Ryan Donato was expecting 20 to 30 family members and friends to take in his return to TD Garden on Saturday, his first game back in Boston since the Bruins traded the up-and-coming forward from Scituate, Massachusetts, to the Wild in February before last season’s trade deadline.
He’ll reconnect with his mom, siblings, pals from high school and his girlfriend.
Also in attendance was someone Donato chats with almost daily, his confidante, and the person in his life who taught him to be a hockey player: his dad, Ted.
“It’s unbelievably meaningful,” Ryan Donato said. “Being able to have him every step of the way, going through the same exact experience that I’m going through, it’s so useful to have him for advice.”
Before he became the head hockey coach at Harvard, Ted Donato was in the NHL for a 13-year career that spanned nearly 800 games and featured stints with eight organizations, including with his hometown Bruins.
That’s who Ted Donato was playing for when Ryan was born in 1996, the eventual oldest of four. And though there wasn’t any pressure for Ryan Donato to pick up the sport that his dad played, it’s what he gravitated toward, starting at a young age.
“He’s always been enamored,” Ted Donato said. “Since he was 3 years old, he always wanted to have a stick, wanted to be stickhandling, wanted to be shooting. Loved to watch the game, and so I still think even today he loves going to the rink every day. He loves working on his game.”
The Bruins were Ryan Donato’s team growing up, so when he was drafted by the Bruins in the second round in 2014 and went on to don black and gold, it was a dream come true.
“There were so many emotions going into it,” Ryan Donato said. “You watch the Boston Bruins play your entire life. If there was a team I wanted to play for as a kid, that was the team I wanted to play for, and I got to do that.”
After leaving Harvard following three seasons under his dad’s guidance, Ryan Donato toggled between the NHL and minors during his first full-length professional season before he was traded to the Wild along with a conditional draft pick in exchange for forward Charlie Coyle.
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While the Bruins immediately improved their depth for their playoff push, which culminated in a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, the Wild became younger amid the hope Ryan Donato would be a cornerstone of the top half of its lineup — a process that’s ongoing.
Although he produced at nearly a point-per-game pace in his 22-game debut post-trade, Ryan Donato has just three points through 20 contests this season and is currently stationed on the fourth line.
“There’s no denying the fact he’d like to be more productive right now,” Ted Donato said. “But I think he’s going through what a lot of young players do and transition into finding a way to being able to be impactful.”
Ted Donato catches every one of his son’s games, either live or recorded, and he passes along insight that sounds like it’s simultaneously coming from a coach and a father, addressing the tactical and technical aspects of the game while also offering support.
“He could watch my game and say, ‘Hey, you need to be low in the defensive zone. You need to be the first guy on the forecheck more often,’” Ryan Donato said. “He could (also) say, ‘Stay with it. You’re starting to change your game to benefit other guys around you.’”
Above all, Ted Donato is trying to impress on his son that he shouldn’t waste energy on what he can’t control. Instead, his focus should be on attacking the role that’s been assigned to him as best he can — by becoming a fundamentally-sound 200-foot player.
This is also Ryan Donato’s mentality, since he believes reliability is key to becoming more of an offensive presence, a skill set he’s confident he has.
And as he continues to pursue this evolution, Ryan Donato has help along the way from someone who’s not only taken the same path but is also proud of him.
“It’s a blessing,” Ryan Donato said.