By Warren Kosel
The old adage “I grew up on the ice” seems to be the common retort that runs rampant across hockey players at all levels when asked how they were first introduced to the game they have devoted most of their lives to.
The proverbial meaning behind it, of course, suggests nothing more than they, like most, started playing at a relatively young age and have been ever since. An age where getting over the coldness of the frigid air was the initial challenge, learning to skate was often aided by a folding chair and winning and losing didn’t necessarily matter. It was a time when hockey can be, and should be, simply enjoyed and loved in its purest form.
And that’s exactly how it was for Rochester Americans defenseman Matt Donovan, whose career took off at the age of three, paving way for one of the most unprecedented journeys to the professional ranks. While most kids were spending their days of youth on the nearby outdoor pond or homemade backyard rinks, Donovan’s introduction to hockey was vastly different, and almost unavoidable.
Like kids his same age, Donovan took the ice a few years after he learned to walk, but it was his unique upbringing that distinguished him from the rest. The only difference is that he was able to, quite literally, grow up on the ice.
“My dad ran a rink ever since I was born,” said the now 25-year-old Donovan. “I’ve literally been on the ice since I was two or three. As long as I can remember I was always at the rink, either rollerblading around outside or skating in the rink inside. It’s obviously helped me to get to where I am now and it was definitely beneficial having my dad run a rink and being able to be on the ice whenever I wanted.”
With all the ice that was readily available, Donovan used it to his advantage to hone in on his skills, whether it was with a group of kids or by his lonesome. If the opportunity presented itself, it was fair to assume that the young boy from the small town of Edmond, Oklahoma, traditionally not known as a hockey hotbed, could be found somewhere mastering the art of the wrist shot.
The sport soon consumed his life, so much to the point that all he wanted to do was accompany his Dad to work, excited for a new day and a little more time on a fresh sheet of ice. Little did he know that one day it would soon take him places far outside of Edmond and open the doors to opportunities beyond that of the town rink he attended faithfully ever since he was able to stand.
“I wanted to be there (at the rink) as much as I could,” said Donovan of his childhood. “I wanted to be on the ice and having fun. I think in that aspect it was advantageous having the opportunity to get on the ice whenever I wanted to work on my game.”
As an added bonus, it was only fitting for his father, the same person that gave him his first pair of skates and introduced him to the game he now plays as a living, also served as his first coach. Over time, the relationship between father and son quickly developed into that of a player and coach as Donovan would go onto play most of his youth hockey for his Dad, who he attributes to being the most influential in his career.
“He was my coach growing up until I was 16,” said Donovan. “He was very instrumental in me being the player I am today and pushing me to be the player I am today. There’s a fine line of how kids are growing up today and their parents pushing them as hard as possible, but (he) just kind of let me do my thing. When I was out there, he never told me to go work on something. All he said was ‘go out there and have some fun’, but when he was coaching me, he was definitely hard on me.”
Donovan began to excel in hockey under the guidance of his father, but being a multi-sport athlete at the time, he was forced to make a difficult decision, one that would ultimately change his life forever.
“At 16, I kind of had to make a choice. I knew I wanted to play hockey, so I stopped playing football and baseball and concentrated solely on hockey. That’s when my parents kind of told me ‘you got to decide if this is what you want to do, because you’re not going to make it staying here’,” recalled Donovan.
Naturally, the choice was hockey. The only problem, however, was finding a place to play. The scarcity of competitive leagues in Oklahoma made it virtually impossible for Donovan to continue the pursuit of his dream, so he was again tasked with making another monumental decision. But just the like one before it, it clearly paid off.
“At that point I knew what I had to do,” said Donovan. “I realized that if I wanted hockey to still be a part of my life, I would have to leave Oklahoma and my family. From then on, this was what I want to do.”
So began his journey, stopping first in Dallas, Texas, where he played a few years at the AAA level for the Stars. After that, Donovan moved onto junior hockey, playing two seasons in Iowa for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the United States Hockey League, becoming one of the most dominant two-way defensive players in the league.
During the 2007-08 season, Donovan was twice named USHL Defensive Player of the Week and finished the year ranked seventh among all USHL defensemen in scoring with 30 points (12+18) in 59 games to go along with a team-best plus-19 on-ice rating. He was also named to the USHL All-Rookie Team, a prelude to an even more exciting offseason that saw him inch closer to his NHL dream when the New York Islanders selected him in the fourth round (96th overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
The following year, Donovan was the league’s top scoring defenseman, leading all blueliners in goals and points while placing fourth among the circuit in assists. In addition, he paced all rearguards with 31 power-play points, including a team-high 10 goals, and represented Cedar Rapids at the 2009 USHL Prospects All-Star Game.
From there, it was off to Colorado, where he joined the University of Denver for two seasons. Recording 21 points as a rookie, Donovan was named an Inside College Hockey Freshman All-American and earned All-WCHA Rookie Team honors. He led all WCHA rookie defensemen with seven goals and finished sixth among all rookies in scoring.
In 2010-11, Donovan helped the Pioneers to an appearance in the NCAA Midwest Regional after leading all Denver defensemen in points, earning him All-WCHA Second Team honors. At the close of the season, his dream finally became a reality when he signed his first entry-level contract with the Islanders. Donovan was assigned to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders’ American Hockey League affiliate, and as expected, made an immediate impact.
Donovan posted five points (1+4) in six games for the Sound Tigers and made his pro debut on Apr. 1 in a 3-2 loss against the Springfield Falcons. He registered his first point on an assist the very next night in a 4-3 win at Binghamton and followed up with his first pro goal in Bridgeport’s 4-3 win over Albany on Apr. 10.
His journey didn’t end there, though. Donovan still had one more stop to make, and after playing most of the 2011-12 campaign in Bridgeport, and being named to the AHL’s All Rookie Team, the call he worked so tirelessly for finally came. All those years of spending day after day on the ice back home in Edmond finally paid off.
He was going to the NHL.
With his family in the stands, and his first-ever coach there to support him, Donovan made his long awaited NHL debut against the New Jersey Devils, logging 21:52 of ice time over 24 shifts. While playing his first NHL game wasn’t special enough, Donovan became the first Oklahoman born, raised and trained to play in the NHL, a distinction he still holds today.
That in itself, Donovan claims, is something to be proud of.
“When you think about that saying, the first from a state to make it, it’s pretty special. I don’t take it for granted,” said Donovan, who currently has 12 points on three goals and nine assists in 38 games with the Amerks.
While he of course takes a lot of pride in his accomplishments, and considering the fact no else from the state of Oklahoma has ever graced an NHL roster, he hopes his story blazes a trail for future players as a source of inspiration to follow their dreams.
“I hope the path I took opens doors for kids in non-hockey areas, whether it’s Oklahoma or Texas, and other places like that. I hope it opens doors for other kids coming up. I hope seeing me make it to where I am today, gives them a little hope, and they can say ‘hey, if he could do it, I can do it too’,” said Donovan.
Looking back on his journey, Donovan confesses that he never thought getting to where he is today was even a possibility. After all, being a kid from a small, rural town in Oklahoma, hockey wasn’t exactly at the forefront.
But then again, his fate was predetermined by an upbringing on the ice.
“No, not at all,” admitted Donovan about the thought of chasing his dream. “I always say, coming from Oklahoma, you don’t watch a lot of hockey, you don’t watch the NHL. It was hard a dream to chase, but I’m very grateful for where I am today and the people that helped me along the way.”