Show Stoppers: Matt Donovan
SoundTigers.com sat down with defenseman Matt Donovan to discuss his rookie season
Rookie defenseman Matt Donovan began his tenure with the Sound Tigers late during the 2010-11 campaign, getting a taste of pro hockey in six games with the Sound Tigers after leaving the University of Denver to turn professional. 2011-12 marked Donovan's first full professional season, and despite a relatively slow start by his own standards, Donovan broke out in a big way in the second half of the season.
The Edmond, OK native finished the season leading all rookie defensemen in scoring with 45 points, good for fourth amongst all defensemen in the AHL. Donovan was recognized for his play with a spot on the 2012 AHL All-Rookie First Team, an honor earned by Rhett Rakhshani a season ago when he tied Portland's Luke Adam for most points by a rookie.
Donovan capped his impressive rookie campaign with his first taste of the NHL with the Islanders, dressing in their final three games of the season before rejoining the Sound Tigers for their playoff push.
Soundtigers.com: Your first pro training camp must have been pretty exciting and nervewracking at the same time. Did you have a set of goals and expecations for yourself?
Matt Donovan: I always set high expectations for myself, so I went into last year's training camp trying to make the Islanders. That's always been my goal and will always be my goal. Looking back, it may not have been the most realistic thing but that was my goal. I set high goals for myself because they make me work harder and made me work harder in training camp.
ST: Your first preseason game in Boston you played alongside Calvin de Haan, but your second game in Calgary must have been a bit different with veteran defenseman Steve Staios as your defensive partner.
MD: I think since it was my first go at it and my first NHL experience, even though it was exhibition, playing with Steve was really helpful. It was a total learning experience for me, taking in everything around me. I knew he had been around for so long, so there was a balance of listening to him and at the same time concentrating on what I had to do. I was definitely very nervous and had some tunnel vision.
ST: Talk about the start to this season. Did you think there was a period of getting comfortable with your new teammates, coaches, learning just how to live as a professional hockey player?
MD: It was all about getting comfortable. I was going from college where I played 35 games a season, which was basically going to classes during the week and playing hockey on the weekends, to adapting to the entire professional hockey player life. It might be easier for guys that play Canadian Junior Hockey (OHL, WHL, QMJHL) because they've lived this life playing 60-70 games a year since they were 16 years old. I think it was a little harder for me to adjust to the lifestyle.
ST: How key was Kevin Poulin's streak of three shutouts to start the 2012 calendar year? Did that allow you to relax a little more and play your game?
MD: I think it was really key, and even more as a defenseman, I know it really helped me the rest of the way knowing we had goalies like Poulin and Anders (Nilsson) behind us. As defensemen, it's important to play with confidence and have that swagger in your game. Obviously some guys have it more or than others just based on their personalities. It was huge that we could rely on our goalies and know they're back there if we made a mistake.
ST: A lot of guys on this team spoke this season about the atmosphere in the locker room, that the group was really tight despite some personnel changes along the way. Did you get that feeling too, and what do you attribute that to?
MD: We were close the whole season, but we really came together during January. We started winning and spent a lot of time on the road, and that helps you become more of a team. I think Tommer (head coach Brent Thompson) did a great job of bringing in the right guy with the right personality for each situation. We had a very young team for the most part and a lot of us were in that same age group, did the same things...we could really relate to each other. We all really liked each other off the ice, and that helps when you step on the ice. The guy next to you is more than just your teammate, he's your friend that you've really gotten to know well.
ST: You got the chance to play in your first three NHL games at the end of the season. How did you get the news that you were heading to the Islanders?
MD: It was actually during a day off, a Monday and Tommer called me during the afternoon. I had worked out in the morning and was about to take a nap when I saw Tommer was calling me and told me the news. He told me all of the things I needed to do, go and meet the team. I went out to dinner with Dylan Reese and Micheal Haley who were both up at the time and living in the hotel.
ST: From @vnm94 on Twitter "What did it feel like to play in your first NHL game?" - and we'll add on to that, asking how did it feel to play alongside Dylan Reese, one of your defensive partners in Bridgeport?
MD: It was definitely a dream come true and I'm not sure that it's really sunk that I actually played in the NHL. It was nice to know I was playing alongside someone that I had a connection with. I knew how we worked on the ice together and it definitely relaxed me a bit. It definitely helped in the grand scheme of things with it being my first game...but I was still very nervous.
ST: How about your roots being born and raised in Oklahoma? Any special significance being the first to make it to the NHL?
MD: As a kid coming from Oklahoma, no one had ever been born and raised here and played in an NHL game. Sitting there that day knowing I'd be the first one to do it was pretty cool and pretty nervewracking at the same time. I think for anyone, knowing you've worked your whole like to get to this point and then actually being there...it's still a little hard to believe. I watched the Oklahoma City Blazers of the Central Hockey League growing up, hoping I could be there some day. Now, I see guys here that played there and still play men's league now...it's weird to think I surpassed that and played where they had dreamed to play.
ST: So what's the biggest misconception about Oklahoma? You must hear a lot of stuff from guys around the league.
MD: People think I live on a farm and grow wheat and have cows and stuff...everything is pretty new here, it's a growing area and there are a lot of people here. It's not just farms and cows...I live in a neighborhood, not on some ranch with 5,000 acres.
ST: What did you take away from your first playoff experience with the Sound Tigers?
MD: I learned how the level of play truly rises in the playoffs...how I need to play, how much the intensity really picks up. You learn what the playoffs are all about, even in the AHL you can feel it's that same kind of jump as you see in the NHL.
ST: How key was getting that taste of the NHL late in the season, and what do you think you need to improve upon to make the Isles coming out of this year's training camp?
MD: I'll have confidence going into training camp that I know I can play with these guys and I've played at the NHL level. I need to go into camp and play the way I did at the end of the season, thinking I want to make this team, I've got confidence and you're not going to take this from me. I think my consistency is the key. Last year, that might have been the toughest thing to keep going. There's so many games and practices, I need to focus on playing the way I can every day and keeping that intensity up whether its practice, training camp, exhibition games...you have to be ready for everything.
ST: Lastly, the immortal @StanCapp on Twitter wanted to ask about how you came up with wearing #46 - not very common.
MD: At the end of the 2010-11 season when I first played with the Sound Tigers, the team had had so many different players on the team that our equipment manager Leni DiCostanzo had to order more jerseys with new numbers. Leni just gave me 46 when I signed, and I had definitely never worn it before. Then I kind of liked it and thought it was unique, so I embraced it...it grew on me and I started to like it more and more.