As the final hours of 2011 ticked away, Colin McDonald felt pretty good about life.
With his family in the stands, the high-scoring forward handed out 2 assists to lead the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to a 4-2 victory over the Bridgeport Tigers on New Year's Eve afternoon.
His parents, Gerry and Suzanne, and his younger sister, Kelsey, made the drive from Connecticut to watch the game and ring in the New Year as a family.
The McDonalds, along with cousins and aunts and uncles who live in the Wilkes-Barre area and own Penguins season tickets, wound up at Mohegan Sun Casino for dinner and drinks. So did several of Colin's teammates.
As the party migrated from the restaurant to the bar, Colin couldn't help noticing that Kelsey, then a senior at Quinnipiac University, found herself in a conversation with a teammate he didn't know too well: Rookie forward Paul Thompson.
"I always liked Paul, but I didn't hang out with him a ton," said Colin, who was a fifth-year pro at that point. "My sister is a very good-looking girl. I saw Paul talking to her at the end of the night."
Colin wasn't the only member of the McDonald family who noticed their interaction.
"Paul and I just happened to be at the bar next to each other," Kelsey said. "My parents were right there. My mom was watching what was going on, observing our body language."
The night ended innocently. But two weeks later, as the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton squad waited for a flight at the St. John's International Airport following a weekend series against the IceCaps in Newfoundland, Paul asked Colin if they could talk for a minute.
"I assumed, me being older, it was about hockey stuff," Colin said. "So we went over away from the group and I knew something was up right away. He was nervous and he wasn't himself. Paul told me that he and Kelsey had been in touch a little bit and said, 'I want to get your approval.'
"I can't imagine how difficult that was for him. I gained a lot of respect for him to have shown that respect to me. And the rest is history."
Fast-forward to today.
Paul, now in his seventh year as a professional, serves as Chicago Wolves captain and leads with an exemplary work ethic and well-timed words honed by experience. The 29-year-old appeared in his 400th American Hockey League game on Dec. 1. He handed out an assist in that game, which pushed his career ledger to 108 goals, 104 assists and 455 penalty minutes -- admirable numbers for a power forward.
Thompson's leadership has been important during a surge that has made the Wolves the AHL's hottest team over the last two months.
Since Dec. 9, the Wolves have produced a 16-3-2-1 record, good for a .795 winning percentage. Thompson owns 13 goals, 12 assists and a team-high 70 penalty minutes while playing in all 45 games.
"He's a guy who plays in the trenches," said Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson (no relation), who named Paul as the team's captain on Nov. 19. "He's physical. He's strong. He gets under the other team's skin.
"He's vocal. He goes to the front of the net and plays in the dirty areas of the ice. And he has a good skill set in those areas of the ice, which is why he gets rewarded with those goals.
"He's an older guy who's well respected. He's a family man. He's had leadership roles before, and you can see that his peers respect him in the room and he's a gatherer of people -- which is important."
And when Paul leaves the dressing room, he heads to the rental home in Arlington Heights that he and Kelsey share with their 2-year-old son Charlie and 1-year-old daughter Colette.
Every day is a beautiful day for the Thompsons.
On Paul's rare days off, they hop in the car or hop on the Metra to take advantage of the Chicago area's attractions. They've skated at Millennium Park and visited The Bean. They've hit Shedd Aquarium and Navy Pier. They've enjoyed Brookfield Zoo and FireZone in Schaumburg.
But if Charlie had his way, every day would be filled with hockey.
When the Wolves play at home, Charlie's in the stands paying attention to every minute. When the games are over, he joins dad in the locker room to hang out with their buddies.
"He loves the guys," Paul said. "The guys here love him. I bring him into the room and the guys are down playing on the floor with him. He brings a smile to the guys' faces at the times when they need it. It's pretty cool to have him be a part of it. The guys here treat him awesome and he loves seeing them."
When the Wolves are on the road, Kelsey puts the game on TV. Charlie makes it his mission to help his buddies win.
"He copies everything they're doing," Kelsey said. "He grabs his stick and he glides around on our hardwood floors. He bangs into the walls like he's checking somebody. When there's a faceoff, he puts his stick down and starts playing. He's not happy when it's intermission or when the game ends."
Kelsey videotapes Charlie's "games" that sometimes feature him putting a physical check on Colette, who'll get up and resume chasing him without a complaint. "She's going to be tough," Paul said with a smile.
Kelsey shares the videos on the family's group Snapchat. Paul watches them on the bus rides home. Colin, who's grateful to be Charlie's godfather, checks them out when he's not busy serving as captain for the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
They're not the only hockey professionals in the family enjoying those videos. Gerry McDonald, Colin's and Kelsey's father, played in eight games for the Hartford Whalers in the early 1980s as part of his four-year professional career spent primarily in the AHL.
Charlie turns 3 this month and Paul hopes he will retain some foggy memories of these golden days. Paul, of course, will remember them forever. There's something about fathers and sons sharing the sport of hockey together.
With that in mind, when Paul is asked for the most fun he has had as a player, he doesn't think about something that happened on the ice. Last season, during a career-long two-month stint with the NHL's Florida Panthers, Paul's father, also named Paul, accompanied him on the Fathers Trip in January to New York City.
"That was pretty special for me and my dad to get to experience together," Paul said. "As an older player, it's something you don't know if you're ever going to get to do.
"For most hockey players, their parents have sacrificed a lot for them to get to where they are -- and I know my dad has. I was pretty happy to be able to share that experience.
"The treatment and the charter planes are something that most people don't get to experience it. I know my dad couldn't believe that it's how (NHL) guys get treated every day."
Paul's dad didn't play hockey but worked hard as a contractor to help Paul's career unfold.
"Your family gives up a lot of weekends," Paul said. "Then it's the financial aspect of it. There are so many things that go into it."
But there are so many things that come out of it. The welding of the McDonald and Thompson families is proof.
Upon reflection, Kelsey says she sensed Paul already had Colin's seal of approval way back on that New Year's Eve night in Wilkes-Barre.
"This is how I knew Paul was a nice guy," Kelsey said. "Colin left the bar with our cousins without even checking up on us. We just kept talking and exchanged phone numbers."
"I'm very, very grateful that hockey brought them together," Colin said.