Make no mistake about it, Ryan Donato is a great hockey player. He has shown that throughout his career. He now enters the next level of that career—the signing of his first professional contract. On Sunday he signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Boston Bruins organization, just one day after his Harvard Crimson hockey team was eliminated from the NCAA playoffs.
In addition to his skill set, he has the heart and determination that any team wants in a player. This was made unquestioningly clear after Team USA lost their quarterfinal game against the Olympic Athletes from Russia team. The disappointment showed as a depthless black pool in his eyes as he bravely continued to represent his country, answering questions from all manner of the media. And despite making five goals during the tournament, the most of any player on his team and one more than his father made when he played, he commented that no one remembers who scores the most goals, only who wins.
“I saw him score five goals there,” head coach Bruce Cassidy shared with exuberance on Monday. “That’s what I would like to see more of here. Impressions are, he played with men at a higher level.”
In fact, Cassidy actually interrupted the journalist who was asking if he saw much of Donato’s play in PyeongChang and his impressions of the young forward. So, maybe the average watcher of the Olympics won’t remember what he accomplished there, but those in the Bruins organization and those who follow hockey at the most detailed levels will remember what he accomplished and how he did it with the composure of someone who is much older.
Now, he will again find himself on a big stage—his first NHL-career game. As he suits up for the Bruins on Monday when they take on the Columbus Blue Jackets, he is again showing his composure.
“I think for me, I just want to play well and do whatever I can to help the team. Obviously, I just… there’s not many things that have been said to me, I just know I have to go in confident and just do what I can to help,” he shared after morning practice. “At the end of the day it’s just hockey, I’ve been doing it my whole life, so hopefully I can do it to the best of my abilities tonight.”
His comment about it being “just hockey” was something he shared with me when I interviewed him in PyeongChang before the round robin games began for Team USA, and he showed that confidence, played his game, and scored goals. And while he was doing that, he also brought his school books with him, something that he will do in this first part of his time with the Boston Bruins.
“I want to finish the semester academically. Obviously, it’s going to be difficult, but for me that’s something… for me that’s a dream to graduate from Harvard and obviously I’m putting that off a little bit, but I need to finish the semester to have that opportunity and not put it off an extra couple of years,” he shared.
That continuation of schooling and ensuring he doesn’t give up one dream for another, shows a grounding that one doesn’t normally see in one of such an age.
“Obviously you can get distracted with a lot of stuff that goes on here and being a professional athlete, but I think that being able to have school to kind of keep me calm and give me something to do and focus on other than worrying about what’s going on other than hockey is definitely something I’m excited about as well,” he offered.
During his three years at Harvard, playing for his father, Ted Donato, who is the head coach of the Harvard University Crimson hockey team, he played 97 games, notching 60 goals and 44 assists for 104 points. The 21-year-old, Scituate native also has a bronze medal from his World Junior Championship time two years ago—the first time he represented his country.
Coach Cassidy isn’t the only one who thinks that Donato showed a poise on the big Olympic stage—the captain of Team USA, and now a Bruin himself and Donato’s line mate as the game gets underway Monday night, Brian Gionta talked of his abilities.
“You know, obviously, it’s a little different on the bigger ice but I think his skill set, you know, obviously his composure with the puck, he’s made plays, he’s got a great release on his shot so all that’s going to translate well to this level as well,” Gionta stated.
No matter what he has experienced before though can truly prepare him for this major milestone in his life—that moment when he steps onto the ice for his first NHL shift. There will be nerves. There will be adrenaline. But as he himself has stated, it’s just hockey and his own body will take over soon enough and do what it has done for so many years.
“You just go out there and have fun. You just enjoy the experience for what it is. It only happens one time and I’m sure he’ll have a lengthy career but that first game, first time coming out of that tunnel’s pretty special,” Gionta offered of what Donato is about to experience.
“Obviously it’s a job now,” Donato told media. “It’s obviously still fun, but there is a side to it where you have to perform and for me I know that now and I’ll just try to work my hardest to get that opportunity.”
During the Olympics his head coach Tony Granato recognized his talents, but also his understanding of what it takes to continue on the path he has chosen.
“When he gets to that stage [NHL level] for the first time, you never ever know, but, like I said, his dad’s an NHL player and coach. So, he’s grown up in NHL locker rooms. He’s seen everything about it, so he gets it. He’s a pro,” Granato said.
“Yeah, for sure, he’s a great kid in the room and over there, like I said, he was just part of it and you know those young guys coming in, college kid coming into that situation could be overwhelmed by it and he wasn’t at all,” Gionta agreed.
For Monday night, hopefully he can take it all in from that first skate around the rink in warm-ups to the trip out of the tunnel at the start of the game. As he sits on the bench with his line mates Noel Acciari and Gionta, may he look out on the ice and know that he is where he is supposed to be and have a moment where he can just simply enjoy it. The work ethic and commitment are there, but everyone deserves to just have fun on that first night and that first shift.
“Obviously I’m really excited and obviously it’s something that I don’t want to happen too fast, so I can cherish every second of it. Right now, it’s a lot of fun,” he shared after practice.
Welcome to the NHL and to the Boston Bruins Ryan. May it always be fun, even though it is a job.