Unlike his Newfoundland Senior Hockey League peers, most of whom played minor pro, collegiate, major junior of junior A hockey prior, Grant Donovan’s path to the NSLSHL and the Gander Flyers went through Quebec’s senior scene.
“I didn’t know a thing about it,” Donovan says of his decision to join the Riviere-du-Loup Promutuel of the North American Hockey League (LNAH) after a failed bid to get a game in the ECHL in 2002, his first year out of the junior ranks.
“But I learned pretty quickly.”
It didn’t take long for the native of Miramichi, N.B,. to realize the league, registered as semi-professional with Hockey Canada, was a scrapper’s paradise.
“Let’s use my friend as an example,” Donovan says. “In one of the year I was there, he led all of Quebec with 72 fights in 35 games. That’s how serious the fighting is up there. It was nothing for a guy to put up 50 fights a year.”
Donovan, who was attending St. Thomas University in Fredericton at time but hadn’t cracked the Tommies’ varsity lineup, appeared in just 11 games in the LNAH his first year. He spent the next two seasons in the slightly more fisticuffs-friendly second tier Quebec Eastern Senior Hockey League (LHSEQ) with the La Vallee Forestiers.
“There, the top two lines are going to be the top two lines pretty much anywhere in Canada, but when you go down from there, each team has four or five guys who can go out and drop the gloves whenever they want,” he says.
Donovan wasn’t recruited to fight, but as something of a scrapper in his junior days — Donovan compiled 167 penalty minutes in 54 games for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan in 1999-2000 — he didn’t shy away from the fisticuffs.
“I was a top-two line guy up there, but I also enjoy dropping the gloves once in a while I was one of the rare ones when it came to that stuff. But I wasn’t an every-game guy. I picked my spots.”
Donovan went on to play three more seasons in the LHSEQ with the Matane Castors, before hanging up his skates to join the RCMP at the end of the 2008-09 season.
After graduating from the Mounties’ training academy in 2010, his first posting was Glovertown. This summer, after being away from hockey for more than three years, Donovan jumped at the opportunity to get back into the game when the Flyers put out a call for players.
After a lengthy stretch away from competitive hockey, Donovan said it took some time to find his game again.
“I felt good as far as my body and legs went, but the hands and the head took a while to catch up,” he said. “The rest of me is catching up now, so I’m feeling back to the way I used to.”
Flyers’ coach Dennis Laing has been impressed with the “steady game” and “responsibility” the veteran Donovan has brought to the ice.
“I think all he needed was to get adjusted to the speed, because it is a fast league,” Laing said. “But he’s handled it well, and he’s playing well within the team concept. He’s been one of the cornerstones of our team so far.”
Donovan was awarded an assistant’s A and he has since settled into a leadership role on a team where the average age is 24 with most players making their first foray into senior hockey.
“Where we have such a young team, I’m one of only a few guys who have senior experience,” says Donovan , who has three goals, two assists and 33 penalty minutes in eight game.
“My role is to help guys transition into this type of hockey and keep the morale up.”
Joining a team with so many players nearly a full decade junior to him was a different experience for Donovan — “this is the first time since I started playing senior that your best players and leaders weren’t all 34 or 35 years old” — but he insists he’s been made to feel like one of the guys.
“The boys make me feel right at home and when you’re in the dressing room, you’re all the same age anyway,” he says.
Donovan wasn’t asked to fill an enforcer role for the Flyers, but says he has, “never had a problem answering anybody’s bell.” Six games in, he’s had recorded one fight, a tilt with the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts’ Ryan Graham.
“Every once in a while, it has to happen,” Donovan explains. “That’s how I’ve played hockey my whole life.”