The cell service is iffy in the basement study room inside the Harvard library Ryan Donato is calling from. He has gone from class to hockey practice to a study group to here, and he feels bad for even asking, but how long is this interview going to take?
Donato has two midterms the next day. Though his professors agreed to let him finish much of the work he missed to play hockey in the Olympics over spring break, he is taking all of his exams on time.
“I can’t wait,” he says dryly.
Donato is waiting, though. Waiting to see how far his Harvard team makes it in the postseason, which begins Friday with the ECAC quarterfinals against Dartmouth. Waiting to see whether the Bruins, who drafted him in 2014, were so impressed by his performance in PyeongChang that they’ll want him for a potential Stanley Cup run. Waiting to decide whether he’s ready to forgo his senior year of college for professional hockey.
All of that’s for later, though. Right now, Donato is just trying to get through the day. A 20-hour journey from the Olympic Village to a regional airport to Seoul to Detroit to Boston landed him at Logan Airport on Feb. 22, the day before Harvard played the first of back-to-back games against Brown and Yale.
“I probably went on about three hours of sleep on the plane and then four hours of sleep the night before the game and kind of did whatever I could to help the team out, and then Saturday was kind of the same thing,” Donato says. “I was just really run down.”
The Crimson lost both games, so they head into the playoffs on a sour note. Since then, each practice has been about “bearing down,” Donato says. Staying in the moment. Not just going through the motions.
“I think, for us, during playoffs it’s a whole ’nother animal,” he says. “I think during the season it’s tough sometimes — not every night a team can show up, and obviously we suffered from that.
“I think we’ve kind of learned how to deal with that and how to make sure we don’t have those kind of bumps in the road, so now that it comes playoff time and it could be one game and you’re done, we understand that you have to show up for every game.”
Ted Donato, Ryan’s father and Harvard’s coach, wants the team to play fast but “with intelligence” against Dartmouth. They’ve met twice this season, with Harvard winning both games by scores of 5-0 and 4-1, but Ted assures that both sides have changed significantly and that Harvard can’t expect another lopsided matchup.
Ted says he doesn’t need to compartmentalize being a parent and being a coach because ever since they got back from the Olympics, both Donatos have been squarely focused on Harvard hockey. Ryan has the schoolwork, but he’s responsible, and Ted trusts that he’ll get it all done on time and be ready to play, though “the hockey maybe comes a little bit easier because it’s a passion.”
Ryan Donato had no trouble showing that passion during the Olympics. Though the US men’s team finished a disappointing seventh, the 21-year-old was its breakout star with five goals and one assist in five games.
Though the talent level was diminished with no NHLers, Donato got a glimpse of what his next step could look like, playing against former stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk in a 4-0 loss to the Olympic Athletes from Russia.
“Being at ice level, those guys, they do everything so fast and so smoothly,” says Donato. “I mean, they kind of do it effortlessly.
“Datsyuk would carry the puck through the zone and wouldn’t take a stride and then would hold somebody off his back, and be strong enough to hold somebody, and make a look for a backdoor pass or somebody flying in the zone and hit them mid-stride, making it look easy, like it’s normal.”
Donato copped to feeling “pretty star-struck” as he watched from the bench. Each time his skates met the ice, though, he shed all that to think only about the next play.
That’s where he is now, too. He has hockey at Harvard and schoolwork and little else. Donato thinks he performed well in the Olympics because he didn’t worry about South Korea, or getting hurt before he could get there, leading up to the Games.
“He’s done a really good job of staying focused,” Ted Donato says.
Similarly, Ryan thinks it’ll only hurt him if he worries about when he’ll make his professional debut before Harvard’s season is over.
“When that decision comes, I’ll have to think about it,” Donato said. “It’s going to be a big decision, but now that I’ve had those situations to kind of get used to, hopefully it’ll help me.”
Regardless of when he goes pro, Donato does know one thing: He’s going to finish his sociology degree. He might have to come back and finish it later, but he will, one way or another.
“Nobody goes to Harvard just to attend for three years and say they went there,” he says.
A few moments after that, it’s back to the study guides and flashcards and guesses at what his professors are apt to put on the tests. Normal stuff for a college junior, even one who’s been around the world and back in the last month, and who may not be so normal for very much longer.Nora Princiotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.