The grizzled veteran was in his final NHL campaign and, as the oldest player on the Bruins roster, provided valuable leadership and experience for the younger players to draw from.
The youngest of those players was Patrice Bergeron, an 18-year-old from Quebec, who was in the midst of his rookie season, learning the ropes on a new team, in a new town, in a new country.
Donato took Bergeron under his wing, bringing him to his home to spend time with Donato’s family, which included four young children.
Ryan Donato, the oldest of the four, still remembers well the times Bergeron visited.
“It’s something I hold close to me,” said Ryan Donato. “Being around the [players] probably is the No. 1 thing that I got to see. Going to the games was cool – when my dad would bring home Patrice Bergeron…And having that family bond with him now.
“Sometimes I’ll see him and he says hi to me. It’s kind of cool to see that still sticks out. It’s something I hold close to me and [something] my brothers and sister definitely loved about having my dad playing for the Bruins.”
These days, Ryan Donato is hoping to begin building his own Black & Gold path.
The 19-year-old Scituate native was drafted by the Bruins in the second round (56th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft, and is currently a freshman forward at Harvard University, where his father is the head coach.
Donato registered a successful rookie campaign for the Crimson, tallying 11 goals and 17 points through 27 games, which placed him fifth on the team in scoring and helped the team to a top-15 national ranking.
“I think this year I’ve developed my game as a two-way kind of player,” said Donato. “I think the biggest thing was my defensive play. I worked on my defensive play, D-zone. I think that’s one of the biggest things at the college level, something they were looking for me to change.
“Also, just my skating. I think I gained a step or two playing college hockey from high school or the USHL and I think that’s definitely something that’s developed and hopefully they notice.”
The success has impressed his father, now in his 12th season as the Crimson’s bench boss.
“College hockey in some ways has gotten a little bit older and so it makes it more and more difficult for freshmen to come in and have success,” said Ted Donato. “But he’s had a nice year. I think he’s improved a bunch during the year and he’s had some great experiences, whether it’s going to play in all sorts of different venues, whether it’s at Notre Dame or even in the World Championships for Team USA – that was a great experience for him.
“It’s a lot to digest for any freshman that comes to a new school and a new team and new challenges, but I think he’s done a nice job.”
One of those new challenges included finding the right balance in the father-son, coach-player relationship. It is a dynamic that is still taking some getting used to for both of them.
“It’s been a blast so far,” said Ryan Donato. “Obviously there’s a line between father and coach. Before the season even started we knew the territory that came with having a coach as a father or a father as a coach. It’s been good so far and hopefully I’ll keep on learning. It’s a learning experience.”
“I’m not so sure I have it down yet, by any means,” added Ted Donato. “It’s been fun, it’s been challenging at times. Ultimately, I think I’m a coach when we’re at the rink and when we’re practicing or we have games, and try to be a dad when we step away, ‘How’s school going, how are your classes going. How you feeling?’
“It’s a unique balance, a little bit different for each coach that’s had that opportunity…I think it’s been really enjoyable, something I really haven’t fully had a chance to step back and kind of really appreciate it. I think it’s something pretty special.”
And that isn’t the only unique connection the father and son share. Ryan is following in the footsteps of his father, who played for the Crimson from 1987-91 and was a member of Harvard’s 1989 National Championship team.
Ted, a Boston native, was also drafted by the Bruins in the fifth round (98th overall) of the 1987 NHL Draft and played in Boston from 1991-99 and again for that one season in 2003-04.
“People try to compare us at times, at least the roads that we’ve taken,” said Ted Donato. “But I think Ryan is very much his own person, has made his own choices and will continue to do so.
“Selfishly, I think I take incredible pride in everything that Harvard represents and I think as a family we’re very proud that he has the opportunity to not only chase his hockey aspirations, but more importantly have the ability to go to a school like Harvard where he really gets to push himself academically and be around so many great people in all facets of life.”
The constant comparisons to his father, as well as playing so close to home, can bring added pressure and high expectations. But Ted Donato believes his son has handled everything with poise.
“I think it’s probably somewhat of a difficult spot to be in when you’re always being asked the question about what’s it like playing for your dad or what’s it like being drafted or playing for the same school,” he said.
“But I think he’s done a nice job with it and it isn’t something that I think, as an individual or even as a family, we’ve decided to focus on over the last couple years. I think it’s been enjoyable to watch how he’s handled it even though I recognize that at times I’m sure it’s difficult.”
Comparisons and pressures aside, Ryan Donato is taking it all in stride. And no matter what, he’ll have his father to guide him through it.
“I have him with me,” he said. “He kinds of knows what to do, he knows the ins and outs of college hockey, he knows the ins and outs of the NHL. I think if I follow in his footsteps, he’s not going to lead me in the wrong. Obviously he’s a coach at one, but he’s also a father so I've got him by my side to lead me in the right direction.”