later, the team won the Big Ten championship in Saar’s senior season.

“They got the massive donation from Terry Pegula ($100 million),” said Saar, who was intrigued by helping rebuild a college team.

“In (USHL) Chicago we were in a rebuild and in Des Moines we were rebuilding as well, so I was comfortable in that,” he said. “I had experience in it and wanted to be a part of something new.”

He also had connections to Penn State, where his father was a member of the 1982 national championship football team.

“So there was a little family pride there,” Saar said. “When I got on campus, I just liked the energy and feeling.”

McDonald headed to Ferris State where “I had a lot of fun there,” he said. I played four years and went to two Elite Eights.”

He majored in Business Administration with legal studies and plans to attend law school once his hockey career ends.

Big guy on the ice

The 6-foot-5 Saar is easy to spot on the ice, towering over most of his teammates, and he is not afraid to drop the gloves to stick up for a mate.

He is fourth on the team with 78 penalty minutes.

“My entire career I’ve never been ‘the guy,’” Saar said. “I’ve always just kept going along. I never lit up my stats any years.

“You kind of find your role on a team and what you can bring to the table every night. I’d love to score every game, but it doesn’t happen. “

K-Wings coach Nick Bootland said Saar is a big body that he can put in front of the net.

“Within 10 feet of the net, he has the ability to shoot,” Bootland said. “He has a great shot and he knows what he’s doing. When he’s in that area, he’s deadly.

“He also has the ability to be a great teammate and is willing to do what he needs to do physically to help us.”

McDonald, who is considered a rookie in the ECHL, has eight goals and 15 assists in 56 games.

“He’s a guy you can put up and down your lineup,” Bootland said. “He can play first-line minutes when needed.

“His role is probably a third-line player for us at this point when we’re completely healthy. He plays with a ton of speed and he’s not afraid to be first for his stature.”

Saar and McDonald already had a special tie to the K-Wings. Both trained summers in Richland with Mark Olson, owner of Athletic Mentors, who is the team’s strength and conditioning coach. They both looked forward to working with him all year.

“He’s like a second father to me,” Saar said of Olson. “Coach Bootland will tell you, it was the easiest recruitment ever.

“(Olson’s) got it all down to a science and is a very smart guy. He has heart rate monitors and he’s constantly monitoring our stress and our neurological state as well as injuries.”

McDonald worked with Olson for the last eight years.

“It’s been a long journey with him,” McDonald said. “I reached out to him and said, ‘Hey, I might be interested in coming back (to Kalamazoo).

“He got ahold of coach and things just progressed from there.”

Family ties

Another draw to Kalamazoo for both players is being close to family.

Although Saar’s parents, Brad and Rene Saar, now live in Richland, the forward opted to live in apartments with teammates.

“I’d drive my parents crazy so I’ll spare my mother of that one,” he said, laughing.

McDonald also opted not to live with his parents, Julie, who is a principal at Edison Environmental Academy, and Todd, COO of CSM Group in Kalamazoo.

He lives with his brother-in-law (Josh Ross, an assistant men’s soccer coach at WMU) and sister (Cassie McDonald-Ross, a physical therapist in Kalamazoo).

“A lot of people don’t understand that with hockey, there are ups and downs,” McDonald said. “One of the hardest things for a player is to get rid of the noise and to escape the game a little bit.

“One advantage of having those people around you is it’s easy to get rid of the distractions. If you’re having a bad day at the rink, you still have your family at home.”

Having family close is a lot different than last year when he was playing for Gap HC in southern France.

“I was in a town were there was not a lot of English speaking,” he said. “I learned a little bit (of French) to get by.

“The Canadians were a little bit ahead of us. Had it been Spanish, I think I would have been able to survive a little bit easier.”

Both Saar and McDonald are already giving back to the community.

“I work with KOHA and my goal is to get more Division I players out of this area,” Saar said. “Knowing that a guy made it out was always a great help to me along the way. It’s like someone did it, you can do it.”

That “guy who made it” is K-Wings defenseman Kyle Bushee, who grew up in Otsego.

“I grew up in Plainwell so I knew Bushee’s name,” Saar said. “Not many (hockey) guys come out of southwest Michigan.”

McDonald works with young players in both Battle Creek and Jackson.

“(K-Wings goaltender) Jake Hildebrand and I actually got a setup where we were doing a training session every Thursday for an hour with players who wanted to expand their horizons and get better,” he said.

“Hockey is what we do but there is a lot of other time you can devote to things. That was hard for me when I was overseas

“I was only a hockey player and here I can be a hockey player and have my head out in the community and hopefully inspire some kids to try to get even higher than the level I play here.”

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