BOSTON -- It was clear in Ryan Donato’s voice that it was important for him to get called back up to Boston and play against the Islanders on the night Rick Middleton’s No. 16 jersey was retired. Nifty was, after all, the favorite player of Donato’s father Ted, an ex-Bruin himself, and was at least part of the reason that the younger Donato had always wanted to wear the same No. 16.
So it must have been the work of the hockey gods that Ryan Donato returned from Providence for Thursday night's game and scored the game-winner in Boston’s 2-1 shootout win over the Isles at TD Garden. It was a beautiful double-move that allowed Donato, the fourth shooter for the B's, to slide a backhanded bid around the leg pad of Robin Lehner.
“That’s awesome." said Donato. "[My] dad was showing me some YouTube highlights of Nifty; he was his favorite player. So I knew if it was my dad’s favorite player that it meant a lot to him that I was able to play in this game. It was really cool to be a part of that."
The shootout move was a great example of Donato’s one-on-one skills with the puck and his overall offensive acumen, but it was the young winger’s two-way game that impressed Bruce Cassidy.
“It was big<" said Donato. "You want to make sure that you have an immediate impact on the game, show the coaches and the staff that you developed in your time [in the minors] and I tried to do that to the best of my abilities. And hopefully I proved that to them today.”
“He was clean,” said Cassidy. “He wanted to get pucks to the net, wanted to manage his game, his shift length, his details, and I thought he did that. I don’t think I ever got him in a rhythm during the game. We shortened the bench at times. It was nothing to do with his play; it was just in those tight games we want to make sure that we managed it well. The time he did get I thought he used to his advantage.
“He’s going to have to play defense if he’s going to play here. Especially right now (with the Bruins shorthanded because of a raft of injuries), we’re winning a lot of close games, so that’s fine. We’re not trying to coach the skill out of him, by any means, but we just want to make sure that it’s okay if he airs on the side of caution right now. I think his natural instincts will take over offensively. I’m not concerned about that. He’ll find his way in that part of it.”
It was a good start for Donato, with four shot attempts in 10:41 of ice time and some aggressive offensive action even before he scored the shootout game-winner. Now he just needs to build on that high-impact return and start scoring with a little more regularity for a Bruins team that needs all the offense it can muster right about now.
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BRIGHTON – If you stay in the NHL for long enough, the hockey circle of life becomes complete for any player.
Sometimes it might be coaching the son of a former teammate or a former NHL player watching their kids suit up against guys they used to play against. Much more rarely, it might be father and son playing on the same team as the late, great Hall of Famer Gordie Howe did with his sons at the tail end of his brilliant career.
Much more common are NHL players sticking around long enough to play with sons of their former teammates. Such was the case with Patrice Bergeron, 32, skating at practice on Monday with the newly signed Ryan Donato. Bergeron couldn’t help but feel a little old at the notion, but immediately went back to his days as an 18-year-old NHL rookie playing with Teddy Donato in the final season of his NHL career back in 2003-04.
“It’s definitely different. When I was an 18-year-old coming in [to the NHL] I was playing with his dad, and that year [Ryan, as a little kid] was skating a few times after practice and I was there,” said Bergeron, going into the way-back machine to when he was the youngest player in the league in his first season. “Now he’s in the locker room and going to be a part of the team. He comes from a great family. I just hope I can help him as much as Teddy [helped me].
“It certainly doesn’t make me feel any younger. I still think I am, and that I’ve got a few good years ahead of me. It’s a little weird to see that, but that where I am in my career, I guess.”
Clearly, the memories of the younger Donato are notable for Bergeron, and they are doubly so for a young guy in Donato who's idolized No. 37. In fact, Donato said he was blown away that Bergeron even remembered him when they bumped into each other at the summer pro league in Foxboro a couple of years back.
It was a long way away from Bergeron heading over to Donato’s house for pool parties when he was still a teenager just starting to make NHL waves.
- MORE BERGERON - "Light at the end of the tunnel" toward No. 37's return
“This is what kind of guy Patrice Bergeron is...he was around the house a little bit when I was a little kid and he was a rookie in the NHL,” said Donato, telling the story at last summer’s development camp after dominating the rest of his Bruins prospect peers for a week’s time. “I hadn’t seen him for a pretty long time, and then he saw me in Foxboro a couple of years ago and said ‘Hey Ryan, how’s it going?’
“That’s pretty cool when your idol and the player you most look up to can remember you like that. It says a lot about him as a person, and we know what he’s all about as a player. He’s just a great guy...one of the best.”
It was when Donato retold that story to NBCSportsBoston.com that we had a pretty good idea he wouldn’t be signing anywhere else but with the Black and Gold.
Bergeron and Donato won’t get to play together at the start, unfortunately, with the Bruins franchise center still out with a fractured right foot. That’s part of the reason the Donato, who turns 22 April 9, is being brought in with Bergeron, David Backes and Jake DeBrusk down with injuries and the Bruins in need of some dynamic wingers with offensive pop. Clearly, Donato has proven everything he needs to at the collegiate level with 26 goals in 29 games this season at Harvard and he was Team USA’s most dynamic player in PyeongChang with five goals scored in the tournament.
It’s still unclear how much of an impact Donato is going to make jumping straight from the NCAAs to the NHL, but he’s ready to start living out his NHL dreams with the Bruins team that also drafted and developed his dad 30 years ago.
“It’s a whirlwind. Right now it’s pretty crazy. Obviously, I’m really excited," he said. "It’s something I don’t want to happen too fast so I can cherish every second of it. Right now it’s a lot of fun,” said Donato, who signed his two-year, entry-level contract on Sunday. “Even going out for [the morning skate] was a dream come true. It didn’t even feel real yet.
“I just want to play well and do whatever I can to help the team. I just want to go in confident and do what I can to help. At the end of the day, it’s just hockey and I’ve been playing it my whole life, so hopefully, I can play to the best of my abilities.”
With a strong Bruins support system headed by a couple of his father's former NHL teammates in Don Sweeney and Cam Neely- who have known him since he was a little kid - and a roster primed for a long playoff run, the younger Donato couldn’t be asking for a better situation to show what he can do in the NHL.
Now, it’s up to Donato to show he’s a chip off the old block as the son of a former Bruins forward who scored 150 goals and totaled nearly 350 points in a distinguished NHL career. Perhaps it’ll give him a chance to show that he’s going to be even better than the old man, who was pretty darn good in Black and Gold.
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