ON THE HORIZON – Matt Donovan, D, Bridgeport (AHL)

Many of the sport’s brightest young stars honed their craft in backyard ponds all throughout Canada. Others were fortunate enough to step out of their cribs and onto practice rinks in hockey hotbeds such as Massachusetts, Vermont and the Great Lakes States. For Matt Donovan, his journey began in a region more known for beef and Sooner football, yet it was his determination to excel on the ice along with a passion handed down to him by his father that has many in the New York Islanders organization excited about their 21-year-old defensive prospect.

“My dad grew up around hockey in Boston,” said the Edmond, Oklahoma-born Donovan. “So ever since I was born, hockey was in me.”

Donovan began skating in hockey rinks run by his father in Edmond and neighboring Bethany, Oklahoma at the tender age of two, and quickly grew tired of the sports that his friends and classmates would play.

“I played football and baseball until the sixth and seventh grade,” said Donovan. “But when I was 12, 13 years old, I kind of stopped playing other sports.”

Donovan would continue to play locally until the age of 16, but decided – with the support of his family – to move to Dallas, Texas to play ‘AAA’ midget hockey as a high school sophomore.

“Surprisingly, moving alone to Dallas was an easy transition,” said the six-foot-one, 205-pound Donovan. “My parents knew the housing family pretty well.”

Donovan’s steady play in Dallas made him a hot commodity as he was transitioning into a high school junior.

“In Dallas, I knew that I was getting noticed by coaches,” said Donovan. “But I was too young to talk to them, so I let my dad talk for me.”

Donovan quickly settled in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, attending John F. Kennedy High School. In Iowa, he played for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, a member of the United States Hockey League.

In spite of living in a third residence – all in different states – in a three-year span, Donovan would make the most of his opportunity on the ice. He recorded 30 points (12 goals and 18 assists) in 59 games and was named to the USHL all-rookie team. Furthermore, his play attracted the NHL scouts, as he was selected by the Islanders in the fourth round (96th overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

“I talked to a couple of teams,” said Donovan. “I honestly thought L.A. would pick me.

“They sat down with me for an hour or two, and they told me that they liked me. I talked to the Islanders for a little bit.”

Donovan returned to Cedar Rapids for his high school senior season, and scored 51 points. He led all defensemen in goals and points during the 2008-09 campaign, and was named to the USHL All-Star First Team.

“Cedar Rapids gave me a chance to work with great coaches,” said Donovan. “It was a perfect transition from midgets to college hockey.”

While playing for USA Hockey in selected festivals run by his father, Donovan was excited at the prospects of playing collegiate hockey and quickly narrowed his choices to two former Western College Hockey Association (WCHA) rivals and current National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) foes Denver and Colorado College.

His immediate bond with head coach George Gwozdecky, along with a quick half-hour flight or 10-hour car ride to Edmond made the University of Denver the only choice, according to Donovan.

“Coach G allowed me the opportunity to play my game,” said Donovan. “He built on my strengths as an offensive defenseman, making faster decisions seem simpler.

“He also pushed me into a becoming a better defensive defenseman.”

As a freshman, Donovan played 36 games. He scored seven goals and added 14 assists, and was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team. He capped off a stellar 2009-10 season, by winning gold for Team USA in the Under-20 World Championships. He scored five points in seven games for the victorious Americans, who ousted future teammate Calvin De Haan and the Canadians, 6-5 in the finals.

“My freshman year gave me confidence that I could play on the college level,” said Donovan.

With an eye on joining the Islanders, Donovan would return to Denver for his second and final season. He played in all 42 games for Denver, amassing 32 points (nine goals and 23 assists) and leading all Pioneer defensemen with a +17 rating. Donovan’s Pioneers would reach the NCAA final four, before bowing out to Islanders prospect Brock Nelson and the North Dakota Fighting Sioux.

“As a sophomore, I believed that I stepped it up another level … making plays on a pro level,” said Donovan, who was selected as a WCHA Second Team All-Star. “I was confident that I was ready to take the next step.”

Gwozdecky was also pleased with Donovan’s progression.

“Matt came here thinking as an offensive minded player,” said Gwozdecky, winner of seven NCAA championships at Denver. “But he left here as a player who prided himself on the defensive end of the ice.”

Despite some resistance from his mother, who was hoping that he would earn his degree, Donovan would sign his three-year entry level contract last spring with the Islanders. He was assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate in Bridgeport and had a goal and four assists in six games as a Sound Tiger to close out the 2010-11 season.

After scrimmaging with the Islanders prospects last summer, Donovan returned to Bridgeport in the fall for his first full year of seasoning at the ‘A’ under first–year Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson.

Thompson quickly grew fond of Donovan’s tenacity.

“Matt is a strong kid, and he is starting now to get engage physically,” said Thompson. “I know that at UD (Denver), he was there for his offensive game, but I really love his defensive potential.

“Whether he is here (at Bridgeport) for a solid year or two, I could definitely see him being a top-four defenseman on the NHL level. He reminds me a little of Andy McDonald because of his style. They both skate well and are very good decision makers.”

Playing alongside defensive prospects Aaron Ness and De Haan, Donovan and the Sound Tigers experienced some growing pains at the tail end of the 2011 calendar, as they dropped nine of 10 games in a 28-day span (December 4-31).

Luckily for the Sound Tigers, the start of 2012 has completely turned what looked to be a dismal 2011-12 season around. Donovan’s play on the blue-line has anchored that resurgence. Playing without an injured DeHaan, who suffered a shoulder injury sidelining him for 4-to-6 weeks, Donovan’s minutes have increased and so has his productivity.

In the midst of the Sound Tigers’ current seven-game winning streak, in which the team has outscored its opposition, 25-8, Donovan has collected 10 points – one goal and 9 assists. He is currently tied for eighth in the AHL for defensive scoring with 22 points, with four goals and 18 assists.

“Playing in Bridgeport, it is great having all the young guys around pushing one another,” said Donovan, who himself in discussions with Islanders management believes that his game is similar to current captain Mark Streit. “But it is also getting me ready to play in the NHL.

“Whether it is playing tough on the puck, winning battles against the walls or ripping shots at the net from the point, the more I play, the more comfortable I am.”

With only three Islanders defenseman – Streit, McDonald and Travis Hamonic – signed past the 2011-12 NHL season, Donovan is surely one prospect that will get a look at as the current season comes to a close and the 2012-13 NHL campaign quickly approaches in the fall. Yet, Donovan isn’t putting any timeline on when he would like to be called up.

“Honestly, I’m really not thinking of it,” said Donovan. “I still want to work on my game.”

If that call up is indeed made, Donovan would become the fourth Oklahoma native to don a jersey in an NHL game. Burr Williams played three seasons in the mid-1930’s for the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins. Dan Woodley played two seasons for the Vancouver Canucks in the late 1980’s. Tyler Arnason is currently playing for the Florida Panthers.

“Coming from Oklahoma, it is just very excited to be drafted,” said Donovan. “I went to see the Oklahoma City Blazers when I was younger. My dad ran the rink.”

Donovan also hopes his future success mirrors that of fellow Edmond native Shannon Miller, who captured Olympic Gold in gymnastics in 1996. Donovan was only six years of age at the time.

A gold medal would be golden, but a playoff appearance on Long Island should suit Donovan and the Islander fans just fine.

Only time will tell.