(San Antonio) – A year ago, Dominic Toninato was plugging away on his hometown university hockey team, helping Minnesota-Duluth to a second place regular season finish in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The northern Minnesotan tied a career-high with 16 goals in helping to lead the Bulldogs as the most offensive team in their conference, while UMD fell one goal shot of college hockey’s top prize.
As many Mile High Hockey readers will recall, it was the Bulldogs standing in the way of the University of Denver in the NCAA Frozen Four, dropping a 3-2 decision in the title game. Ironically, it was that same score that helped the Dogs advance in the prelims, with 3-2 wins over Ohio State and Boston University, along with a 2-1 victory over Harvard to reach the Frozen Four.
Less than half a year later, Toninato found himself skating at a much different level, joining the Colorado Avalanche for an eight-game tour of the National Hockey League.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said the former Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick. “I was confident in myself. I knew there were some steps to take. Last year, we were just focusing on that season and trying to win a national championship, so yeah, it was awesome (being called up).”
You have to think Toninato’s playoff performance got the Avs’ attention. They left the door open for him to start the season in the NHL. His locker space in San Antonio wasn’t confirmed until the AHL camp began in the Alamo City.
Toninato has been a huge part of the Rampage’s success. They have been able to jump out to a 16-10-2-0 start, including a 4-0-1 streak with Dom back with the team.
This almost didn’t happen. Toronto's obligations towards Toninato were running out - He was in the same contract situation as DU’s Hobey Baker winning captain Will Butcher was with the Avs.
“Toronto didn’t have room for me. They have a lot of young guys, so it didn’t work out there. I’m thankful for everything they did,” said Toninato, who was drafted by the Leafs in 2012. “But this is a new opportunity and I couldn’t be happier in the Colorado organization. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”
Toninato didn’t look out of place during his call-up. He proved to be an effective pivot at the NHL level, managing an assist in his eight-game stint, while handling himself defensively. Defensive play was considered the 6-2, 190-pound skater’s strength after winning the NCAA’s best defensive forward award after all votes were in last year.
After he got the call, Toninato reported to the Avalanche in time for their game in Nashville so…cue the rookie skate-a-round!
“It’s what they do with rookies in their first game,” said Toninato, looking back on the experience of bolting out the door first during the game’s pre-game skate as the team let him go it alone for a spin. “It was fun. It was nerve-racking – just try not to fall. I know the guys got a good laugh out of it.”
That was November 18th. Also in the game, Toninato was crushed into the boards by the Predators Austin Watson, who was docked two games by the NHL for the hit.
“Obviously I went down and was a little stung there. I went back and passed protocols for concussions so I was able to come back. It’s the game of hockey. It’s gonna happen. Gotta keep going.”
He got the planes to fly in formation and answered the call the next night in Detroit, picking up his assist when he rimmed the puck around the boards to Tyson Barrie, who fed defenseman Eric Johnson in the 4-3 win over the Red Wings and then continued for six more contests before returning to San Antonio.
What’s the difference between the NHL and AHL?
“I think the biggest thing is travel,” according to the NCAA standout. “The plane you have. The meals you get. The hotels you stay in. Just the way you’re treated by everyone. Overall, everything is just great.”
Another difference “up there is the structure. Everybody plays in that system so well. You can make a mistake and the puck ends up in the back of the net so fast. Guys are so skilled up there. You got to be able to manage that.”
Many times, when a young rookie gets the call-up, he plays about 5:03 and is sent back in a matter of 24 hours. Not Toninato. He managed to stick for two weeks, averaging around nine minutes a game.
“I didn’t really have many expectations. I just wanted to go out there and play my game. Play hard and do everything I can so that meant I got to stay as long as I did.”
So what did the Rampage center take away from his experience in the NHL?
“Basically it’s consistency. It’s hard to maintain energy and play hard on every single shift every single game, but the good players are able to do that and keep going. Compete and battle every shift. That’s the biggest thing, try and stay as consistent as possible.”
Since his return, Toninato scored his second shorthanded goal of the season on a breakaway against the Cleveland Monsters, and just missed on another shortie against Rockford when Jeff Glass made an exceptional stop on him. He was also plus-3 in the 4-1 win over Bakersfield and if he’s slowed down on the ice, no one has noticed any downshifting to his credit.
On the call-up, Toninato said,
“It was a dream come true. I was fortunate to get my chance. It was overall a great experience. I learned a lot. It was good to get the feet wet and get the feel for those kinds of games.”
And whether the results show on the scoreboard or in-game action, the Rampage have benefitted from his experience as well.