Trevor Large, the head hockey coach at Canisius College, refers to junior forward Keaton Mastrodonato, as a “big-time leader” and a “dominant personality.”
Large says it with a smile, with the knowledge that every winning coach needs a star player with a burning desire to win and the competitive character to drag his teammates along with him.
“That’s a very big skill that only leaders understand,” Large said before practice on Tuesday.
A perfect example: The Griffs’ practice on Monday ended with a scrimmage that wound up in a tie. Assistant coach Daniel Paille decided the outcome would be determined not with a shootout but with races between the skaters on the respective teams.
Mastrodonato was paired off against senior Mitchell Martan. Mastrodonato won his race. Practice ended. But Large noticed that his two leaders were still out on the ice, still racing each other, still competing.
“Keaton kept winning,” Large said, “but Marty kept saying ‘No, no, no’ and trying to change the rules.”
Large was still laughing about it on Tuesday. He was also comforted to know that the younger guys on his team had witnessed the team’s best player refusing to back down from the most benign of competitive challenges.
“Keaton’s effort and competitiveness are at the highest of ends,” Large said. “It’s really, really fun to coach that. He does need to be pulled back occasionally, and that’s what every coach wants. So, in terms of leadership, this is one of the best I’ve been a part of.”
Mastrodonato said his mother, Jodi, and girlfriend, Karissa, recently reminded him “everything isn’t a competition.” But it’s not easy to turn it off when you’ve been competing all your life, and when you’ve been so often underestimated.
“I’ll go to all costs to win,” Mastrodonato said. “Even a small fun game like that at practice. I don’t handle losing very lightly. That’s something I carry in my life, from something small to something as big as a game.”
He and his Canisius teammates have a heightened sense of opportunity lost. Last March, with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, they lost to American International, 5-2, in the championship game of the Atlantic Hockey Association tournament.
Canisius was tied after two periods. They were 20 minutes from the school’s first NCAA bid in eight years. But they fell short. Mastrodonato was told that it must have been a pretty tough night after that loss.
“Tough night? Tough week, tough month, tough summer … ” Mastrodonato said.
“It was tough,” Large said, “but it might have been the best thing for us. We expected to go to the NCAA Tournament, to win NCAA games for the first time in team history. We expected a Frozen Four. We were not going to be surprised with the national championship.
“We were a period away,” he said. “We were also one game away from a regular-season championship last year. That drives our team for more. There’s stories all over sports of the teams or the individual that got close and the next time they had that opportunity.
“That’s the goal for us, the hope, but we’re not leaving it to chance. We are doing the work every day to make sure we are that team that deserves the NCAA berth.”
Mastrodonato, who leads Canisius with 16 points and was a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top player last season, agreed that last season’s bitter disappointment is a motivator for this year’s squad.
“I know that’s one of the best things that happened for our group,” he said. “You can’t replicate being part of a game like that and being that close. You gain those experiences and you lean into that. Coming into this year, that’s a big focus for us every day.”
The Griffs are off to a solid start. They’re 7-5-1 overall, 4-2-0 in the AHA. They recently won four straight games by three goals or more before a loss at Mercyhurst on Saturday in the second game of a back-to-back. Maybe they were looking ahead to next weekend.
This Friday and Saturday, they’ll get another shot at American International when the defending conference champions come to town for afternoon games at HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo.
Large, who is in his fifth season as Canisius head man, said the AIC games won’t decide anything, but they’ll be a good measuring stick for how far his team has come since the letdown of last year’s title game.
“It’s a completely different team, but for the guys who were in that game last year, there’s an emphasis,” Large said. “It has our focus. It’s going to be a great experience for us to showcase how we’ve gotten better.”
Of course, there was a chance Mastrodonato might even not be here. Last summer, he was seen an overlooked and previously undrafted college star who might go in July’s NHL draft. He wasn’t selected.
“It’s a goal as a player growing up,” said Mastrodonato, a native of Powell River, a small city in southwest British Columbia. “As a younger guy in college, I knew it was a possibility. It’s something I work toward every day. But when it doesn’t happen, it’s similar to the scenario we were just talking about (missing the NCAA tourney).
“You’re right there, on the cusp. It lives with me every single day. It’s going to push me to be better. I don’t think I fall very short of those players who have been drafted in the NHL. But it’s going to push me every single day to be a better player and a better person.”
Mastrodonato, a 6-foot, 205-pound forward, is accustomed to being underestimated. As a teenager, he dreamed of playing junior in the prestigious Western Hockey League. But he was bypassed and wound up playing three years of junior for Alberni Valley in the lightly regarded British Columbia Hockey League.
He blossomed in the BCHL and Canisius noticed. Large says the Griffs got a steal with Mastrodonato,
“The NHL gets it right a lot, but wrong a lot, too,” Large said. “You play on a team where one kid’s a star and two years later, he’s not even close. Keaton was a star. He just hadn’t received the opportunity yet. It started to come to fruition for him in junior hockey.
“We were lucky enough to be watching.”
Mastrodonato said it was a “no-brainer” to come all the way to Buffalo. He was won over by the coaching staff, the players, and the “amazing culture they created here at Canisius.”
He was the Griffs’ top rookie and one of the best AHA newcomers in 2019-20. As a sophomore, he was all-AHA first team and led Canisius with nine goals in 18 points in the Covid-shortened 17-game season. He made AHA all-academic both years and was the conference’s student-athlete of the year last season.
“I take academics very seriously,” said Mastrodonato, a sports management major. “With my mom being a schoolteacher, that’s always been a focus with her too. So, I’ve always appreciated the push from her and the support from both my parents in that aspect.”
Large said he’d love to have Mastrodonato through the 2023-24 season. The NCAA granted athletes an additional year of eligibility due to the pandemic. But he knows his star is destined for bigger things.
“Keaton is going to play in the NHL,” Large said. “Nothing is going to stop him. I think it was his best opportunity to not be drafted. Now he has many more teams that will watch him, and one of those teams is going to get lucky.
“They’re definitely watching Keaton, and as as they get to know him better and what and who he is, one of those NHL teams is going to take a quote unquote shot on a kid from Canisius. He’s going to prove them right.”
For now, there’s hockey to be played, a conference title to chased. This weekend, the battle with American International will be rejoined. So will friendships. AIC head coach Eric Lang is Large’s best friend in hockey. They coached together at Army. Large played at AIC and got his MBA there.
But AIC is in the way of the Griffs’ dreams. In college hockey, where 16 teams make the NCAA tourney, anything can happen. The last time Canisius made the field, in 2013, they had a two-goal lead in the first game against overall No. 1 seed Quinnipiac before losing.
“I do believe that any team can win a national championship,” Large said. “It’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen every year when you have a (low seed) win it. But man oh man, if you get in there, those seeds go away pretty darn quick.
“There’s a lot of recent history with Union and Providence winning. I think the outside world would be shocked if Canisius won the national championship. I think our conference would be shocked, but maybe not as surprised.”
Mastrodonato said he wouldn’t be shocked at all.
“It’s a goal of ours,” he said. “Whether external people believe it or not, I know inside our culture — which is the most important thing — we know we’re capable of doing that.”
He’s not backing down. Maybe you need to be a leader, and a dominant personality, to understand.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.