It's not too often that you hear of somebody playing five years of major junior hockey, but Joe McDonnell was one. After starting the 1976-77 season in Junior B with his hometown Kitchener club, the 15-year-old defenseman received the call to join the Kitchener Rangers of the OMJHL midway through the season. He played in 29 games that year, picking up four assists.
McDonnell, at 6'2" and almost 200 pounds, was certainly able to handle the physical aspect of the game and he dressed for 55 Ranger games the following year. He became known as a steady, defensive defenseman who rarely took chances in the offensive zone. One need only look at his statistics to confirm that. In his fifth and final year with the Rangers in 1980-81, he contributed 15 goals and 65 points on a strong club that won the Ontario championship and advanced to the Memorial Cup, losing in the final to Dale Hawerchuk and the Cornwall Royals. As luck would have it the Rangers went on to win the Cup the next year, but McDonnell had worn out his eligibility based on age and was not around for an unprecedented sixth year to share in the victory.
McDonnell was undrafted by any NHL club, but thanks to the Rangers advancing to the Memorial Cup and his strong individual play in the tournament where he was named an All-Star, he was given a tryout with the Vancouver Canucks. Although he did not make the NHL club with a full-time roster spot, the Canucks were impressed by his game and offered him a minor-league contract with the CHL's Dallas Blackhawks. In 60 games he produced a respectable 37 points. He was rewarded with a seven-game call-up to Vancouver, where he picked up his first NHL assists.
With his one year contract expired, McDonnell signed with the Edmonton Oilers and suited up with their AHL team in Moncton for the next two years. However, the high-flying Oilers were a finely tuned machine and McDonnell never came close to seeing any playing time with them.
In December, 1984 McDonnell inked a free-agent deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were in need of all kinds of help, but especially on defense. He immediately was inserted into the lineup and dressed for 40 games, producing what were the only two goals of his NHL career. He played another three-games with the Penguins the following year, but realized he had just been used as a stop-gap measure and was not in the team's long-term plans. He played out the remainder of the season with the club's AHL affiliate in Baltimore, retiring at the conclusion of the 1985-86 campaign.