In the 2017-2018 academic year, some 1200 student-athletes joined forces under the unmistakable “H” and represented Harvard Athletics on one of its NCAA-leading 42 Division-I teams. Scarcely any competitor, however, made a greater impact on the university or his respective sport than former men’s ice hockey standout Ryan Donato.
This season, the forward skated on the collegiate, Olympic, and National Hockey League stages. Donato did not seem to care whether he was sporting the crimson, the stars and stripes, or the black and gold “B”—he excelled at all levels of hockey and did so with his typical unassuming demeanor.
“There’s a lot of different things going on with the Olympics and with [the] Boston [Bruins],” said Donato toward the end of his wild Harvard season. “But for me, being able to focus on the games ahead, and just that, allows me to play to my best potential.”
At Harvard, the Scituate, Mass., native enjoyed a stellar junior campaign, posting 43 points (26–17—43) in 29 contests and earning a laundry list of accolades including AHCA First Team All-American, ECAC Hockey Player of the Year, and First Team All-Ivy. Even more importantly, Donato was named a finalist for the 2018 Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to college hockey’s top player. He is just the eighth skater in program history to be considered in the top three for the prestigious honor.
At the conclusion of the 2017-2018 season, the sniper led the nation in goals per game (0.90) and outpaced his fellow ECAC skaters in conference points per game (0.89). Donato’s hot start to the year undoubtedly helped him achieve these marks: he kicked off the season with a career-best 14-game point streak (14–8—22) and was the first Division-I player to eclipse the 20-goal plateau, requiring only 19 games to do so.
In February, the centerman paused his collegiate obligations to represent Team USA in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. Donato shined for the red, white, and blue, ending the tournament tied for the lead in goals (five) and among the top 10 in points (six).
“Just having that opportunity at that stage was just a great opportunity for me to capture and kind of show everybody else on the world stage—obviously, it’s the biggest stage in sports—that I could play,” said Donato, reflecting on his once-in-a-lifetime Olympic experience.
According to the Americans’ head coach, Tony Granato, roughly 100 players were considered for the 2018 Olympic roster, and most of the spots went to overseas professionals and minor league players in North America. Donato was one of just four NCAA skaters to be selected for competition in South Korea.
“Ryan was always one at the top of the list,” said Granato upon returning to the States after the Olympics. “He had a tremendous start [to the season], and he was a guy that we thought would continue to develop and grow and had a great chance for a breakout season to become an elite college player. And he lived up to that.”
USA Hockey was more than pleased with its decision to add the Harvard centerman to the stars and stripes. In Pyeongchang, Donato injected his squad with speed and creativity, pacing the team in scoring and becoming somewhat of a household name in a matter of weeks.
"He fit and played the role exactly the way we had hoped he would,” Granato lauded. “He probably in some ways surpassed what we thought he could do at the Olympics...playing against some of the best players in the world on the big stage.”
During his Olympic stint, Donato’s uncanny goal-scoring ability was on full display for a wider audience than the usual Harvard fan base. But the Crimson faithful was already well aware of Donato’s elite skill set. After all, the ex-Harvard star averaged 20 goals per season during his college tenure, playing alongside some of the program’s most talented forwards in recent years. In short, the local fan base was happy to have him back.
“Obviously, I’m excited to be back,” Donato said after returning from Pyeongchang. “It was a lot of fun there, but now that that’s over, my focus is all on this team, and they deserve it.”
The Dexter School product also potted five hat tricks for the Crimson, with three of them coming in this past campaign. The last goal trio of Donato’s career came with his team’s season on the line in a decisive ECAC quarterfinal game.
The game-three contest marked the final time Ryan Donato would skate at the Bright-Landry Hockey Center—and find twine—for his alma mater. Appropriately sentimental for the occasion, Donato’s first tally that evening thrust him into Harvard’s 100-point club, as the centerman finished with 104 points (60–44—104) in 97 games after three collegiate seasons. Donato is the 32nd player in program history to achieve the milestone.
“On Saturday and Sunday, [Donato] elevated his game, and that helped elevate our team,” said Crimson coach Ted Donato ’91 of Ryan’s play in the Dartmouth series. “Those are our best players, and important games need your best players to be the best players.”
The victory over Dartmouth, which sent the squad back to Lake Placid’s ECAC semifinals for the fourth straight season, also proved to be Donato’s last triumph playing for his school. Harvard’s season ended five days later in heartbreaking fashion to Clarkson.
At that point, Donato finally had to confront the life-changing decision that had been looming in the backdrop of his junior season since the very first fall practice. Would he follow the footsteps of past Crimson stars and return for his senior season, or would the opportunity to play professional hockey simply be too prime to pass up?
Ultimately, Donato decided to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL and announced his plans to leave the Harvard program two days after Clarkson ended the Crimson’s season.
Luckily, the Boston Bruins owned the forward’s rights after selecting him 56th overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. The Bruins would return to TD Garden after a series of road games on Monday, Mar. 19—a perfect opportunity for Donato to debut at home and the main impetus for his quick departure announcement. A Boston debut also allowed for friends, family, and teammates to easily attend the contest and celebrate Donato’s promising young hockey career alongside a roaring hometown crowd.
“We went to go watch the Bruins game,” said rising senior forward and next year’s co-captain Michael Floodstrand of Donato’s debut. “Coach Donato had a box, we all went…. [Ryan] had an unbelievable debut. I was standing the whole time. It was awesome.”
Following the Sunday-evening press release announcing his NHL future, Donato had an exhilarating next 24 hours. He promptly joined the Bruins for a morning skate on Monday before suiting up that night against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“It was a quick turnaround,” said Donato of his decision process, taking a sigh of relief that a whirlwind day was finally over. “I’ve had to call so many people and talk to so many people that it’s honestly insane.”
A new, grander stage. The same unfazed Donato. This seemed to be the theme of Ryan Donato’s 2017-2018 season.
The Harvard product lit the lamp and tacked on two assists for an extraordinary three-point debut. The performance certainly impressed Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, as he expressed his excitement for having Donato on board after the game.
“I liked him a lot,” coach Cassidy said. “He just played his game…. Very impressed by that, to be able to come in here, especially in your hometown.”
In just one day, Donato had gone from the Crimson’s offensive keystone to a piece of the puzzle on a NHL team looking to make a deep playoff run.
And yet, after his exciting first day as a Boston Bruin, Donato effectively returned to the life he was living prior to inking a professional contract. To the extent that the Bruins’ schedule allowed it, he planned to spend nights in Harvard’s Winthrop House and keep up with his coursework. Even the little details—those that truly define a Harvard student—seemed to not miss a beat.
“[After the debut] I came back here, and I was doing work,” Floodstrand recalled fondly. “All of a sudden, he walks in and he’s like, ‘Yo, what’s up?’ And I’m like, ‘What are you doing here?’.... It was crazy: we went to Jefe’s, and it was like, ‘This guy just played for the Bruins.’”
Nothing says staying true to your roots more than a late-night run to Harvard Square staple El Jefe’s Taqueria after a casual three-point NHL debut. Clearly, you can take Ryan Donato out of Harvard, but you can’t take the Harvard out of Ryan Donato.
Nobody knows this better than Ryan’s father and current Crimson coach, Ted. Coach Donato, a 13-year NHL veteran in his own right, has always had an impactful relationship with Ryan around the sport of hockey.
“When we’re at the rink, or at the arena, we were coach and player,” said coach Donato in early April, regarding his hockey relationship with Ryan over the years. “It was an interesting dynamic, and regardless of who you talk to, it’s hard to really gameplan for it. But I thought Ryan did a great job handling it, and I like to think that ultimately it was good for everybody involved.”
The 2017-2018 campaign, however, presented a unique dynamic in the Donato father-son experience. Ryan’s Olympic and NHL journeys gave Ted plenty of reasons to be proud of his son, as well as ample opportunities to advise him as he began to navigate the next steps of his hockey career.
“It’s very exciting, and even watching him at the Olympic Games was a little bit different experience than it is being behind the bench,” noted coach Donato, when asked about what this year meant to his relationship with Ryan. “As a coach, you’re always happy when your players go onto have success, but in Ryan’s case, obviously, there’s another level of connection. It’s hard to put it into words.”
Ted’s father-coach balancing act was among the most fascinating elements of Ryan Donato’s 2017-2018 season. In these nine months, the former Harvard standout took the NCAA by storm, dazzling with his scoring ability and leading by example on a young Crimson squad. He seized a rare opportunity to skate in the Olympics after the NHL barred its players from participating, and he excelled there as well.
Then, after a Hobey-finalist year in college, Donato made the jump to the NHL, where he held his own with nine points (5–4—9) in 12 regular season games. On top of all the on-ice accomplishments, Donato impressed both teammates and fans with his authentic and humble character.
“He’s one of those hockey players that’s just fascinated by everything going on,” reflected coach Granato of his interactions with Donato before and during the Olympics. “He just loves the game so much…. I love the kid. He’s a coachable kid. Obviously, he’s going to have a tremendous career in front of him.”
You would be hard-pressed to find another Harvard athlete who shined on so many levels in 2017-2018. And the best part is: his hockey career has just taken off.
So for those of you who missed the spectacle of Ryan Donato, Harvard centerpiece, you can always see Ryan Donato, Bruins winger, instead. TD Garden is only a short T ride from Harvard Square.
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.