Misha Donskov, MA’11 (Kinesiology), rolled the dice on a franchise that did not exist – no nickname, no uniform and, to most observers, no chance. But that gamble is paying off today as his Las Vegas Golden Knights are battling it out for the Stanley Cup in its inaugural season.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of not only an NHL team, but, more specifically, to be part of something from ground zero,” said Donskov, the Golden Knights Director of Hockey Operations. “I’ve always loved challenges in life, and this was an ultimate opportunity and challenge. Hockey has always been my passion. It’s been what’s at my core.”
The Golden Knights finished their inaugural season with a 51-24-7 record. The team’s 109 points were second only to the Nashville Predators’ 117 points. Before this season, no NHL expansion team had finished above .500, let alone made the playoffs. (In 1993-94, the Florida Panthers were the closest, finishing one game under the mark.)
Montreal-born, Donskov played AAA hockey in London before relocating to Columbus, Ohio, as a teenager. After playing a couple of seasons overseas in Sweden and Norway, he earned an undergraduate degree in business finance, interning with Cardinal Health, a health-services company in Columbus, before turning that into a full-time position.
At the same time, he helped launch Donskov Hockey Development, a family hockey school he’s still involved with today, and began working part-time with the Columbus Blue Jackets, running the organization’s hockey school and community engagement.
When Cardinal Health transferred him to Atlanta, he joined the Atlanta Thrashers community development team on a part-time basis.
“I was getting more and more involved with the Thrashers and got hired on with the coaching staff to do advanced pro scouting,” said Donskov, who worked in this role until 2009. “At that time, I made a conscious choice I wanted to pursue hockey full time. I was ready. At the time, I wasn’t even 30 years old yet, had an unbelievable job, was a regional sales manager covering the southwest part of United States, had great sales teams – but it just wasn’t my passion.”
Several times, he had approached Thrashers general manager Don Waddell (now GM of the Carolina Hurricanes) and begged him for a full-time position. But with the team’s ownership issues, and its eventual move to Winnipeg, it wasn’t meant to be.
But that didn’t deter Donskov.
“I decided to take the leap and pursue hockey full time. I resigned from Cardinal. Everyone thought I was nuts because I did give up so much,” he said.
With a new role as assistant general manager and assistant coach for the OHL’s London Knights, Donskov also headed back to the classroom after almost 20 years.
“The timing of it was perfect. I could pursue my passion by working in the game full time, while also bettering myself and getting a masters from a world-class academic institution,” he said.
He credits Jenn Plaskett (Symmes), Western Kinesiology Graduate Program Coordinator, for alleviating any fears he might have had in returning as a mature student.
“She was outstanding in terms of her support and helped me get through the whole admission process. She made the transition much easier,” he said, adding then Mustangs Hockey coach Clarke Singer also was supportive.
“The program there was great. A world-class university and world-class people. I had three great years in London. I tell people I got my masters in Kinesiology at Western and I got my masters in Hockey from the Hunters (Dale and Mark). For me, that’s checking two big boxes.”
Following the team’s overtime loss to Shawinigan in the 2012 Memorial Cup, Donskov headed up Highway 401 and joined the Ottawa 67s as an associate coach. Following his two years in Ottawa, he joined Hockey Canada as Manager of Hockey Operations/Analytics and Video and soon took on an expanded role of Assistant Coach/Hockey Operations.
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he said, and he helped the teams celebrate two men’s IIHF World Championship gold medals (2015, 2016) and a gold medal at the 2015 World Juniors.
During this time, he met George McPhee, who managed the men’s team to the back-to-back gold medals. McPhee led the charge for the Golden Knights entry into the league. And as the team’s new GM, he wanted Donskov to be part of the journey.
“I had just got promoted with Hockey Canada, the family was getting ready to buy a house in Calgary and it was the last day of the hockey camp in Columbus,” he recalled. “I get a call from George. He tells me, ‘It’s not official or public yet, but I’m getting the Vegas opportunity and would love you to be a part of it.’ I was completely blown away and shocked, with all the emotions you get when you get a call like that. I was certainly ecstatic.”
Donskov could not say no.
“It’s exciting – every day,” Donskov explained. “I’d go into a meeting about video, then a meeting about the expansion draft, then a meeting about the colour of the carpet in the dressing room. You’re just going and going. We had a completely blank canvas to work from.”
His experience behind the bench in London and Ottawa has helped him with his behind-the-scenes role today.
“I’ve been afforded the opportunity to be involved in a lot of different areas because of the different experiences I’ve had in the game,” he said. “It helps when you’ve having a discussion with our own coaches or when you’re in the war room from a management standpoint. My (sales) experience with Cardinal has even helped.”
The team began to win and confounded the experts by continuing to win. Today, the Golden Knights are the improbable darlings of hockey fans across North America.
For Donskov, the support of the Las Vegas fans has been one of the more rewarding parts of this whole experience.
“It’s pretty neat to see hockey grow like this in a non-traditional hockey market in the southwestern United States, to see our fans embrace our team, to see our team embrace the community, to see the energy at T-Mobile Arena and how passionate and into it our fan base has become, to see the minor and youth hockey registration numbers skyrocket.
“To see where our group is now and the success we’re having on the ice is incredible. We’re so happy the city had embraced us. We still have work to do. It’s not ‘mission accomplished’ yet, but it’s been an incredible journey and an incredible ride.”