GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Before he began his journey halfway across the globe, Harvard coach Ted Donato wrapped up his team’s senior night, knowing a coach belonged with his players. But a dad also needs to be with his son, so off Ted went to the airport. Boston to Detroit. Detroit to Seoul. Seoul to PyeongChang. PyeongChang to Gangneung — where finally, sometime Tuesday morning South Korea time, he headed to a waiting seat inside the Ice Hockey Centre here at the Winter Olympics.
Yet any exhaustion the former Bruin might have felt quickly gave way to exhilaration, courtesy of the play of Ryan Donato, Ted and Jeannine’s 21-year-old son, otherwise known as Team USA’s breakout star.
With two more goals Tuesday, Ryan helped the United States stave off the embarrassment of early elimination in a 5-1 blowout of Slovakia, pushing the Americans into a quarterfinal Wednesday against the Czech Republic.
With two more goals Tuesday, Ryan matched Ted Donato’s Olympic output of four goals in 1992 in Albertville.
“I’m more than OK with that,” Ted said from his cellphone, climbing into a taxi to head off for a well-deserved postgame dinner with family. Jeannine and their daughter Madelyn, as well as Jeannine’s mother and two of Ryan’s closest childhood friends, Austin O’Malley and Patrick Kearney, have been here since the start of the Olympics, enjoying every hockey game and every ounce of hospitality the South Koreans have been so quick to provide. The group was able to share a quick visit on the concourse of the arena just after the game concluded.
“It really is something special,” Ted said. “I think just knowing the experience I had and just having that opportunity to represent your country in the Olympic Games — which to me, there are so many special stories and everything that goes along with it — it’s a life experience that I was over the moon that he was able to experience this.”
So there was Ted’s jubilant face on the overhead cameras during the game, pumping his fist and celebrating like any dad would after Ryan’s first goal, a second-period rebound that gave the United States a 1-0 lead.
“I never saw smiles like that before, so it was good to see that,” Ryan said, sweat still dripping down his face in the media interview area.
The personal rooting section wasn’t done dancing, not after Ryan drew the penalty that set up Team USA’s second goal. It was a blind-side elbow to the face he said “felt not too great, I’m not going to lie,” but that set up the five-on-three in which James Wisniewski doubled the lead.
Ryan wrapped up the afternoon’s offensive outburst with a scorching slap shot with 3:14 remaining. There was O’Malley, sweating inside his full-on Team USA ski suit. There was Kearney, wrapped in his American flag. There was a group of family and friends beyond excited to see their son, their brother, their buddy take the hockey world by such storm.
“I didn’t expect it to be as nerve-racking as it was — moreso because I want them to have success so much, and really enjoy the whole moment, that’s why I’m so nervous,” Ted Donato said. “To see them be able to extend their stay and keep their dreams alive is pretty neat.”
They wouldn’t be here without the Donato line, the one that has emerged as the best of the US attack so far. With veteran Mark Arcobello centering Donato and University of Denver star Troy Terry, the blend of speed and savvy, age and youth, has clearly worked. Terry is a supreme playmaker, a pass-first visionary who had three assists in the win. Donato is a sniper who his dad likes to say “gets off the bus ready to shoot.”
Team USA coach Tony Granato knew what he was doing in blending the youth and experience — just as he did putting Boston University star forward Jordan Greenway alongside veteran center and team captain Brian Gionta; just as he knew what he was getting in Donato, a kid who was all but raised drinking milk from a hockey stick, sucking on a puck as a pacifier.
“We put him on a pretty significant line and gave him a power-play role right out of the gate, so we had the confidence,’’ Granato said. “We saw what he’s done in college, had seen him at different camps. We know what he’s capable of doing. When it gets to that stage for the first time, you never 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. He gets it.”
Here in Korea, he’s getting it. Four goals later, he’s quickly becoming the owner of the hockey shot heard ’round the world. I had to ask Granato: How good is it?
“Ask the other goalies,” Granato laughed. “I think they’d say it’s probably pretty deceiving how quick he gets it off. He snapped one off the crossbar the other night that he had the goalie beat from the top of the circle. He’s confident in it. He wants the puck to shoot it.”
“A pretty easy player to play with,” Terry said of Donato. “When you got a guy who’s that fast and that skilled and with a shot like that, it’s pretty easy to play with. I know if I get the puck to him there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to go in the net.”
Such is the byproduct of all those years Ryan spent in his Scituate driveway, slapping puck after puck into a net, nurturing dream after dream of reaching this stage. There’s so much ahead now for Ryan Donato: a return to his Harvard team if he wants, or maybe a quick professional turn to join the Bruins franchise that drafted him. The kid’s already shown he’s pretty adept at stepping in his dad’s footsteps.
With four Olympic goals and counting to prove it.