He was an 18-year-old kid who had just been selected in the second round of the NHL draft by his hometown team. From there, he was off to a development camp during which he would spend a week showcasing his skills — on and off the ice — among his fellow Bruins prospects in front of members of Boston’s management and coaching staff. For a couple of months, he became a quasi-celebrity.
And then, when it was all over, it was back to high school. Back to real life. It was an interesting transition, to say the least.
“I think it was a little bit difficult,” Donato said of re-acclimating to life as a regular 18-year-old kid. “I think when I was at Bruins camp, everything was really fast and overwhelming, and everything was awesome, and there was just a lot going on always, and I think going back to prep school and everything like that was a little bit slower.
“[It] kind of felt weird, but I honestly realized that that’s probably what a lot of guys are wishing that they had, too, so I used that to my advantage and worked out as much as I could, and just tried to get ready for the next camp.”
And already, the next camp is right around the corner. It has been almost a year since Donato was selected by the Bruins with the 56th overall pick in the 2014 Draft, and in that year, Donato has dedicated himself to becoming bigger, faster, stronger — everything that the Bruins told him they wanted him to be at the end of last summer.
“I got a better idea of what kind of player I needed to be,” Donato said. “I realized the skill and talent level of every player at camp, and my thought leaving camp was just to get better and be bigger and stronger and just come in for camp and impress all the scouts.
“[I want to] do what I can to impress the scouts more this year.”
Donato admitted that there were times, perhaps, when nerves got the best of him last summer. He was 18, and as a native of Boston — and as the son of former Bruin and current Harvard hockey coach Ted Donato — he was under the microscope, much more so than the majority of his fellow prospects.
“Honestly, it was pretty cool, but I just think at the beginning, I was a little bit nervous,” Donato said. “I think after [a few days], I realized it wasn’t so bad. Everybody was very welcoming, and I think this year, I’ll be just as welcoming with the new guys. I’ll be a little bit more experienced, and I’ll use that experience to be a better player at this time.
The Bruins’ brass gave Donato plenty to work on over the course of the last year, and after a year at Dexter followed by a total of 24 games spent with the Omaha Lancers and then the South Shore Kings of the U.S. Hockey League, Donato is confident that he has fulfilled Boston’s expectations. In those 24 games, he tallied 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists). He kept in mind what it was like to compete against the rest of his fellow prospects — future NHLers, if all goes to plan — and he focused on his size and his speed, as well as his skating.
“[I concentrated on] just being more explosive and powerful,” Donato said. “At the end of the year, I played with Omaha, which has definitely helped, playing at a faster pace. I think they thought that I was going to be a little bit slow and behind everybody — which I was, a little bit — but I think after this year, when I come back, [the Bruins] will see that I can play at a higher level and a higher pace.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things that I tried to work on, so hopefully, that’s what they notice.”
Once this year’s development camp is in the books, Donato will turn his focus to the next item on the docket: playing his first season at Harvard, for his father.
It won’t be all that weird, Donato said. He did, after all, spend his time at Dexter playing for his uncle, so he is rather familiar with the seemingly unorthodox coach-player family dynamic.
And if anything, he added, the fact that his dad is at the helm at Harvard will push him harder.
“I think, honestly, at the end of the day, it’s just going to help me improve my game at a faster rate because [my dad] is not going to be afraid to yell at me, and he won’t be afraid to make an example out of me,” Donato said, adding, “I think at times, it will be a little bit stressful, but I think at the end of the day, it will help me more.”
The elements of his game he is focusing on improving in preparation for development camp are the same elements of his game he is honing in preparation for his first year of college hockey — his explosiveness and his skating.
But even when he feels as though he is up to speed in those areas, he vows to find some other area of improvement to which he can dedicate himself.
The work is never done, he said. There is always something new to improve.
“I mean, anything can always get better,” he said. “I think that’s what they were saying [at camp] — just always work hard.”
“He prepares to come to play every night. His competitiveness is infectious and he wants to win, first and foremost.”