That’s about how long Minnesota Wild forward Ryan Donato had to pack up his entire life and start over.
Ryan’s father, Ted Donato, is a Boston legend. He was born in Boston, played college hockey at Harvard, and had the unique experience of being drafted by his hometown team, the Boston Bruins, in the 5th round of the 1987 draft. The elder Donato spent a bit more than 7 seasons with the Bruins before becoming a bit of a journeyman, spending time with the Islanders, Senators, Ducks, Stars, Blues, Kings, and Rangers. In 2003, Donato returned home to Boston, finishing his 13-year career with Bruins in the same place where it all started. In 2004, Donato’s status as a staple in the Boston sports scene became further solidified when he was named head coach of the Harvard Crimson hockey team – a position he has held for 16 seasons and counting. In today’s world of sports, it’s unusual for a player to see so much of their career play out in their hometown.
It appeared that Ted’s son, Ryan, might follow in his father’s unique footsteps through the Boston sports scene. Like his father, Ryan was also born in Boston. While many young hockey players travel from home to focus on their development, Ryan was able to stay in Boston, playing high school hockey at nearby Dexter, U-16 hockey in Cape Cod, and then playing for the South Shore Kings of the USPHL. When it came time for college, Donato intended to follow his father’s path and play for Harvard.
As the 2014 NHL draft approached, Donato figured that his time in Boston would end after Harvard. He was widely expected to be selected in the 2nd or 3rd round of the draft but he didn’t think that Boston would select him. Donato told ‘A Lamp unto My Cleats;’ “Usually at this thing called the NHL combine you go and you talk to all these different teams. You go into a room and you sit with all their scouts and GMs and all that kind of stuff. My interview felt a little awkward with Boston. Boston was a late 2nd round pick and I didn’t really think I was going to go that early. I knew I had a little chance to go that early but I also wasn’t really expecting to… by any means.”
Sure enough, with the 26th pick of 2nd round (56th overall), the Boston Bruins selected Ryan Donato. Donato recalls; “to be picked by Boston would be a dream come true. And then it did. After that I just completely blacked out. I was so excited and, honestly, I couldn’t even tell you how I felt because everything was just going so fast. Reflecting back on it now it was just a definitely a very special moment for me.”
After being selected by the Bruins, Donato would go on to play 3 seasons at Harvard. In 2017, he would lead the Crimson to their first Frozen Four appearance since 1994. At Harvard, Donato would have the rare experience of having his father as his coach. “It was great. It had its perks and it also had its downside. I was definitely the first person to always get yelled at in the group! But also – the fact that I always had my dad around – not many people can say they can share an experience like that with their own dad. He was great about it. He was a dad away from the rink and a coach at the rink and there was really no in between.”
During the 2017-2018, Ryan Donato would make his NHL debut. In 12 games with the Bruins, he scored 5 goals and added 4 assists. His future in Boston looked bright! The only thing that seemed to stand in the way was that, being a young player on a veteran team with Stanley Cup aspirations, finding time on the ice could sometimes be a challenge. That, however, seemed to be the only thing standing in between Donato and a successful career in Boston.
That all changed on February 20, 2019.
That evening, Donato received the news that he had been traded, along with a 5th round pick, to the Minnesota Wild for Charlie Coyle. Donato recollects; “It was definitely tough at first… It was definitely very challenging. I think I had about 40 minutes to pack up my life and get all my stuff to Minnesota and that was not easy for me.”
What carried Donato through it was his faith.
“It’s actually funny.” Those are the words Ryan Donato uses to begin the story of his walk with Christ. Ryan’s parents brought him up in the faith. “My dad and mom are both very religious people.” Being a hockey family, however, made regular church attendance a challenge.
“There’s one day I remember specifically when I was a kid. Like any little kid, it’s always tough to convince me to go to church. My dad came to me at one point when I was really young and I was playing hockey. At the time I had just broke my femur and there was a lot going on and the puck was always finding a way to stay out of the net; it was always hitting the post or doing something funny. And he came up to me one morning and I was eating breakfast. And he was like, ‘hey do you want to go to church with me?’ And I’m like, ‘not really.’ And he goes, ‘do you want the puck to start going in the net,’ and I was like, ‘yeah, of course!’ He goes, ‘then come to church.’ And that was the first day when I really started going to church as much as I could. And after that – I think that day – I played one of my best games I remember as like a little kid! I played great! I had a couple goals and felt really good about myself. So that’s kind of where, in a funny way, it all started…”
After is childhood and adolescent years, faith would become a much more serious part of Donato’s life. He says that “now that I’m a little more mature I kind of have a better sense of what faith means. And at that point I was more of a teenage kid that kind of used it when I pleased, but now it’s kind of an everyday thing for me.”
It was at Harvard where he really began to grow in his faith. “There’s not much on a college campus to do on a Sunday. I would always be around and there’s actually a church that happened to be right next to my dorm. So I would always walk over for Sunday Mass. Then I realized that there’s a lot of Catholics and Christians at Harvard and they all go to church on Sunday. That’s kind of where I started going a lot more as well.”
His love for God’s Word would continue to grow in the NHL, where he would attend team Bible Studies and Chapels both in Boston with Dave Ritter and later in Minnesota with Bill Butters. Studying God’s Word with other players has been a blessing. “That’s definitely cool to see other players that share similar faith and show how they use it in their lives to make sure they’re staying even keel and also close to God.”
Donato hopes that his story can similarly encourage others. “It’s not a common thing for kids now a days, for athletes to be very vocal about [their faith] and I’m just happy to be able to share my story. I was very fortunate and I’m very blessed – and I know that. I want to make sure that other people can kind of have the same kind of relationship with God that I have and [that He will] benefit their lives just like He did mine.”
It was a blessing from God – and a profound promise from His Word – that helped Donato through the changes in his life. “Right away after I got traded it was like… “What is going on here? My life is completely changing. This is completely throwing a curve ball in my life!”
Donato turned to his favorite Bible verse, Joshua 1:9. As Joshua prepared to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land, God equipped him with wonderful words of comfort. He said; “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Donato thought about those words – and how true they are for all of us. “I kind of sat back and could relax whenever I said that verse to myself or thought about that verse. I know that there’s a greater plan for me and I just need to be strong and courageous and not be worried about what’s going on – because obviously He’s got plans for me.”
It may not be Boston, but it became home.
In his first game with Minnesota, Donato notched 2 assists. He finished the year strong, scoring 4 goals to go along with 12 assists in 22 games with the Wild. His play earned him a two-year contract, which he inked over the off-season. Donato got off to a slower start in the fall of 2019 but has played well of late. Since January 18, Donato has scored 6 goals and 4 assists in 17 games, while only averaging a bit over ten and a half minutes of ice time per game.
Perhaps, most importantly, Minnesota has begun to feel like home. “They have a lot of people that are [of] Catholic and Christian Faith… I fell in love with the state… You always hear the term ‘Minnesota nice.’ That’s completely true! Everybody here is super nice and it’s a very family-oriented state and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
In spite some similarities, much is certainly different in Minnesota than it was in Boston. Donato still finds himself far away from his family and friends, playing for a team that’s currently fighting for a playoff spot instead of vying for a #1 seed. But one thing that hasn’t changed is his faith. The same God who blessed him in Boston is there to bless him in Minnesota. Though it may be a different city than the one in which he had once hoped his career might play out, his future is still bright!