If he’s gotten lost in the shuffle a bit from David Pastrnak’s rapid path to the NHL and a ten-selection draft one year after the Bruins took him in the second round, Harvard freshman Ryan Donato is doing his part to shine.
The son of his Crimson coach and former Catholic Memorial and Harvard hockey star-turned-Boston Bruin (796 NHL games played with the B’s, Islanders, Ducks, Kings, Stars, Blues and Rangers before going back to Boston to finish his career in 2004) the 56th overall selection in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft is having a terrific 2016, and we’re only in mid February.
- Donato not only made the Team USA 2016 World Jr. squad, but helped the Americans salvage a disappointing semifinal loss to Russia with a resounding bronze medal game victory with a two-goal thumping over the Czech Republic.
- He played in his first Beanpot hockey tournament after years as a spectator and scored his first goal of that storied tournament, checking two big boxes off of his personal hockey bucket list. Next stop: Win the darn thing and complete the usurpation of Boston College or Boston University for the first time since 1993, three full years before Donato was born. His dad won a Beanpot as a player- in 1989- the same year Donato and his Harvard Crimson mates went on to win the NCAA championship- but doing so as a head coach has thus far eluded him.
- Donato scored his first career NCAA hat trick over the weekend, his 8th, 9th and 10th goals of the season to get to double digits. For any freshman, that’s a solid achievement but better things are surely in store for the Scituate, Mass. native.
The oldest of Ted and Jeannine Donato’s four talented (and highly competitive) kids comes from impressive athletic stock. Everyone knows about his dad’s NHL pedigree, but his mother played college soccer at Villanova, and her brother, Matt McLees, is a former NFL linebacker with the Cleveland Browns. His son and Ryan’s cousin, Tyler McLees, is a senior at West Point and the captain of the USMA Black Knights varsity wrestling squad.
At this stage of his development, it’s pretty fair to say that Donato is living up to the immense promise that saw his hometown team call his name in Philadelphia with the second of just five total draft picks after a standout career of prep hockey at Dexter School in Brookline, where he skated under his uncle, Dan Donato (who played hockey at Boston University and was a pro baseball player after college).
Ryan Donato has been an impact player in his first year of ECAC competition, in many respects validating the faith his hometown team has in him to one day be a part of the solution in Boston.
“One thing I notice is just paying attention in practice,” he told the Scouting Post blog. “I think one of the biggest things is being a student of the game. There are a lot of things you learn from playing at this level, and a lot of things that the upperclassmen, the older guys- the seniors and juniors can teach you and a lot of the experiences and knowledge that the coaches have. That’s the biggest thing at this level- making sure you’re doing the little things right and I think everything pays off if you pay attention to the things that matter.”
Donato is looking forward to being a part of another potential Harvard run to the ECAC championship, a berth in the NCAA tournament and competing for a chance to be the first Crimson (on only) team to win a national title since 1989. That year, his dad was the NCAA tournament MVP and finished fifth in team scoring with 14 goals and 51 points in 34 games.
“I think there are a lot of guys who really want it, we really want it” Donato said of a veteran group that has the firepower to do some damage if Harvard can come together at the right time. “The difference with our team is that we have a lot of great depth and guys who are sitting out, but every single day they bring it to practice and make sure they’re ready to go for the playoffs. Guys like Jimmy Vesey, Kyle Criscuolo…learning from those guys. Honestly, it’s one of the best things I have to say- it’s an unbelievable opportunity.”
His stats line is a respectable one- 10 goals and 16 points in 23 games with Harvard, good for fourth place behind seniors Vesey and Criscuolo and junior center Alexander Kerfoot. This follows on the heels of being Dexter’s top scorer in that hockey program’s history. If his experience at this month’s Beanpot is any indication, Harvard could be in pretty good hands come 2017 when Donato and company will get another shot at bringing the trophy to Cambridge.
“Honestly, before (the games) I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous because I knew that all of my friends and family were going to be there,” said Donato. “It was something special from the beginning, and I think I’ve been going to the (Beanpot) games for 14 years or a long, long time. I think just getting on the ice for the first time, I had a pit in my stomach going around in warmups. Hopefully, this (the TD Garden) can be my home and after scoring the first goal, I enjoyed the feeling of getting one there and I hope I’ll have other opportunities.
“The Beanpot was such a great tournament but there weren’t many great results for us, but hopefully over the next couple of years, we’ll have a Beanpot title. It’s kind of a whirlwind at the beginning for your first Beanpot because you don’t really know what to expect. Being a Boston boy there are a lot more nerves that go into it beforehand as opposed to maybe a Minnesota guy who doesn’t know what the Beanpot is about.”
However, even with production of more than 200 career points at prep level, there were whispers about him dominating the competition level and how long it might take him to make an impact in the NCAA without being challenged over a full season of junior hockey.
“If there were any doubts about (Donato) after his senior year at Dexter I think they’re pretty minimal now,” said one New England-based NHL scout from an Eastern Conference team. “He put in the (offseason) work and made sure he was ready to go right out of the gate. I think making the World Jr. team was a big statement for him- he beat out some bigger name guys to make the squad and it did wonders for his confidence. We’re seeing it more and more, and he looks like a player who is going to be a key part of his team at Harvard going forward.”
The WJC experience of competing against the top under-20 talent in the world and coming home with a bronze medal certainly framed 2016 in a positive manner for Donato.
“It was a blast, obviously,” he said of his time with Team USA in Helsinki. “The guys I met and played with and against were unbelievable players on the ice and unbelievable people off the ice. I think the coaching staff was great as well- Coach Chelios definitely helped me along the way. He was our ‘D’ coach but was a special guy and influence on all of us just by the way he carried himself around the rink. I’m hoping that just by the way he acts around the rink and with the players is something I can emulate.”
He admitted to having an open mind for the WJC training camp and selection process, not taking anything for granted, especially since he was not a graduate of the U.S. National Team Development Program (Donato did play a few games with the NTDP as an augmentation to the roster and competed in the Under-18 Four Nations tourney in Turku, Finland in November of 2013).
“Going into the tryouts I was kind of nervous because I wasn’t sure what kind of style it would be,” he said. “But I think the NCAA and especially the ECAC is a pretty hard-nosed style with a lot of hitting- some nights, it’s like a wrestling match below the dots. So, when I went there, it felt like there was a lot more space. I wouldn’t say it was a softer game (in the IIHF) but more of a finesse game, which I wasn’t as used to but it wasn’t that hard to adjust, but it’s a style of play I’m more comfortable with.”
Donato completed his second development camp with the Bruins last July, taking the experiences he had in 2014 and applying them to get a little more out of his second summer in Wilmington.
“I’ve just been trying to play a solid game, a reliable game,” he said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things that the Bruins staff is looking for now, and that is a strong, solid game. Being a strong player physically off the ice and on the ice is something I’ve learned that they’re looking for, and getting stronger off the ice is something I’ve focused on, and making sure I know the systems and play the game the right way.”
Bigger than his dad at around 6-foot-1 in height, he doesn’t quite have the senior Donato’s wheels, but uses his high-end hockey sense to get the jump on opponents and has outstanding puck skills to rack up the offensive production at even strength and on the man advantage. One of the knocks on Donato is that he’s lacking in foot speed enough to maximize his impressive hands and head. However, that is not a consensus view in the scouting community.
“I think some people make an issue of his skating where there isn’t much of one in my opinion,” the scout said. “He may not have his dad’s speed, but he’s bigger and is heavier on the puck than Teddy was. I sometimes get the feeling that if it wasn’t for the fact that his father’s calling card was that pure speed, you wouldn’t hear about it being an issue as much with Ryan. Having said that, there’s room for improvement- he can pick up a couple of steps and it’s something he continues to work on.”
When the Bruins drafted Donato in 2014, everyone knew he was a long-term project who would need ample time to grow and mature as a player before he was ready to try and follow in his NHL father’s footsteps. A little less than two years later, that steady growth and development is evident with the 19-year-old, as he has already made an impact and added to his family’s legacy at Harvard.
“Being drafted by Boston was a symbol of all the work that I would have to put in over the coming years,” said Donato. “Things that the team wanted me to work on since then is my body and getting stronger and learning how to play the game right. I think that’s one of the biggest things for the transition that coaches have said for players is making sure they play the game of hockey the right way.”
And how, exactly, does Donato describe that in his own words?
“I think it’s all about doing the little things that will make the difference both on the ice and off the ice,” he said. “I’ve seen that it pays off in college and will hopefully pay off in the NHL one day.”
Here’s the New England Hockey Journal show episode on Ryan Donato after he was drafted by Boston– it’s worth sitting down and watching in its entirety if you haven’t seen it.