Harvard University coach Ted Donato already had a storybook career by the time he retired as a player in 2004. A Massachusetts native, he won a national championship at Harvard before playing 13 seasons in the NHL, the first seven-plus with his hometown Boston Bruins.
After spending most of his final season back with the Bruins, Donato was offered a unique opportunity to come back where it all began. Now in his 10th season as the coach at Harvard, the 1992 Olympian has seen some highs and lows in molding the Crimson into a hardworking, competitive squad.
Donato couldn't imagine being anywhere else, even if coming back to campus wasn't initially part of the plan.
"It certainly wasn't a designed plan," said Donato, who took over the Crimson in 2004 after Mark Mazzoleni stepped down to take a job coaching the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. "But I'm glad it worked out that way."
At the time, it was a daunting new challenge for someone taking on his first coaching job. Mazzoleni stepped down after leading the Crimson to a pair of Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament championships and three NCAA tournament appearances in five years. When Mazzoleni moved on, Harvard athletic director Robert Scalise called it "a big loss for Harvard."
But the academic titan managed to maintain a competitive hockey program by going back to its roots.
A key member of Harvard's only national championship team, Donato was named the most outstanding player of the 1989 NCAA Frozen Four. He brought that championship experience with him to a program that doesn't enjoy the benefit of offering full scholarships to student-athletes.
"I think our kids have the challenge of balancing an incredible educational opportunity with a rigorous athletic schedule. That has some challenges," Donato said. "But we have kids who are excited about that opportunity. To me, that is a challenge. But I think the results have been proven time and time again."
In his first two seasons, Donato led Harvard to its first back-to-back 20-win seasons in more than a decade. He remains the only Harvard coach to take the Crimson to the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons. But on a team featuring players subjected to some of the highest academic standards in the country, his true influence may be felt off the ice.
"It's invaluable. He played not only for 10-plus years professionally, but he played four years at Harvard," sophomore forward Jimmy Vesey said. "He knows what we're going through, balancing school and hockey. In terms of hockey, he's a huge source of advice. When he speaks, everyone listens. There's a lot to learn from him."
Harvard struggled last season, finishing last in the ECAC with a 6-14-2 conference record. Made up primarily of young players, Donato's team has had a difficult start to this season, going 2-6-3 in conference play and 5-8-3 after their 5-1 loss Saturday at Madison Square Garden against rival Yale University. But a 2-0-1 run following the holiday break, including a 2-2 tie against first-place Quinnipiac University on Jan. 7, has Donato feeling confident.
"I think we've definitely had a little bit of a learning curve here. We're a very young team," Donato said. "After Christmas, we've come back pretty healthy and have played well. I think with all the inexperience in our lineup, we knew it would be a little bit of growing pains. But the group really seems to be coming together."
Culling from a lifetime of hockey experience, Donato is hoping to turn things around and get his team back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. But he's just as dedicated to guiding his young men through a college game that has changed tremendously since he was a player. With the University of Maine recently receiving a verbal commitment from 13-year-old Oliver Wahlstrom, an institution like Harvard is still looking to stay competitive.
"The landscape of college hockey continues to evolve, with junior hockey becoming more prominent. I do think that Harvard offers a student-athlete a tremendous opportunity to continue to develop as a hockey player and at the same time get a world-class education," Donato said. "I think that's a challenge. It's tough to juggle. But at the end of the day we have tremendous kids with great character. To be able to be a part of their lives at such a fun and important time is special."