During his seven-year pro career, Clark Donatelli played with an agitating style that didn’t endear him to opposing players and their fans.
But as a two-time Olympian, Donatelli was a hero to a nation.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach played on the USA ice hockey team in the 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics. As the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang get underway this week, Donatelli couldn’t help but pull out his old jerseys and scrapbooks and reflect on his own experience representing his country on the world stage.
“It’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,” Donatelli said.
His journey to becoming an Olympian began in 1984 when the 17-year-old Rhode Island native made the USA hockey squad that would compete in the World Junior Championships. Over the next three years, Donatelli would continue to represent the US in the world championships, eventually earning a tryout for the 1988 Olympic team. Out of a field of 80 players, Donatelli was one of 25 to make the cut.
Those selected for the Olympic team embarked on a “tour,” playing 65 games against NHL, AHL, IHL, international and college clubs during the year leading up to the Winter Games in Calgary.
And that’s when he experienced what it was like to go from hated opponent to fan favorite.
“You went to all these cities — Chicago, Boston St. Louis, Detroit — and everyone is cheering for you. It didn’t matter where you went,” Donatelli said. “You had the whole country behind you. That’s what was special about it.”
Donatelli scored 38 points during the 65-game tour but his Team USA squad finished in seventh place and out of medal contention in the 1988 Olympics. Donatelli had a goal and three points in the competition, and after that he turned pro, playing 25 NHL games with the Minnesota North Stars and spending two seasons with the San Diego Gulls in the International Hockey League.
After the 1990-91 season, Donatelli was without a contract when he got an invite from USA head coach Dave Peterson to try out for the 1992 Olympic squad.
Without a pro team to call home, Donatelli couldn’t turn down a second chance to represent his country in the Olympics.
The 1992 Olympic Games, which were played in Albertville, France, had a more experienced roster than the 1988 squad, featuring NHLers Moe Mantha of the Winnipeg Jets and Scott Young of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The roster also featured a young Keith Tkachuk, who would embark on a 17-year NHL career after the Olympics.
“He was a real good player back then and you just knew he was going to become an outstanding pro in the NHL,” Donatelli said.
But it was Donatelli that was named captain of the team, as selected by the other players.
“My teammates picked me and that’s what makes it special,” he said. “It’s your peers.”
The 1992 USA squad played with an edge, particularly Donatelli, who grinded his way to two goals, three points and six penalty minutes in eight games.
The US team started strong, beating Italy, Germany, Finland and Poland before skating to a 3-3 tie with Sweden. In the quarterfinals, the US dominated France in a 4-1 win, earning a matchup with the Unified Team, which was stacked with elite players from the former Soviet Union.
Team USA lost the game, 5-2, and even though they had a chance to earn a bronze medal they couldn’t recover in the next game against Czechoslovakia.
“We faced the Czechs and they were really good. They wiped us out, 6-1,” Donatelli said. “It was just tough trying to rebound from the tie with Sweden and then the loss to the Unified.”
Despite a strong showing in 1992, Donatelli said it was a disappointment to come so close to earning a medal and falling short with a fourth-place finish.
But now, 26 years later, Donatelli said his Olympic memories are special even if there isn’t a medal to go along with them.
“You wish you got a medal, but I have some lifelong memories and I was able to do it twice,” he said. “The first experience in the Olympics went by so quick. The second time I knew I had to soak it all in, and I did.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky