Through his three seasons with three teams in the North American Hockey League, Shay Donovan held onto hope that he would find a spot with an NCAA Division I team.
It wasn't always an easy dream to imagine as the defenseman saw some players get the call and some others give up on the pursuit as their junior hockey clock ran out.
So to be where Donovan was last week, announcing his oral commitment to the University of Wisconsin for next season, was remarkable to him.
"There's a lot of bus rides where you're coming back, maybe you had a bad week and you're feeling really down," Donovan said. "But the dream always kept me going, really. The thought that if you put in the work, maybe at some point it'll pay off."
Donovan, a native of Duluth, Minnesota, who turns 21 next month, will join his younger brother, Ryder, as Badgers freshmen next season. They're planning on enrolling in summer classes to join in offseason workouts with the team starting in June.
Shay Donovan is a depth addition to a Badgers defensive corps that has five NHL draft picks scheduled to return and also is adding a potential NHL selection in Mike Vorlicky. Vorlicky was 203rd among North American skaters eligible for the draft in Central Scouting rankings released Monday.
UW lost seniors Peter Tischke and Jake Bunz after the 2018-19 season. Tischke was an everyday player, while Bunz was infrequently in the lineup.
Shay Donovan likely will be in the position of battling with Jesper Peltonen to be the seventh defenseman.
"All I ever really wanted was an opportunity," Shay Donovan said. "To get the opportunity at a place as world renowned as Wisconsin, with the education I can get and the coaching staff there, the facilities, there's no doubt in my mind that at the end of four years there, I'll develop to my max potential.
"That's all I really ever wanted. If I'm playing, if I'm not playing, at least I know I'm developing to my max potential, putting in the work and coming out the best player that I can."
Shay Donovan is only the second player who'll join the Badgers as a 21-year-old in four seasons under coach Tony Granato. Third-string goaltender Johan Blomquist also was 21 when he started in 2016.
Born 2½ years apart, Shay and Ryder Donovan played together for two seasons with Duluth East High School, in 2014-15 and 2015-16. After graduating, Shay Donovan played with Coulee Region, Minnesota and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the NAHL, finishing as captain at the latter.
Including playoffs, showcases and exhibitions, he played 158 games in the USHL with 11 goals and 42 points. He's listed at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds.
He started talking with UW coaches around the time that his brother committed in February.
After a visit to UW, Shay Donovan was sold.
"When you step on campus there, you just feel a part of it," he said. "They wanted me to go through the experience of walking around, just feeling what Badger nation's like, I guess, and seeing if I wanted to be a part of it, which obviously I did."