Matt Donovan two years ago became the first player born, raised and trained in Oklahoma to play in the National Hockey League.
Donovan played in three games with the New York Islanders during the 2010-11 season. This time, Donovan could stick all season with the Islanders as he adds another first to his resume, the first Oklahoma product to make an NHL opening day roster.
“Coming from Oklahoma, no one expects it,” Donovan said in a telephone interview with The Oklahoman. “Being from Oklahoma, I never got recognition like a first-round pick would. I never really had the spotlight on me so I've had to work that much harder. To make it really means a lot to me.”
Matt's father, Larry, grew up in the Boston area but migrated to Oklahoma to attend college. Larry is a former Oklahoma City Blazer who for years has run ice rinks in the OKC area. He's also been involved with the OU's hockey club since its inception 11 years ago.
What does it mean for Larry to see his son become the first Oklahoman to make an NHL opening day roster?
“It's an incredible feeling,” Larry said. “It probably won't sink in until we watch that first game. For any athlete, fulfilling your dream, playing at the highest level, is pretty awesome.”
The Islanders open the season Friday night at New Jersey. Matt Donovan, 23, not only made the roster but is projected to play a key role. Donovan will quarterback the Islanders' second power-play unit.
“Matt Donovan is offensive; it's as simple as that,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said on the team's website. “We lost Mark Streit. He obviously was a guy who could run the power play. Matt plays the way I want the D to play in my system as far as being the fourth man in the attack.”
Spending last season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders' Triple-A team, Donovan's 48 points tied Barons star Justin Schultz for the AHL defenseman scoring title. The previous season, Donovan was fourth among AHL defensemen with 45 points.
Motivated that he failed to get a call-up last season, Donovan has worked diligently the past year on improving his all-around game.
“I've always been able to put up numbers, but last year I proved I also can play well defensively,” Donovan said. “That's what the coaches were putting in my brain.”
Donovan has enjoyed success at every level. He grew up in Oklahoma City's youth hockey program. But at age 15, a freshman at Edmond North, Donovan needed stiffer competition. He played one season of midget hockey in Dallas, two years of junior hockey in Cedar Rapids.
A fourth-round draft pick while he was in Iowa, Donovan played on USA's gold medal team at the 2010 world junior championships. It's the same tournament Edmonton Oilers star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins took a hiatus from the Barons last year to play for Team Canada.
After playing two years at the University of Denver, earning NCAA All-America honors, Donovan made his pro debut two years ago with Bridgeport Sound. Last year, he played in the AHL All-Star Game. Because of his offensive skills, he could be an impact blue-liner.
“Scoring is something I've always taken pride in,” Donovan said. “It's having a right mind for the game, knowing when to jump up in the play five-on-five or handling the puck on the power play. I feel I see the ice well that creates scoring chances for myself and my teammates.”
So how did his father, a Boston kid, end up in Oklahoma?
After meeting some “country boys” from McAlester and Broken Bow in an exchange program at his high school in the Boston area, Larry Donovan decided to give Oklahoma a look-see. He liked it.
In 1981, Larry enrolled at East Central, where he met his wife, Kathryn. The Donovans moved to Edmond. Twenty-three years ago they had a son who is now on an NHL roster.
“He always tells people he's from Oklahoma,” Larry said. “He's very proud about being the first.”
The OKC junior hockey program had around 100 kids, ages five through high school, when Donovan was growing up. It's increased to between 400 and 500 kids but still has much room to grow.
Every summer Donovan holds a camp for kids. Does he feel hockey can make a major leap in Oklahoma City similar to Dallas, where youth hockey has exploded the past two decades?
“I would like to think so,” Donovan said. “I'm hoping that's something I'm helping with. I hope when kids and parents read my story they realize there are other sports they can make it. I want kids from Oklahoma to set their goals high where someday we have more Oklahoma kids make it to the NHL.”
Hockey fans are always are surprised when they hear Donovan's background.
“I still get it to this day. When someone asks where I'm from, I tell them Oklahoma,” Donovan said. “They say, ‘What? I didn't even know they played hockey in Oklahoma.' It's been that way my whole life. I've tried to prove people wrong that a kid from Oklahoma could make it to the NHL.”