Ryan Donato may not have been born in a hockey rink but it is the place he feels most at home.
When he came into the world on April 9, 1996, his mother Jeannine said he came out holding a hockey stick.
No wonder, given that his father, Ted, established himself as a reliable and productive forward with the Bruins.
After seven-plus seasons in Boston, though, Ted Donato and his family went on an odyssey that involved 13 destinations from 1998 to 2004, after which Donato retired as a player and assumed the head coaching job at his alma mater – Harvard – at the start of the 2004-05 season.
In all the different cities he lived in as a youngster, Ryan grew up bonding with other NHL players’ children, often opting to play street hockey in the hallways of the rinks rather than watching the games. Sitting still was never an option then. It still isn’t.
Ryan Donato, 18, has worked hard on his game and just finished his junior year at Dexter School in Brookline, where he scored 78 points, 37 of them goals, in 30 contests. His coach is his uncle, Dan Donato.
He and his family will be at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia this weekend in hopes of watching Ryan be selected in the NHL draft. He is ranked No. 58 among North America skaters by the Central Scouting Bureau.
“Obviously, it’s every kid’s dream to be drafted,’’ said Ryan. “I’m just kind of playing it by ear and waiting to see what happens. I’m going to be happy no matter what.’’
Ted Donato, 45, said this experience will be a far cry from his, when he was selected by Boston in the fifth round (No. 98 overall) in 1987.
“I found out I was drafted by the Bruins when I was at a friend’s house,’’ said Donato. “They got me out of the pool and my dad was on the phone and he said, ‘You got picked by the Bruins.’ I would’ve have rather gotten picked by the Bruins in the 100th round than another team in the third round because who doesn’t want to play for the Bruins? It was definitely a little bit of a pipe dream back then [to expect to make it to the NHL]. The landscape has definitely changed.’’
Father knows best
Ryan’s father said he has done his best to offer perspective.
“I’ve been careful all along to make sure Ryan knew that getting drafted wasn’t the end, it was just the beginning,’’ Ted Donato said. “If his dream is to someday play in the NHL, the focus really needs to be on continuing to improve.’’
After the draft, Ryan and his family will make a decision about his next step. He has the option to return to Dexter for his senior year or leave to play in Omaha in the USHL to further develop his hockey skills. Ted Donato said if there’s a way to do both, they will explore that as well because Ryan’s goal is to get into Harvard, and he knows he needs to meet the school’s admission standards.
“It’s extremely tough,’’ said Ryan. “Obviously, I want to challenge myself for hockey but I also love where I’m at.’’
And just because his last name is Donato, it doesn’t guarantee entry into Harvard.
“It’s a very delicate situation,’’ said Ted Donato. “We’ll see what happens.’’
Was Dad even close?
When Ryan was a child, he loved spending time at the rink. His idol was Paul Kariya and during the season his dad played for the Ducks – 1999-2000 – Ryan grew to know Kariya well.
“Kariya was Ryan’s favorite the whole time,’’ said Ted Donato. “We lived in a neighborhood that was close by so Kariya used to come over and play street hockey. All the other kids in the neighborhood were like, ‘This is unbelievable.’ ’’
But even 4-year-olds have their pride. One day, when Kariya was horsing around in the Ducks’ dressing room, he grabbed Ryan and put him in a trash can.
Ryan immediately informed his parents that his new favorite player was Teemu Selanne.
Earlier in his father’s career, Ryan attended the skills competition during All-Star weekend. He sat on the bench between Bruins Sergei Samsonov and Joe Thornton, wearing Samsonov’s gloves and Thornton’s helmet. Ray Bourque’s son, Christopher, dressed him.
As much as there have been benefits to having the Donato name, there have been challenges, too. When he plays in games, he has a ready-made target on his back.
“If you’re going to shut our team down, he’s certainly the guy you want to go after,’’ said Dan Donato. “He takes a beating every game. One of the most impressive things about Ryan is that as much as he gets hacked and whacked, the stuff that happens to him is a penalty to anyone else. He’s very disciplined about fighting back. He deals with it every game.’’
Ryan Donato said it’s gotten easier as time’s gone by.
“I’d get chirped at with kids saying, ‘You’re only here because of your dad.’ It was a benefit more than anything. At times I felt targeted during games and I still feel targeted now. Now that I am kind of making a name for myself, I get a little more respect.’’
Meeting the challenge
Ryan was also challenged during the recent NHL combine. During an interview with the Bruins, he was asked how he felt his play was away from the puck. Ryan didn’t feel it was all that bad but the Bruins informed him it wasn’t very good — at all. He accepted the feedback and moved on.
“No question he needs to become better away from the puck, but what high school kid doesn’t?’’ said Dan Donato. “That’ll happen but he’s going to get burned and he’s going to get benched and those things are going to happen because that’s part of growth.’’
Another team put him in a position to criticize an opponent. Dexter had beaten St. Andrew’s, 5-1, which was its most impressive win of the year.
During an interview with another NHL team, he was told that Warren Foegele, a forward on St. Andrew’s, had said he’s a better player than Donato. Foegele allegedly said, “The refs screwed us the whole game and otherwise [St. Andrew’s] would’ve smoked [Dexter] and [Foegele] was the best player on the ice.’’
Ryan didn’t fall for it, opting instead to compliment Foegele’s play. Dan Donato said two days after that meeting, Foegele sat with Ryan at breakfast and Ryan asked why Foegele had said those things. Foegele said he hadn’t even met with that team.
“That was a team trying to mess with him but that is the wackiness of pro sports,’’ said Dan Donato. “They want to see what you’re all about.’’
Harvard in his sights
Ryan Donato said he wants to take the route his father took but also carve his own path.
“He’s such a great guy to try to follow and try to emulate what he did in his career,’’ he said. “Just having his personality all the time, it kind of made me want to be just like him.’’
And if he does wind up at Harvard playing for his dad, Ted Donato said he would relish that.
“I’m sure there is in the sense that it’s a delicate balance and it’s a complicated scenario but I think it’s a deep second place to the fact that I respect and Ryan respects, the value of a Harvard education in his life,’’ he said. “Everything else is kind of weighed after that. It’s always a unique dynamic but ultimately he’ll be treated just like everybody else, or unfortunately, maybe a little worse.’’
Ryan said he’ll be ready for that.
“He’ll be able to say whatever he wants and not feel like he has to feel bad or anything,’’ he said. “He’ll feel free to yell at me and encourage me to do better in my game like Uncle Danny.’’
Ryan’s brother, Jack, who turns 17 in September, is also at Dexter, as is Nolan, 15, who will be a freshman in the fall. Maddie, the Donatos’ only daughter, will be 12 in August. But this weekend, the focus will be on Ryan, his high hopes and taking the next step on the ladder.
“He’s one of these unbelievably nice kids off the ice,’’ said Dan Donato. “There’s no dark side to it. What I see on the ice is a super competitive kid who expects to win. He’s gifted like his father was, too.’’