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Growing the Game

by Jacob Betzner / New York Islanders

Matt Donovan takes great pride in being the reason for celebration in the small hockey community in Edmond, Oklahoma as USA Hockey celebrates local hockey heroes now as part of Hockey Weekend Across America. As the only born and bred NHL player from Oklahoma, the Islanders’ defenseman hopes to inspire the entire Sooner State and amateur players throughout the country to pick up the sport.

“Hopefully hockey continues to grow [in the United States],” Donovan said. “Hopefully me being from Oklahoma and making it to the NHL helps hockey grow in places that haven’t been hockey hotbeds before.”

In high school, Donovan left Oklahoma to play elite amateur hockey in Dallas and went on to play two seasons of junior hockey with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL. In between two seasons with the University of Denver, Donovan won a gold medal with the United States at the 2010 World Junior Championships.

“It’s a pretty indescribable feeling,” Donovan said of playing in the World Junior Championships. “You’re not only just playing for yourself, when you put on the USA crest and the red, white and blue; you’re playing for a whole country.”

Donovan donned the red, white and blue again at the 2014 World Championships in Belarus with fellow Islanders Brock Nelson and Colin McDonald. An Oklahoman playing alongside a Minnesotan native in Nelson and a Connecticut native in McDonald showed the extent of the growth of hockey in the United States.

“It’s cool to see hockey spreading across [the United States],” Nelson said. “It’s slowly making its way all the way out west and down south. It’s good to see guys like [Matt Donovan] from different areas come in and play.”

Hopefully me being from Oklahoma and making it to the NHL helps hockey grow in places that haven’t been hockey hotbeds before.Matt Donovan

Donovan and Nelson may be from different climates, but they both picked up hockey in a similar way, through their families. Donovan’s father, Larry, owned the local rink in Edmond and taught his son to skate there. Nelson comes from a strong hockey lineage featuring two Olympic gold medal winners. His grandfather Bill Christian was a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team and his uncle Dave Christian played on the 1980 Miracle on Ice team. (Thirty years after the Miracle, Nelson was a part of a record-setting draft year for USA Hockey, as 11 Americans were taken in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft.)

Far from the plains of Oklahoma, Nelson grew played in front of huge crowds in high school in Minnesota, eventually playing in the prestigious the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament held every March at the home of the Minnesota Wild.

“I don’t know if anybody really understands or grasps the importance of playing high school [in Minnesota] unless you go to a game,” Nelson said. “The whole community surrounds you and supports you, you get to go to the Xcel Energy Center and play in front of quite a few thousand. Warroad is a small town of maybe 1,700. You have maybe 10-times your town [at Xcel]. It’s pretty special.”

Nelson found the best part of playing hockey in Minnesota all the way through the state tournament was playing with mostly the same group of teammates for years. Despite the geographical differences, Donovan gave a similar reason for sticking with the sport.

“Hockey anywhere creates a lot of friendships and a lot of good times,” Donovan said. “The one thing I took away from playing hockey growing up in Oklahoma was having good friends. I’m still good friends with a lot of kids I played with growing up. Along with all the friends I grew up with, it was just a good time to grow good friendships that go a long way.”

With players like Donovan leading the way in non-traditional markets, hockey continues to grow from sea to shining sea.

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