Growing up in Oklahoma City, Matt Donovan spent plenty of time around the ice rink. His father, Larry, ran Iceland Sports Center in Oklahoma City before moving to other rinks in the area. As a freshman at Edmond North, Donovan's hockey potential outgrew Oklahoma City and he moved, first to Dallas for midget hockey and then to Iowa for junior hockey.
After his first season in Cedar Rapids, Donovan was drafted by the New York Islanders. Following another year in Iowa and two at the University of Denver, Donovan signed with the Isles. About a year later, Donovan became the first Oklahoma born and raised player to make the National Hockey League, playing for the Islanders in each of their final three games to end the 2011-12 season.
Last season, Donovan played the entire season in the American Hockey League but is still one of the Islanders' top prospects. Earlier this month, Donovan was honored with an award at the March of Dimes Mercy Sports Headliner Banquet, where he talked about his upbringing in Oklahoma, what it meant to make the NHL and his outlook moving forward.
Words can't describe what it was like to get the call to play in the NHL, a kid from Oklahoma, the first born and raised Oklahoman to make it to the NHL. You don't even dream of something like that coming from Oklahoma. Every kid dreams of growing up and playing in the NHL when you grow up playing hockey but it's hard to think of that when you grow up here. It was definitely a dream come true. Hopefully there's more to come and hopefully it's next year.
It means a lot to be the first one. Hopefully it's opening doors for kids coming up and younger kids that are playing in Oklahoma right now. It gives them kind of a hope that they can make it too. That kid's watching NHL games right now and knowing that I'm there too, it kinds of puts it in their minds that they could be there too.
I don't really know why I ended up playing defense. When I was young I played forward and defense and eventually my dad, I don't know if he just put me back there or if I liked it more, I'm not really sure. I was young when I made the decision to just stay back there and I think it worked out OK.
I'm an offensive defenseman so I like scoring goals, getting assists and getting points. Guys in the AHL and in the NHL are so good offensively. The forwards, they can score with no problem. It's tough to focus on defense first but I had to let that offensive mentality go a little bit. That's the hardest part, staying solid defensively and thinking about offense after that.
It probably wasn't until I was playing in Denver that I started really thinking about playing in the NHL. I got drafted when I was 18 and playing juniors in Cedar Rapids. It was awesome to be drafted in the NHL but still I was a long ways away at that point, but when college started, guys that I was playing with started signing and going to the NHL. That's when it clicked that that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to make the NHL.
I was fortunate to have a lot of good coaches. When I moved to Dallas for the first year when I was 16, I had Craig Ludwig who played in the NHL for so many years. When I moved to juniors, I had Mark Carlson who was an awesome coach too. He knew a lot about hockey and the next level so he was great for me too. Then I want to Denver with George Gwozdecky and our assistant coaches there were unbelievable. I grew up with my dad as my coach and Mark Berge who was drafted in the NHL. All of my coaches were huge influences on my game and on me as a person. There's not one that I can single out. They're all unbelievable.
I played almost a full season in the minors before I got the call. That was a new experience playing in Bridgeport. I had to learn how to play the pro game. It's a lot different than college. Guys are a lot older, faster and stronger. You have to adapt and keep adapting. I was lucky enough to have a great season and get the call.
I was at my house in Bridgeport, it was Sunday or Monday, a day off. My coach called me and told me I was getting called up and told me where I needed to be. I was going to New Jersey. My parents were just there and had just left after watching me that weekend. I called my dad and he didn't answer so I called my mom, panicking. I told them I got called up and they said their luggage was already on the plane and they were about to board. They were lucky enough to get it off the plane, got to stay and drove to New Jersey and watched me play my first game. It was a cool experience.
Just stepping on that ice was unbelievable. I got to start against (Ilya) Kovalchuk and (Zach) Parise, some of the best players in the NHL. My parents were there and a bunch of other family members were and knowing that I was the first Oklahoman and knowing that I had worked so hard to get to that point and I had finally made it the NHL was a very cool experience. I didn't know about being the first Oklahoman in the NHL until everybody started talking about it when I got called up. It was cool to hear everyone say it and hear everyone talk about it. I got called up with three games left and I just started hoping and praying, ‘I hope I get these last three. I hope I don't get sent down.' I got to play those three games then I got sent down to finish the playoffs with Bridgeport.
This year I focused on being mentally and physically involved in the game. It's hard playing so many games to be into the game every game. You play 76 games in a season and it's tough to be ready and play at your best every game. That's kind of something you learn being a pro. You have to teach yourself what you need to do to get ready. I definitely think I got better at it and hopefully that helps me get to the next level next year.
Mark Arcobello of the Barons is from Milford, Conn., where I live. We rented his house. I lived in his house this year with one of his good friends that played on my team. I got to know him really well. When I came home after the season, I went to watch a couple games, hung out with him a little bit. It's pretty cool how the hockey world goes in circles.