Draft a family affair for Donato

Ryan Donato

PHILADELPHIA -- Back in the day, Ryan Donato used to give his name as 'Ryan Hockey-nato'.

He'd sign that name to papers. When he was skating with some of his dad's NHL pals he might be encouraged to give that name: 'Ryan Hockey-nato'. For a young lad who loved the game and had come to understand that the game was his father's life, and indeed the lifeblood of the family, maybe it was just easier to say. Or maybe there was a little foreshadowing.

Even now Ryan, who turned 18 in April, gets a good chuckle out of his old self-assigned name, although this week it has a little different meaning, a little different ring to it. He and his family are making their way from the Boston area to Philadelphia for the NHL's annual draft, where the skilled center is expected to go somewhere late in the first round or early in the second round.

This will be the first draft for Ryan's father, Ted, who didn't attend in 1987 when the Boston Bruins selected him in the fifth round (98th overall). In fact, Ted was at a buddy's house having a swim when he got a call saying he'd been selected by his hometown team.

Ted Donato admitted he and his friends figured it was better to be drafted in the fifth round by the Bruins than in the second round by anyone else at that point in the league's evolution. At that time American-born players were still more the exception than the rule in the NHL. And a fifth-round pick from Boston? Well, let's just say there was a reason the focus was more on swimming than celebrating a future in the NHL that day.

"It wasn't as realistic a dream as it might be now," he told ESPN.com this week.

But deep inside Ted figured something that maybe many didn't: He had a shot. He'd played internationally against top Canadian talent, and played well. He knew that hard work would be his currency and if he worked hard enough he might just generate enough currency to give himself a shot in the NHL.

He got more than a shot. Ted Donato played 796 regular-season games in the NHL with eight different teams, and another 58 postseason contests. He counts players like Brett HullTeemu Selanne and Paul Kariya among his former teammates and among the players who made a lasting impression on Ryan, the oldest of four Donato children (three boys, Ryan, Jack and Nolan, and daughter Maddie).

"I really couldn't have had a better childhood," Ryan Donato said.

Although still a boy at the time, Ryan would see through his father's eyes the privilege of being an NHL player, but also the business side when the family was impacted by trades and signing with different teams at various points during his father's career. Between 1998-99 and 2003-04, Ted's last season in the NHL, he played for 14 different teams in the NHL and American Hockey League.

Ted and his brother Danny grew up playing hockey together. Ted ended up at Harvard and after three years starring for the Crimson joined the U.S. Olympic team in 1992. Following the Olympics he would join the Bruins. Danny played at Boston University -- at one point against his brother's Olympic squad as a tuneup before the Albertville Games.

Now Danny Donato coaches his brother's sons -- his nephews Ryan and Jack -- at the prestigious Dexter School, a New England prep school that counts John F. Kennedy and his brother Joseph P. Kennedy among its alumni. When Danny began coaching Ryan the dynamics were made clear.

"I told him in the dressing room I'm not Uncle Danny. I'm Coach," Danny told ESPN.com this week.

And Danny admitted he made that point by being a little harder on Ryan than the other players, feeling it was important to send a message to everyone that family is family, but in the dressing room family has a meaning that transcends shared last names. Ryan acknowledges that message was sent clearly and strongly.

"Very strong," Ryan said. "He's definitely helped me get to where I am."

After Ted retired from the NHL he became the head coach at Harvard and has now been there a decade. A year from this fall Ryan will join the Harvard team as well. It's a strange dynamic, because as an NCAA coach Ted Donato can't talk about a potential player until he's gained admission to Harvard, and that won't happen for Ryan until the fall of 2015.

As a father, though, he can tell you how pleased he is that his son has chosen to attend a school that should provide all kinds of opportunities, whether they be on a power play or in a finance class.

"Teddy and Ryan value education and understand what a Harvard degree could mean to him," Danny said.

Still, at this moment hockey remains a priority and a focal point for the family.

"He's always wanted to play professional hockey. Ever since he was little," Danny said.

Going back to the days of 'Hockey-nato' and skating around with Paul Kariya, "it's always been in him," his coach said.

"He really couldn't care less about video games and stuff like that," Danny added.

Ryan would rather be in the driveway shooting lead pucks into corners of a net. Ryan has also worked hard away from the ice to be in top shape, and his work at the player combine in Toronto last month was impressive.

"He has just been relentless about working out," Danny said. "It's amazing what he's done with his body."

Danny came to Dexter after coaching in Connecticut, and the program was in startup mode when he arrived. Last season the team was ranked among the top 10 in New England at the start of the season. Ryan is a big part of that.

"I certainly knew he was a very good player," Danny said.

While younger brother Jack is evolving into a solid player in his own right -- no doubt looking up to his older, more accomplished brother -- Ryan has skills that have impressed scouts around the NHL. He is considered one of the top high school players in the draft, having scored 37 times and collected 78 points in 30 games this season. Danny thinks his nephew's high skill set might even see him creep up in a draft where there is little consensus from the top on down.

"What Ryan does I can't teach. Ryan's hands and his vision are as good as anybody's in the draft," Danny said. "I actually think he's underrated in this draft."

The one area Ryan continues to work on is his play away from the puck. Looking to become a more complete player isn't uncommon among talented teenagers playing major junior or headed the NCAA route, and whose names will be called in Philadelphia Friday and Saturday.

The NHL's scouting group, Central Scouting, had Ryan Donato at 58th in their final rankings of North American skaters, down slightly from 54 at the midseason ranking. One top NHL executive who is familiar with the 6-foot center's game praised his skill and hockey sense, but would like to see him improve his skating.

"I'd like to see more pace in his game," the executive told ESPN.com.

What isn't lacking, though, is perspective.

"Ryan is as nice a kid as we have," Danny said.

When we first talked to Ryan it was a few days before he was set to travel to Philadelphia for the draft.

"As of now it kind of feels surreal," he acknowledged. "We've been talking about it for quite a while now."

But now that the draft is here, the seats assigned for the first round and the suits purchased, there is an understanding that these next few days have the potential to be life-changing.

Of course, Ryan has an understanding of this process and what lies beyond that is different from the majority of the teens who will be selected, in that he understands the life that so many of them aspire to, and understands the perspective that is needed with being drafted.

The constant message from his family, especially parents Ted and Jeannie, is that being drafted is an honor, but it won't change the person Ryan is or how much work he has to do to fulfill his dreams. Or it shouldn't, at least.

Lots of talented kids get drafted and never make it, Ryan points out. And lots of guys who don't get drafted at all find a way. Committing to Harvard, following in his father's footsteps and also choosing to play for him, was a process, too.

Ryan said it grated on him that some schools simply assumed he'd go to Harvard, but when he started getting inquiries from schools like Boston University he began to look at Harvard in a more clinical light, ultimately deciding that was where he wanted to play and learn.

"After I committed I can truly say I was happy with my decision," Ryan said.

Ted jokes that most of his 'coaching' of his elder son has come from the couch or after games, but it's clear that important life lessons have been passed on from father to son. This weekend in Philadelphia the application of those lessons will be on display for the entire hockey world to see when Ryan is called to the stage his father never stood on, feeling the weight of an NHL jersey on his shoulders for the first time.

"It's pretty neat," Ted said. "For a long time you just try and preach patience and work ethic and focus just on getting better."

"My job is to make sure that everything's in perspective and that he realizes there's a lot of work to do," he added.

And like any parent, he wonders what will happen if his son doesn't get called as early as he'd hoped.

"It's a nice honor for him and I think we just want to be there for him, not as a former NHLer or as a coach, but a parent," Ted said.

So far, so good for the young man who used to call himself 'Hockey-nato' and the father who swam his way through a draft all those years ago.

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