PROVIDENCE — One year out from what he calls “one of the highlights of my life,” Ryan Donato didn’t expect to be standing here, steps away from the hockey rink he currently calls home.
This isn’t South Korea, where a year ago he was an Olympian wearing a red-white-and-blue jersey, leading a veteran-laden team in scoring. It’s not the Harvard University rink, where he’d starred for years and where he was welcomed back for one final stint following those PyeongChang Games. And it’s certainly not TD Garden, where as a late-season signee he helped last year’s Bruins go two rounds deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
No, Donato is in a hallway underneath the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, home to the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins, where players are doing everything they can to get back to places he has already been. Not quite where the 22-year-old envisioned taking his next hockey step, but the sharpshooting forward understands it’s the only way to get back to Boston.
“It’s definitely emotionally hard,” he said. “I want to be there, and I believe that I deserve to be there, but it’s not my call. And I’m going to do everything in my power to do everything to get better as a player here so when I do get my chance again, they have no choice but to keep me up.”
A year ago, everything for Donato was trending up. The Olympic experience didn’t just introduce him to a special group of teammates he knows will remain friends for the rest of his life, from bunkmate Jordan Greenway to NHL veteran Brian Gionta, but it also introduced the hockey world to a scoring phenom.
As his father Ted, the former Bruin who also coached Ryan at Harvard, described him during those Olympics, he’s a kid who “steps off the bus ready to shoot.” He then went out and proved it, leading Team USA with five goals.
That was enough to convince him to forgo his senior year at Harvard and turn pro in March, making good on the second-round draft selection the Bruins had used on him in 2014. When he scored his first professional goal (to go along with two assists) in his debut, and when he helped Boston get past the Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs, he seemed poised for bigger things this season.
But after 34 more NHL games this season, with just six goals, he’s on his second stint in the AHL, this one since Jan. 28. Boston coach Bruce Cassidy spoke in late January of how Donato, who is 6 feet and just under 200 pounds, needs to get stronger on the puck.
“There’s definitely things I need to work on,” Donato said, “and the strength thing is one thing. I know last year nobody would say that I was getting pushed off my skates. I think it’s something people say he’s fallen down a few times, maybe it’s a little bit of nerves, maybe a little excited to play, but I know I’m a strong hockey player. I’ve had people at every level tell me I’m strong with the puck, so all of a sudden to have it said now, I know my abilities.
“There’s guys I look up to that have gone through these types of peaks and downs. For me as a player, I know I’m an NHL player and it’s just a matter of time until I find my stride. I showed it in spurts last year and I know that I can and I know I will eventually. It’s just getting that chance.”
Working for it has been a topic of steady conversation between father and son, with father straddling the line between parent and coach, making sure both are bolstered with support for the son. Ted once followed a similar path, going from Harvard to the Olympics to the Bruins. Though he stuck with the big club right away, the latter years of his NHL career saw him using the AHL to stay in the game. He knows the value of being there.
“I think I’m just trying to be supportive,” Ted said in a phone conversation. “Obviously he wants to get to the NHL, get to Boston. He’s no different than anybody else down in Providence with that agenda.
“But I just kind of harp on him to be a professional, to work hard and not waste time or emotional energy on things you can’t control. Work on getting better on the ice, bigger and stronger off the ice, and have the best attitude you can have.
“I’m obviously very optimistic about his future and his ability, and I think as a dad I should be and I need to be. But I think for me it’s healthy to keep two hats on to try to add perspective at times and to make sure that he focuses on what he can control.”
At the same time, it doesn’t hurt to remember what he’s done. To channel the guy who smiled his way through South Korea, laughing as Greenway struggled to fit his 6-6 frame into the dorm bed (“his feet hung off the bed like 4 feet, but the beds were next to each other, so that was easy to get to know him”). To marvel over visits to the Team USA house that introduced him to so many Olympic athletes from other sports. To lean on the muscle memory of a forward who never met a shot he didn’t like.
“I’ve done it before,” said Donato. “I know. And by no means that I’ve reached my abilities either. I truly believe that I can be not just an NHL player but a high-impact NHL player. A 30-goal scorer is something I aspire to be.”