Boston, MA -- On the Boston side of the Charles River, past the boat house and nestled in between the basketball court, swimming pool and Dillon Field House, Harvard's Bright Hockey Center sits in the cold shadow of Harvard Stadium.
Since the demise of the university's Watson Rink (think "Love Story") and the dedication of the Bright Center in 1979, nearly every Division-I team in New England has seen an upgrade in their facilities. But the Crimson, who ply their trade in what John Updike (class of '54) might have called a "lyric little band box" of a hockey rink, still play in the same rink they have since the 1980 United States Olympic Team opened the building.
Hockey rinks are seldom lyric or romanticized. No, when they are old, they're just barns. And it is in this barn where Harvard's Ted Donato (class of ’91), a former sparkplug forward for the Boston Bruins, teaches in the same rink in which he played when he was an undergraduate.
In the truest sense of the word, the nation's oldest school is "old-school" in the hockey sense. But as evidenced by the recent Boston Globe article, "Brains on Ice," Harvard, long a bastion of amateur athletic success, has become a kind of hockey think tank, spawning the likes of the Boston Bruins general manger Peter Chiarelli, assistant GM Don Sweeney and director of collegiate scouting John Weisbrod, and has become an incubator of profession players as well.
As such, Donato takes his job as caretaker of the Harvard Hockey tradition very seriously.
"I just finished my 5th year," said Donato when BostonBruins.com caught up with him prior to the current collegiate season. "I think there were parts of the job that were much harder than I envisioned and other parts that went very smoothly.
"I think administratively there is a lot that goes on that people don’t understand that goes with a coach. Game schedules or travel schedules or scheduling ice time and stuff kind of on the periphery that takes up a lot of your time.
"I needed to put a value system on the things important to our on ice performance. I had a real solid group of leaders my first year and the transition from playing to coaching was everything I thought it would be," he said.
The university puts a set of values on the players that Donato chooses to don the same crimson and white uniform he worn when he was an undergrad.
"I think recruiting has been a challenge, not in the fact that I don’t have great faith in what Harvard has to offer, because I...believe in exactly what we represent and the opportunity we provide for student athletes," said Donato, who explained that the high standards set by his institution make it a challenge to "balance out the hockey and academic profile."
In the end, however, Donato enjoys the challenge and has employed some of the trademark tenacity he displayed as a member of the Black & Gold.
"I think I take great solace in the fact that I really believe in what we’re doing and what we represent as a hockey club within a great university," he said. "I think to me I thought we needed to build something that could help I guess run itself at some point and there is nothing but success that can do that.
"That’s success on different levels, that’s wins and losses and kids that we graduate year-in and year-out; successes in relation to the future of our players and their ability to go on and so choose to play hockey for a living and have success.
"We’ve made great steps forward. I think we’re forced to continue to go in the direction where we can be a real destination for top end student athletes," he said. As such, Harvard continues to attract future NHL stars.
Recently, Alex Fallstrom arrived in Cambridge, Mass. The Bruins prospect joined the Montreal Canadiens' Louis Leblanc as the latest members of the Crimson fast tracked for the NHL. Buffalo’s Alex Biega, Tampa’s Alex Kilorn, Matt McCollem of St. Louis and the New York Islanders’ Doug Rogers are the others.
As the collegiate season began, Chiarelli said that having Ted Donato as a coach is a huge asset for Harvard and its players.
"When I saw him play and practice was a rink rat, so it doesn’t surprise me that he finds time to improve as a coach," said Boston GM. "Again, sometimes guys, with the skill that he had, take things for granted when they’re coaching and he doesn’t so, no, it doesn’t surprise me [that] he is where he is."
According to Chiarelli, Donato possesses the intangibles that any coach needs to succeed. "I think first and foremost his enthusiasm for the game," began Chiarelli. "I think to go into it with the proper attitude is only going to reflect on the prospects so I think that’s first and foremost for me.
"Secondly, [he has] tremendous knowledge and work ethic; Ted was a player with skill and with grit so that’s the formula we like so that’s what he has as a player and I know that’s what he likes as a coach.
"So it’s good, his approach is effective for as far as developing our guy who’s got size and has got and edge, can shoot the puck, so he’s got a combination of grit and skill," he said.
Donato helped lead the Crimson to the schools only NCAA men's ice hockey title back in 1989 and carried his enthusiasm for the game and for life into the Winter Olympic Games and professional ranks, where he most famously toiled for the Bruins (from the 1991-92 season into the ‘98-99 campaign, and again in 2003-04). Ted played 528 games with the Black & Gold with a 119-147-266 line.
And for the student athletes left in his charge, Donato's experience at hockey's highest level might be the piece of the puzzle that keeps the Crimson on par with the other Division-I powerhouses in the area.
"When I started this job my ultimate major success for me was to allow the kids to have the same opportunity that I had," said Donato. "We had success on the ice. We were very competitive every year. There was a great balance of getting a great education and having the opportunity to compete and have success at a very high level on the ice.
"I think that my ultimate goal is to really provide the same opportunity that I was so fortunate to have when coach [Bill] Cleary [regarded as Harvard’s finest hockey player ever, a 1960 gold medal winner with the U.S. Olympic Hockey team, coach of the 1989 NCAA champion Crimson and long time Harvard athletic director] was here.
So, with that mission statement, the Crimson battle on. After a tough stretch early in the NCAA docket, the Crimson have taken points out of the last five games and go into the Beanpot playing their best hockey of the year.
It seems as if Harvard's young squad is beginning to take on the characteristics of their charismatic coach and Peter Chiarelli's assessment of the Crimson coach is downright prophetic.
"His enthusiasm for the game, his outgoing personality, his skill, his willingness to learn, which I think is very important," were the things that Chiarelli listed when asked if he were happy to have Donato in charge at his alma mater. "Yeah, he’s the perfect guy for the job."