NORTH BRANFORD — Amid the celebration of Branford’s CIAC Division II boys hockey championship last March was one Hornets defenseman torn between ecstasy and personal pain.
At 5:28 of the first period of that game, Branford’s Chris Donadio took a hit on which a Glastonbury player was called for a kneeing major. Donadio struggled to get up, needed help off the ice and missed the rest of the game.
“I was trying to go back on. The fact I couldn’t walk did not help,” Donadio deadpanned.
“The biggest down was during the game. I wanted nothing more than to be out there.”
The Hornets rallied for their then-junior defenseman and beat Glastonbury to win their first title in 31 years.
“I couldn’t imagine playing all year for a state championship, hyping up all year. It’s the biggest thing for us,” fellow senior defenseman Max Manware said. “Though he only came onto the team (that) year, obviously, he still wants to win a state championship, and he goes out there five minutes into the game and breaks his knee or whatever he did to it.”
Yeah, so: Donadio said the hit chipped a piece of his femur, had some MCL and some muscle-tissue damage, “all that.”
A couple of weeks of hard physical therapy, he said, and he was ready to go. Unfortunately, he had to wait eight months until Branford’s next game. But Donadio, a second-team all-state pick of the state coaches in Division II last year, has returned at full strength for a Hornets team that, ranked ninth in the GameTimeCT top 10 poll, is among the favorites in Division II yet again.
The four-man defense corps returned intact in front of goalie Jared Yakimoff, one of a handful of standout netminders in the division. With several experienced forwards back as well, Branford is 11-1-1 and unbeaten in its past eight.
“These guys make great decisions with the puck. They exit the zone well. They allow us to use our speed by head-manning the puck on the outlet passes to the forwards,” Branford coach Jim DiNapoli said.
“It’s really nice to have four guys we can rely on, shift-in and shift-out, game-in and game-out.”
Donadio typically has started periods with Manware, though Manware will be out a few weeks with an injury he suffered in the Hornets’ last game. The Hornets typically then shifted into their regular pairs, Donadio with junior Billy Linder and Manware with senior Jake Rivera.
“It’s one of our biggest advantages over other teams. I think our chemistry’s good,” Manware said. “I know Jake’s weaknesses. I know Jake’s pros. I know what to do. I think that helps out our forwards a lot.”
Both pairs knew each other before coming to the Hornets. Donadio arrived last year after playing for the Elite Hockey program at Northford Ice Pavilion, where he now plays home games for the Hornets.
“All the guys I go to school with, you see them at school and they’re all hyped about their last win. I could finally be a part of it,” Donadio said.
“Everyone here is friends. We got to restaurants, go have fun. Everything we do, it’s the hockey guys, so it’s not like we’re just teammates. We’re best friends outside of school. I think that’s what makes us so strong.”
The bond was clear after last year’s title game. Donadio, on crutches, was emotional on the ice and in the dressing room.
“You feel so bad,” DiNapoli said. “We’ve all played at one point. Some of us have been in those shoes, and some of us haven’t, but you dread potentially being in those shoes. It was an emotional time. Chris handled it very well. The team handled it well, likewise.”
The Hornets’ season debut on Dec. 18 was coincidentally against Glastonbury, on the road in Hartford at Trinity College’s Koeppel Rink, where they beat South Windsor last year in the quarterfinals. Branford won 4-3. Donadio scored the winner in overtime.
Redemption for last season? No, redemption for the rest of the game. He said he was awful. By the fifth or sixth game, he said, he felt normal again.
“It just slowly came together,” Donadio said. “Now I feel like I’m on it.”