Elmira Jackals rookie center Justin Donati
became a very good player skating alongside his twin brother, Tyler, for most of their youth.
Justin developed into an even better player during the past couple years by deciding they needed to temporarily branch out and apart from each other. It was nothing personal, just something that had to be done for the good of Justin, and, ultimately, Tyler too.
"I wouldn't change a thing from what I did. There're different roads for everybody in the sport," Justin said. "I took a different road than he did. We're at the same place now, and we're having a good time."
Truth is, it's a veritable party. After a brief hiatus from the pro game, Justin has rejoined his brother for a reunion that's paying off big for the Jackals. Elmira has burst to a 7-0 start and Justin and Tyler have broken off to a symmetrical points total of 14 each, a haul that has them sharing the top spot of the ECHL's scoring chart.
"Obviously you hope this would happen, but a 7-0 start for any team is unbelievable," Justin said. "We are happy with our play and the play of our team."
The pro careers of the brothers started off like so much of the rest of their lives, mirroring each other. Tyler, a left wing, broke in with Binghamton of the AHL in 2007-08, playing 53 games for the Senators. Justin, too, began earning a paycheck for playing hockey that season, opening up with Las Vegas of the ECHL.
Justin's problem was that, coming off a season in which he produced 47 goals and 44 assists in 63 combined games for Toronto and Sudbury of the OHL, he thought he deserved to start at a higher level. He became discouraged, and, adding to his trouble, he was bothered by a lingering shoulder ailment.
"I don't know. I felt like after my OHL career, I deserved more than an ECHL deal," Donati said. "I had to work on my game."
Justin decided that required a complete reboot of his career. He left Las Vegas to enroll at Prince Edward Island University. By his own proclamation, he got stronger there, more motivated and aware defensively. He liked it so much that he went back for seconds in 2008-09 instead of trying to catch on somewhere with his brother. Tyler, meanwhile, played for Elmira and the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms last season before taking time off for personal reasons.
The two kept in touch constantly, of course, but after playing together for much of youth hockey and into juniors, their career choices had never been so different.
"We know in the game of hockey, we won't be playing together forever. It was important to go our own way, develop our own path," Justin said. "By doing that, I learned a lot about hockey, what I needed to do as a player. He was very supportive of it. He realized I wasn't ready mentally to come back to pro hockey."
Tyler said the time in school produced an obvious evolution in Justin's game.
"It taught him how to play. His work ethic is a lot better now than it was before," Tyler said. "He's faster now, and he's stronger. His one-on-one moves are better. He's more confident with the puck. It worked out."
With a couple seasons away to refresh his outlook, Justin was ready for another kick at the can this year. And he wanted it to come with his older brother (by seven minutes). The first plan of attack was to give Switzerland a try. That soured quickly.
"After last season, we told each other let's take a year for me and you. We went over there thinking it was going to be a great opportunity for us. We got blinded by the contract we signed," Justin said. "We realized we both really didn't give the ECHL a chance. Basically, a North American kid's dream is never to be playing in Europe. It's to be playing in the NHL."
Tyler gave Jackals coach Steve Martinson
a call and asked if he would be interested in their services. Martinson would have chartered a plane over there to get them, if need be. Martinson knew all about Tyler from coaching him before; Justin, with the same bloodlines would be a great catch as well. The coach brought them in and immediately started sending them over the boards on the same line.
"He (Justin) has a lot of skill. He works hard," Martinson said. "I think he grounds the line a little bit more. Tyler is more of a risk-taker."
"I wouldn't change a thing from what I did. There're different roads for everybody in the sport. I took a different road than he did. We're at the same place now, and we're having a good time."
-- Justin Donati
Because of their complementary styles, their pairing is a combination that would probably work well under any circumstances. Since the two are virtually extensions of each other, it's well short of a shock that they are laying waste to opposing defenses.
"He's got better one-on-one moves coming down. I'm better coming out of the corner," Justin said. "He knows where I'm going to be. I know where he's going to be. We've developed such good chemistry over the years. You just know his instincts."
The twins' production makes them virtually indistinguishable to opponents. Teammates would have the same problem, except that the Donatis have cut them a break. Tyler got his head shaved while Justin keeps his hair at regular length.
"Ty just stepped up and said, 'Hey, Justin, I'm shaving my head. Drive me to the hairdresser,'" Justin said.
Hairstyles aside, the brothers plan on remaining in lockstep all season. Sure, if one gets recalled to the AHL, the other has to be happy for him. Short of that, Justin's return to pro hockey and the ensuing Donati family reunion looks like continued bad news for Jackals' foes.
"Any time I can play with my brother, it's a great experience. Right now were enjoying each other's company. If we get split up, we get split up," Justin said. "Hopefully we can keep the ball rolling together in Elmira. Being on a winning team again, and contributing like we are … it's been everything I can ask for and more."