Hockey found UMass forward Cam Donaldson, and he found a home

  • Hockey has been a part of UMass forward Cam Donaldson's life since he was 2 playing in the street with his neighbors. The sport took him from his roots in the south to prep school in the northeast, the Ivy League and eventually UMass. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Hockey has been a part of UMass forward Cam Donaldson's life since he was 2 playing in the street with his neighbors. The sport took him from his roots in the south to prep school in the northeast, the Ivy League and eventually UMass. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Hockey has been a part of UMass forward Cam Donaldson's life since he was 2 playing in the street with his neighbors. The sport took him from his roots in the south to prep school in the northeast, the Ivy League and eventually UMass. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Hockey has been a part of UMass forward Cam Donaldson's life since he was 2 playing in the street with his neighbors. The sport took him from his roots in the south to prep school in the Northeast, the Ivy League and eventually UMass. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Hockey has been a part of UMass forward Cam Donaldson's life since he was 2 playing in the street with his neighbors. The sport took him from his roots in the south to prep school in the northeast, the Ivy League and eventually UMass. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass' Cam Donaldson first picked up a hockey stick at age two and began playing organized hockey at four. COURTESY PATRICIA DONALDSON

  • UMass' Cam Donaldson first picked up a hockey stick at age two and began playing organized hockey at four. COURTESY PATRICIA DONALDSON

Staff Writer
Published: 12/3/2021 3:11:33 PM

AMHERST — Craig Badger’s key turned in the Linen Rink doors.

The Gunnery School ice hockey coach thought he was opening the barn for visiting family to skate over winter break. Only they didn’t have the ice all to themselves that December morning in 2015.

UMass forward Cam Donaldson, then a senior at the Connecticut prep school now known as the Frederick Gunn School, was already on the ice with his dad, Brian Donaldson. The doors were either already open, or the custodian let them in. They alternated between casual games of one-on-one and drills to improve Cam’s skills. He’d just committed to Cornell but was still driven to improve.

“That showed who he was as a kid, as a player, his passion for the game,” Badger said. “On a holiday, he’s out there pushing himself. So many kids will pay the money and go out to a skills guy. He just showed up at the rink on his own. He didn’t need someone else to do it for him.”

Donaldson fell for hockey early in a place that doesn’t customarily nurture it. He was born in Atlanta and spent the first two years of his life there. The Donaldson’s house in Alpharetta, Ga., a northern suburb of Atlanta, faced the side of the Weises house. A family from Niagara Falls, Canada, who had three teenagers playing travel hockey, the Weises regularly conducted games of street hockey in front of the Donaldson’s and away from traffic. Cam Donaldson watched them often and joined in with his tiny stick and overalls. 

He loved it immediately.

“If I didn't have Canadian neighbors, I would not have even played hockey,” Donaldson said. “I think about it all the time, how different my life would be if I just had different neighbors.”

The family moved to Nashville, Tenn., when his mom, Patty Donaldson, was transferred there by her job. They bought a house five minutes from an ice rink. His parents are originally from colder climates – his dad Brian was born and raised in the Midwest, while Patty was born in New York and grew up in North Carolina – so they knew how to ice skate and took Cam to the rink as soon as he could stand on the sheet. He joined his first organized hockey team in Nashville at age four in a local rec league.

The six and under squad was coached by former NHL enforcer Stu Grimson, who had a son on the team. Donaldson was slow to catch on at first, but he put away five goals in the season finale.

“It was different, but it was also pretty cool. Being from the south and playing hockey, everyone’s wondering what you were doing,” Donaldson said. “They didn't know much about hockey, and it was pretty cool to be unique like that.”

By age 6 he had joined a newly formed travel team called Total Package Hockey that went as far as St. Louis and back to Atlanta for tournaments. Total Package Hockey was a regional squad that drew from seven southern states to field a competitive roster.

Those tournaments usually ran Friday through Sunday, which meant missed school days and assignments completed in the backseat. Despite the Predators founding in Nashville in 1998, football and baseball were still the dominant sports among Donaldson’s peers. The Donaldsons stood out. One year they spent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles and made regular trips to Detroit.

“I think probably some people thought we were crazy,” Patty Donaldson said. 

But Cam Donaldson was hooked. He stopped playing baseball by age 10. Other than hockey, the only sport he kept up with was golf. He’s a scratch golfer now, but by the time the family moved to Texas when he was 12, his future on the ice was illuminating.

“I feel like there’s such a oneness among the team. Growing up, my best friends were – by far – the guys on my team,” Donaldson said. “For any other sport, that might be somewhat true, but I feel like with hockey, what really grabbed me was the beauty of the sport and being a team.”

They were moving to Texas for his sister, Molly. She was attending the University of Texas, and they wanted to pay in-state tuition. But there were no hockey teams in Austin of Cam’s caliber. So they compromised and moved to Dallas, where the Stars (in Texas since 1993) had built a strong youth infrastructure.

“I'm forever grateful to my parents, my support system, sister, all my coaches,” Cam Donaldson said. “Hockey's done amazing things for me.”

Donaldson played in the Dallas Stars Elite system for four years. His 16U team attended a tournament in West Springfield at the Olympia Ice Rink during the 2013-14 season when Badger first approached Donaldson.

At the time Donaldson was well-regarded if undersized, but his teammate Hank Crone – the Stars leading scorer who now plays at Northern Michigan after two years at Denver – captivated scouts.

Badger noticed Donaldson’s speed and skill and realized he would fit in with his similarly molded group at the Gunnery. He’d brought players from Dallas before to the school’s Connecticut campus.

“It’s a hockey market up here (in New England), but it’s also a bit oversaturated. When everybody up here is competing for all of those same guys, you have to look at those other markets a lot,” Badger said. “If you go to those less traditional markets you have to sell them on the idea of prep school, then you have to sell them at your school.”

The Donaldsons didn’t need much convincing. By that point they realized Cam could play hockey in college and wanted to give him the clearest path. Playing at a prep school seemed like a better move to the family than going to the USHL or another junior league and being somewhere where he didn’t know anybody.

When Donaldson enrolled at the Gunnery, his parents moved to Connecticut so he could be a day student. Having the rink on campus instead of hours away and games scheduled around classes appealed to a family used to distance and interruptions.

“They saw the value of this world,” Badger said.

And Donaldson made the most of his time. He attended the Gunnery for his junior and senior years, amassing 82 points and 43 goals in those two seasons. The school won a New England title his senior season.

He could have stayed for a postgrad year and chased another one but opted for Cornell and an Ivy League education.

“It was a combination of a lot of things. Hockey, I would say it was about 90 percent of it,” Donaldson said. “But the other 10 percent is school. They had an undergraduate business school, which most Ivy League schools don't have.”

He entered Cornell part of a group of 10 freshmen. He lived with two members of that class, Cody Haiskanen and Tristan Mullins, for three years. The Big Red finished first in the Eastern College Athletic Conference three times during Donaldson’s career. They were the No. 1 team in the country in March of 2020 when the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic halted sports around the world.

It was the first time Donaldson had been without hockey since he was an infant.

The rest of the country played a conference-only schedule last season – Donaldson’s senior year. He found out his Cornell hockey career was over in a Zoom meeting on Nov. 16, 2020, when the Ivy League announced it wouldn’t sponsor any sports for the winter season (or the entire academic year).

The three seniors sat on their couch and wept knowing they already played their last game together.

“It was the biggest pit in my stomach I've ever had. It was devastating,” Donaldson said. “It was probably one of the worst feelings I've ever had, and there was just a lot of not knowing what I was gonna do.”

The following few months were a whirlwind. At first the players were told they couldn’t return to Cornell for a fifth year despite the NCAA’s blanket waiver of an extra year of eligibility because of Ivy League rules. Some pursued professional options. The transfer portal let others finish that fifth year at another school and enter a graduate program. 

They all weathered the storm together.

“We all were in unfamiliar territory. Being that we’re all so close, even though we were in different situations it was helpful to see how other guys were looking at it,” Haiskanen said. “The options for all of us weren't the same, but more so being there for one another and listening.”

Donaldson, named third-team All-ECAC and honorable mention All-Ivy in 2019, entered the transfer portal. UMass coach Greg Carvel and associate head coach Jared DeMichiel knew of him after trying to recruit him at Saint Lawrence and reached out within a week. He seemed like an obvious Minuteman to help provide some experience and stability to a lineup in flux following a national championship.

The decision became obvious and academic quickly for Donaldson. He chose the Minutemen and to pursue a finance master’s degree in alternative investments.

“Other schools did reach out to me, but UMass was, in my opinion, the best hockey program that reached out to me,” Donaldson said. “They have a really good track record of developing players. The alternative investments program was right up my alley.”

He arrived in the summer with fellow Ivy league expat Matt Baker (Dartmouth), who he faced six times at Cornell. Neither had played meaningful hockey in more than a year. They commiserated, joking, “Where’d my hands go, where’d my feet go?” It’s not like riding a bike.

“We were both in the same boat,” Donaldson said. “In the summertime, we were kind of lost.”

Finding his form has taken longer than Donaldson wanted. He has just one point this season, an assist against Providence on Nov. 5, and no goals. There are opportunities available with a handful of UMass forwards injured that Donaldson hopes to seize.

“I really want to step up into that role. Now's a good time,” he said. “I feel like my game is getting to 100 percent.”

Donaldson has carved out extra time at the rink to speed up the process, enlisting DeMichiel for skill sessions before and after practices and individual video breakdowns. The process hasn’t been easy for either of them. It has required raw, honest assessment, criticism and effort.

“They're brutally honest, sometimes it's hard as a coach. Maybe it's just me being a softy ... You want to pump a kid's tires and tell him how good he's playing,” DeMichiel said. “But at the same time, too, you got to give him honesty, and if there's parts of the game they need to get better at, and Cam has been overly receptive.”

He’s never shied away from a chance to improve his game. Extra drills mean more time with a stick in his hands, skate blades carving fresh ice, whooshing with a spray of snow. After growing up all over the south, Donaldson has made the rink his home.


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