Matt Donovan's hockey career already has been marked by a series of firsts:
First player born and raised in Oklahoma to become a first-round draft pick in the Junior A United States Hockey League, when the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) RoughRiders nabbed him with their top pick in 2007. First player born and raised in Oklahoma to draw a scholarship offer from the University of Denver, a seven-time NCAA champion, where Donovan is now a budding star defenseman for the Pioneers. First player born and raised in Oklahoma to be drafted by a National Hockey League team, when the New York Islanders selected him in the fourth round in June 2008.
Before his career is over, Donovan hopes to add several more lines to that illustrious resume, led by this one:
First player born and raised in Oklahoma to play in the NHL.
Before Donovan came along, the idea of an Oklahoman making it all the way to hockey's brightest stage seemed unlikely in the extreme. The native of Edmond, an Oklahoma City suburb, isn't the first player from the state to earn an NCAA Division I scholarship. That honor belongs to his friend, Mick Berge, who finished his college career last season as captain of the Minnesota State-Makato Mavericks.
But there's a big difference between playing for a good college program and stepping on the ice with the best players in the world. Donovan is experiencing the former right now. Before too much longer, he hopes to be able to enjoy the latter, though he grasps the importance of not getting ahead of himself.
"I kind of keep it day by day," he said of his approach to what hockey may hold for him in the future. "We'll see when the time comes."
For now, Donovan says his focus is on helping the Pioneers--who started the season as the top-ranked team in college hockey--win their eighth national championship. Making the jump from junior hockey--where Donovan was a first-team all-USHL selection last season, leading all league defensemen in scoring with 51 points in 57 games--to a program that ranks as perhaps the favorite to win the national collegiate championship makes for quite a challenge by itself, especially considering the amount of ice time Donovan has gotten as a first-year player.
Most freshmen spend a lot of time on the bench until they adjust to the speed and intensity of the college game, but not Donovan. DU coach George Gwozdecky made it clear from the start of the season he was going to rely heavily on the Oklahoman, playing him on the power play and penalty killing units in addition to making him an anchor of his defensive corps.
"I've always worked hard to be a top defenseman at every level I've played at," Donovan said. "At first, I was surprised I got play a lot, but now I think I've earned my spot."
It's not as if Donovan has never been challenged. He left home at 16 to play midget hockey in Dallas, where he first showed signs of blossoming into a special kind of player. His father Larry, a Boston native and the assistant coach of the club hockey team at the University of Oklahoma, said his son has adjusted quickly to the demands of the college game, making corresponding improvements in his strength, skating and awareness on the ice.
"He does that at every level," the elder Donovan said. "He did it when he went from Oklahoma City to the Dallas triple-A midget team, and then did the same thing in the USHL during his second year.
Now he's doing the same thing in college."
It didn't take Donovan long to make his presence felt at DU. In the first game of his college career on Oct. 9, he scored a goal to help the Pioneers defeat Vermont 5-4.
"I didn't think it was going in," he said, laughing. "But I put a slap shot on net from the top of the (faceoff) circle, and it trickled in. It was pretty fun."
Donovan added another goal on Nov. 27 against St. Cloud State and has chipped in five assists as the Pioneers have posted a 10-4-2 record. Denver, now ranked second in the country, leads the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings with an 8-2-2 mark, putting itself in good position to earn a berth in the NCAA's Frozen Four at Ford Field in Detroit April 8-10, an event that will be televised by ESPN.
Donovan, officially listed at 6 feet and 195 pounds, acknowledged it was a little nerve wracking at first to find himself viewed as an important cog in a program where supporters expect the Pioneers to contend for a national championship every year. But he's no stranger to the big stage, having helped Team USA to the gold medal in the World Junior A Challenge in Alberta, Canada, last fall.
Donovan will try to help the American squad duplicate that success over the holidays this year. He's been selected to the preliminary roster for the American team that will compete in the IIHF World Junior Championship Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Blood, Sweat and Love of the Game
Donovan's transformation over the last few years from an Oklahoma City rink rat to one of the brightest prospects in American amateur hockey has been a rapid one. His father recalls that the decision to let their son fully commit himself to a hockey career was not an easy one.
"Matt was 15 or 16 when he left home," Larry Donovan said. "He probably could have left a couple of years before that. He was ready. But we didn't think he was ready, but that's because we weren't ready as parents."
The elder Donovan acknowledges the sacrifices his son has made for the life he has chosen--living with billet families, no proms, very little social life--but he said he's never gotten any indication that his son has wanted anything else.
"You have to sacrifice to be a good athlete," Larry Donovan said. "He's done that."
No one seems to have any regrets about the direction Donovan's life has taken of late, especially after the Islanders drafted him and DU came calling with a scholarship offer. More and more, it seems, discussions about Donovan's possible future in the NHL are framed in terms of when, rather than if.
Donovan's rights will remain with the Islanders throughout his college career, so it's likely he'll spend at least a couple of years in school improving his game before the franchise tries to entice him with a contract offer. But team officials are keeping a close eye on him, scouting most of his games this season.
Donovan even got a personal audience with Islanders Hall-of-Famer Bryan Trottier during an Oct. 16 game at Ohio State, the only time this season he hasn't suited up for the Pioneers. Trottier, now the team's executive director of player development, played on six Stanley Cup winners during his illustrious career, and Donovan took the opportunity to pick his brain as the two sat in the stands together.
"It was unbelievable," Donovan said. "He's got so much experience, and he's such a nice guy."
Mark Carlson, Donovan's coach the last two years in Cedar Rapids, said last season Donovan has the tools to go as far as he wants in the game. Carlson praised Donovan's contributions to his team and said he was a pleasure to coach.
Islanders pro scout Toby O'Brien has high expectations for Donovan, as well.
"Matt's biggest thing he has is a future ahead of him," O'Brien stated on the team's Web site. "He has high potential with strong growth in front of him."
O'Brien said he anticipates watching Donovan develop further during his time at DU.
"I expect to see him in the NHL in the future," O'Brien said.
Despite that kind of talk, Donovan said he has no problem keeping things in perspective. He knows there are still a number of things that must fall into place before he can begin to think seriously about a pro career.
"No, I find it easy to put it out of my mind," he said. "I'm focused on this season and next season. I'm not focused on playing professionally right now."
Focus is something Donovan may have inherited from his mother Kathryn, a former skeet shooting world champion and a member of the Skeet Shooting Hall of Fame. He also may have learned a thing or two from her about the value of confidence, indicating he doesn't have any doubts about his ability to play at hockey's highest level some day.
"I can definitely make it there with hard work and if I keep improving," he said.
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