By Arielle Aronson
Hockey always has been such a big part of 17-year-old Ryan Donato’s life that he used to tell people his name was “Ryan Hockeynato” when he was younger.
The nickname fits considering the family history: Ryan is the son of former NHLer and current Harvard coach Ted Donato (Dedham, Mass.). Uncle Dan Donato played college hockey at Boston University and now coaches at the Dexter School, where Ryan is the hockey team’s star forward.
Donato is one of many exciting prep players to watch this year across the New England prep scene. He enters his junior season with 96 points in 53 career games and tallied 60 points in 27 games last season. His results on the ice are a tribute to both his natural skill and high expectations from his father and uncle.
“We set the bar so high for him because we’re pulling as hard for him as anyone,” Dan Donato said. “Once a game, you kind of think to yourself, ‘Wow, that was incredible what he just did.’ There isn’t a game that goes by that he doesn’t wow you in some way. He seems to make the right play an awful lot.”
Ryan said that his uncle’s tendency to be harder on him than other players is the best and worst thing about having him as a coach, but while he is Coach Donato at school, he is still Uncle Danny at home.
“It kind of separates with my uncle. He’s good with that stuff,” Ryan said. “Hockey is a part of my family’s entire life. It’s always about school and hockey and family. That’s all we do.”
Donato has yet to commit to a college program, but Ted Donato will let Ryan play at Harvard only if it is good academic fit for him. If not, Ryan said he hopes to play college hockey somewhere else in Boston.
Donato was one of two Massachusetts high school players named to the NHL CSS preliminary watch list for the 2014 draft as a B skater. The other is Miles Gendron, a senior at Rivers who excelled despite converting from forward to defense in the middle of last season after injuries depleted Rivers’ blue line.
“I just wanted to help the team in any way I could,” Gendron said. “I’m still working on the defensive zone and gap control. The speed coming at you, you don’t really realize how fast guys are coming at you, and you’re skating backwards, so to turn with them was a hard part, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.”
Although Gendron (6-foot-2) has decent size, he models his game after smaller defenseman such as Boston University sophomore 5-foot-9 Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.) and Bruin Torey Krug (5-foot-9) because he likes the way they skate.
Skating is one of Gendron’s strengths after he took the initiative to work on it outside of standard practice starting in seventh grade. His work has clearly paid off; in addition to drawing attention from NHL scouts, Gendron has committed to play hockey for the University of Connecticut.
“He’s an elite skater,” said Rivers coach Shawn McEachern (Waltham, Mass.). “He has great speed. He skates with his head up. He sees the ice really well, makes a great first pass coming out of the zone. He’s just a good hockey player.”
Kimball Union Academy boasts another future Hockey East player in JD Dudek, a Boston College commit. The son of College Football Hall of Famer Joe Dudek, JD did not start playing hockey until he was 8 years old, but he caught up quickly. Now Dudek participates with some of the best players in the country in national team camps, and he will serve as a senior co-captain (along with junior AJ Greer) for KUA this season.
Dudek credited his fast learning curve to his parents’ insistence that he play for the best coaches rather than the best teams. Dudek said his best attribute is his ability to see plays develop before they happen, and his 42 points in 29 games last year prove he has the skill to make the most of those plays.
“He’s a guy that has that poise and patience under pressure and that’s not something that all players have, even at the highest level,” said first-year KUA coach Tim Whitehead. “That’s his game, speed and puck control and strength.”
This season will test Dudek’s character as much as his skill as his squad attempts to recover from losing 16 players from last season’s NEPSAC Elite 8 quarterfinalist team.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” Dudek said.
One of the newest Hockey East recruits in prep hockey is Noble and Greenough junior Cal Burke, who committed to Notre Dame over the summer. Last season, Burke was one of the few constants in an injury-depleted Nobles lineup, and he led the team with 34 points, 24 of which were assists. Burke’s selfless style isn’t surprising considering his favorite player is Patrice Bergeron.
“If you look at Bergeron, he can score goals and make assists,” Burke said. “If you’re a goal scorer who can’t set anything up, that’s not a good thing. If you can’t finish, that’s not a good thing either. I’d want to be somewhere in the middle, be a complete hockey player.”
Nobles coach Brian Day said he looks forward to seeing what Burke and the team can do this year with players like Miles Wood (Brown University) and Cody Todesco returning.
“He’s going to have a lot more help this year, and I think that’s going to elevate their play, being able to play with Cal, but I think also having those guys with him is going to help Cal elevate his game,” Day said.
While Burke will play his third season of prep hockey this year, junior Ted Hart will be a newcomer on the prep scene, despite a familiar name. Hart is the third of three brothers to play for Phillips Exeter Academy. His oldest brother, Kevin, is now a captain at Providence College, while his other brother, Brian, plays for Harvard and was drafted by Tampa Bay in the second round (53rd overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft.
But Hart’s style of play differs from his brothers. Kevin is a defenseman and Brian is a natural scorer. According to Exeter coach Dana Barbin (Exeter, N.H.), Ted is a playmaker.
“He’s a centerman looking to make a play,” Barbin said. “It’s not that he’s not going to shoot the puck and try to score goals. It’s more that he’s that center iceman that’s going to be a good set-up guy as well. His skating is good, very good. He sees the ice well. He’s a (heck) of a good player.”
After playing in the Fall Prep Hockey League and earning a spot on the league’s All-Star team, Hart said he is not concerned about the jump from playing Maine public school hockey last year to prep school hockey this year. He said he looks forward to joining a team overflowing with offensive firepower, as he projects to be one of six highly talented forwards on the team.
And just like Donato, Gendron, Dudek and Burke, Hart’s unique perspective and skill set should help his team as it battles against the plethora of top-notch players and teams in the region on its quest to return to the tournament.