POSTED ON MAY 4, 2011:
An Edmond native makes history and skates from the small pond to the real rink
As he has progressed through the ranks of amateur hockey in the United States over the past six years, Edmond native Matt Donovan has always managed to keep his focus on his immediate challenge -- be it midget, junior or college hockey -- and avoid the temptation of talking about a possible career in the National Hockey League.
But the time for deflecting those questions is over. Donovan, who was selected in the fourth round of the NHL draft by the New York Islanders in 2008, signed an entry-level deal with the club on March 30 and began his professional career a day later, spending the last six games of the American Hockey League season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders' triple A affiliate.
Come September, he'll report to New York's training camp with an eye toward making the club's big-league roster. If he does, he'll become the first Oklahoma-born and --raised player to make it all the way to the NHL -- an idea that still was considered a virtual impossibility as recently as a couple of years ago, before Donovan began to mature into the kind of player with obvious NHL potential.
Perched on the threshold where that dream becomes reality, Donovan at last can allow himself to think about what it will be like to tug an Islanders sweater over his head, lace up his skates and step on to the ice for his first NHL game. In his mind, it sound like that scenario already has progressed beyond the realm of mere possibility.
"It's going to be awesome when it happens," he said.
Larry Donovan, Matt's father and the assistant coach of the University of Oklahoma's club hockey team, has watched his son climb the hockey ladder for the past five years and now sees him poised to grasp the final rung.
"I think for the first time, he's pretty close to reaching his dream," the elder Donovan said. "He's probably a little more at ease, more willing to talk about it."
The last week of March and first week of April were a bit of a blur for him, Matt Donovan acknowledged by phone last week from his parents' home in Edmond, an Oklahoma City suburb, where he'll be living until he reports to the Islanders' annual prospect camp in July. As a sophomore defenseman for the Denver University hockey team, he was focused until recently on helping the Pioneers bag their first national title since the 2005 season.
Denver advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Green Bay, Wis., slipping past Western Michigan 3-2 in double overtime on March 26. The Pioneers trailed 2-1 with less than three minutes remaining in regulation when Donovan took matters into his own hands, rocketing home a slapshot from the point to tie the contest. But a day later, the Pioneers' hopes for a national title were shattered when they were blasted 6-1 by top-ranked North Dakota.
At that point, the 20-year-old Donovan began to seriously consider his professional options. He received a call from Eric Cairns of New York's player development staff almost immediately after the Pioneers were eliminated, with Cairns probing Donovan's interest in making the leap to professional hockey. The more Donovan thought about it, the more the idea made sense, he said.
"It was a bunch of things," he said, describing the thought process he went through en route to making his decision. "It starts with just myself and thinking for myself, 'Am I ready to make this step?' I looked at guys I knew who already had made that step and compared myself to them. Then I thought about what kind of chance I'd have to make the Islanders."
Donovan soon brought his parents and his agents into the discussion. Larry Donovan said his role in his son's decision making mirrored the approach his father took with him whenever he had a difficult decision to make.
"I just gave him my ideas and told him he was free to make whatever decision he wanted to make," he said.
It didn't take long for the younger Donovan to make up his mind -- he was ready to sign. He did so just three days after playing his last game for DU, trading in his red and gold Pioneers uniform for the orange and blue of the Tigers, who were assigned his rights. Donovan then found himself on a flight to Connecticut to join his new team.
"It was hectic," he said, describing that sequence of events. One day brought a euphoric first-round NCAA Tournament win, while the next day brought a disappointing defeat. Then came a couple of days of soul searching and negotiations. Donovan brought the emotional roller coaster to an end by signing an amateur tryout contract, which allowed him to suit up for Bridgeport, as well as an entry-level contract that will take effect next fall.
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Donovan quickly discovered how serious the world of professional hockey is.
"I signed on a Wednesday, and I was in Connecticut on Thursday," he said. "They wanted me there Wednesday night, but I needed a day to get ready."
If Donovan was caught unprepared by the move, it didn't show in the half-dozen games he played for Bridgeport before the season ended. Donovan acquitted himself well, tallying one goal and four assists for five points -- outstanding offensive production for a defenseman.
Yet he was most pleased by his defensive play, an aspect of his game he has acknowledged needing to improve in the past.
"Eric Cairns has been working with me on that," Donovan said. "He gave me some things to work on, and he was behind our bench in Bridgeport. I thought I played well defensively, and he thought so, too."
Nevertheless, Donovan -- who is listed at 6 feet and 190 pounds -- said the AHL is an obvious step up from NCAA Division I.
"It was a lot faster, and the decision making was a lot quicker," he said. "In college, everyone is pretty quick, but here, you're playing against men."
Donovan's father was able to see his son in those AHL games and came away impressed.
"His level of play and confidence improved in those six games," Larry Donovan said. "And those were against all NHL players, whether they're going there or they've been there. In college, there were games this year where I thought he was the best player on the ice."
Donovan developed into one of college hockey's best players last season, totaling nine goals and 23 assists -- tops among DU defensemen -- while being named a third-team member of All-U.S. College Hockey Online squad.
But the highlight of his time in college came in 2010, when he helped lead the U.S. squad to the gold medal over Canada in the World Junior Championship, tallying three goals and two assists during the tournament. Moments like that are why he left home at age 16 to play midget hockey in Dallas, then moved on to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he played in the United States Hockey League, America's top junior league, before spending the last two years in Denver.
Already, Donovan has accomplished more than any other Oklahoma-born and --raised player. While he knows hockey will always lag far behind football -- and perhaps several other sports -- in the consciousness of state fans, he is aware that Oklahoma rink rats are watching his progress closely and that he has become the standard bearer for the sport in this state.
"I think in the back of Matt's mind, he knows he's the guy from Oklahoma City everybody looks up to," Larry Donovan said. "He takes that on personally, to get that respect for Oklahoma City, not just for himself. He's pretty humble kid. He never says anything about himself, but in the back of his mind, he knows he's got to do things right and look right -- not necessarily just for hockey players, but for all the parents and friend who don't play hockey who are pulling for him."
Maybe a little bit of what he's experienced will rub off on some of the state's younger players, Matt Donovan said.
"I'm happy I can bring a spotlight to Oklahoma and make kids realize they can do what they want if they keep working hard," he said.
No one needs to remind Donovan of the importance of hard work. His regimen this summer includes daily on- and off-ice workouts, including sessions at an Edmond gym where he trains alongside a handful of pro football players, including former Oklahoma Sooner safety Reggie Smith -- another Edmond native who recently completed his third season with the National Football League's San Francisco 49ers.
Spending time at home again after having been away for most of the last four years is a bit strange, Donovan said, though it's not as surreal as considering the possibility of having to find a home for himself on Long Island in October if he makes the Islanders roster. As much as he wants that to happen, Donovan -- who will celebrate his 21st birthday this week -- said he won't be disappointed if he winds up spending some more time in Bridgeport honing his game.
"I know one year in the AHL isn't out of the question," he said. "It would be a good learning experience for me."
Even so, he doesn't plan on making it easy for New York management to send him back to triple A. Now that he is able to focus his attention exclusively on playing in the NHL, Donovan plans to put himself in the best position he can to make a good impression.
"It'll take a lot of hard work this summer," he said. "But I plan on going into camp being in the best shape I can and being the best hockey player I can be."
Larry Donovan believes his son will profit from the fact that the Islanders -- who finished with the NHL's fourth-worst record this season with a 30-39-13 mark -- are a young squad with few established defensemen.
"He's not in the Detroit Red Wings organization where they have six (veteran defensemen) who aren't going anywhere," he said. "If he were, he could play in the AHL for 10 years and not get anywhere. He has the opportunity to play for the Islanders."
A proud father, the elder Donovan resigned his position as head coach of the OU hockey team a couple of years ago so he would have the freedom to watch Matt play in college. He believes his son is ready for the next step in his evolution.
"I want to say, for the first time, he's a pretty good hockey player," he said. "He has a chance to make an NHL team, and that's what I told him. And that's what the Islanders told him. He'll be there in the next year or two, would be my guess, if Matt continues to do the things he needs to do."
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