American goes from Harvard to Olympic hockey stardom

Ryan Donato of the United States celebrates after scoring a goal past Jan Laco of Slovakia in the third period.

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Ryan Donato officially introduced himself to the world of big-boy hockey a little more than seven minutes into Friday’s game against Slovakia, when he wristed a laser past Jan Laco to open the scoring for the United States. Then he won the game with another score early in the third period.

But is Donato, a 21-year-old Harvard sniper — who had to lug his books with him in addition to his skates — enough to beat the Russians?

After a 2-1 win against Slovakia on Friday, the U.S. hockey team faces a rough assignment Saturday when it takes on the team with “Olympic Athlete from Russia” on their sweaters in what, all things considered, has to be the weirdest U.S.-Russia hockey game in memory.

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“My life is moving pretty fast right now,” Donato said after Friday’s win.

The Russians long ago got over the 1980 Miracle on Ice loss in Lake Placid. The Soviet Union went on one of the great runs of any team in any sport after that, winning gold at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. But a game that could go a long way toward making or breaking each team’s campaign here takes place as tension is once again running high between the United States and Russia.

U.S. intelligence agencies have said Russia worked to disrupt the 2016 election. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has essentially blamed the United States and a handful of other Western nations for trumping up charges that got Russia’s National Olympic Committee and dozens of its top athletes banned from the Pyeongchang Games as punishment for a yearslong doping scheme that ultimately corrupted the testing lab at the 2014 Olympics. Two investigations, one by the World Anti-Doping Agency and another by the International Olympic Committee, have confirmed this happened.

The hockey narrative is also complicated by the fact that the National Hockey League decided not to participate in these Games. As a result, the best American players are back home, while Russia has a roster filled with members of its Kontinental Hockey League, including former NHL stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russian team is the favorite on paper, but it has a history of underperforming at the Olympics of late.

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Then there is Donato, a junior at Harvard and the son of Ted Donato, the Harvard coach and a former NHL and U.S. national team player. Donato may be the top player on the American squad and may end up playing for the Boston Bruins by the spring. He has also got a ton of work to do on papers for his classes in social psychology and the sociology of immigration while he’s at the games.

“Thankfully I don’t have any exams,” he said in recent interview. “It’s pretty difficult.”

For Donato, hockey appears to be less so. He is among the fastest players on the ice. Defensemen get twisted and panicky when he is skating at them. He’s the guy who always seems to get the puck in the surprising open spots on the ice where he can wreak the most havoc.

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There’s a reason he is on the power play. Both goals Friday came when the United States had the man advantage. The first happened after Troy Terry left the puck for him as he sliced into the slot. On the second, he performed a 360 on the edge of the crease and slipped the puck past Laco.

The international game, with its larger sheet of ice and less banging than is typical in the United States, suits Donato’s talents, although with 8 minutes to go Friday, he took a crosscheck to the neck from Slovakia’s, 6-foot-4, 240-pound defenseman Michal Cajkovsky and popped right back up.

The people at Harvard are familiar with all this. Donato had 21 goals and 40 points last season, and he already has 21 goals in 23 games this year. His emergence on the U.S. team — along with three other college players coach Tony Granato selected rather than going exclusively with minor league or Europe-based pros — makes the showdown with Russia somewhat different than four years ago. Back then, two rosters packed with NHL All-Stars dueled to a 3-2 shootout win for the Americans in Sochi.

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Terry, who plays for the University of Denver and got an assist on Donato’s first goal, said he grew up worshipping Kovalchuk and Datsyuk. Now he is trying to get used to the idea of facing them on the ice.

Two weeks ago, Donato and forward Jordan Greenway, who plays for Boston University, were going up against each other in the Beanpot, the annual college hockey tournament in Boston. Now, they account for three of the four goals scored by the United States at the games. (The Americans lost in overtime to Slovenia on Wednesday).

“It’s a big stage for them, and they’re doing great,” said captain Brian Gionta, who is 39 and was on a practice-only, minor league contract when he was named to this team. Gionta played against Ted Donato in the NHL.

Ryan Donato said he talked to his father before the game against Slovakia. His father told him to shoot low. When he got the puck in the slot in the first period, that’s what he thought of.

Granato said he might have mentioned similar advice before the game, too, but if Donato wanted to give credit to his father, that was fine with him. Granato said Donato and the other college players have been fearless both in practice and games. He doesn’t expect that to change against the Russians.

“These guys are confident,” Granato said. “They want to be over the boards and on the ice and in the action.”