HAMILTON, N.Y.—Ted Donato takes his place behind the Harvard bench across the ice from rival Don Vaughan. Sporting a sky blue shirt and a red tie underneath a black blazer, he rolls his shoulders and settles in, hovering above his players with a quiet energy. Let the game begin.
Donato took over at the helm of the Crimson in 2004, when he replaced the recently departed Mark Mazzoleni. He came into a pretty comfortable situation: Harvard had made the NCAA Tournament three years running, a span that included two ECAC championship titles. Goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris ’05, who would make a case for the Hobey Baker in his final season, and captain Noah Welch ’05 would anchor a defense that would prove near-impenetrable.
That 2004-05 team finished 21-10-3, pushing the Crimson’s streak of consecutive NCAA appearances to four.
As his players skate to the locker room after the first intermission, Donato lingers behind, scribbling some notes as he mulls over a frustrating period. Only after co-captain David MacDonald has stepped off the ice does Donato make his way across the rink.
Season No. 2 wasn’t half bad, either. Though Grumet-Morris graduated, netminder John Daigneau ’06 filled in admirably, earning the John Tudor Memorial Cup as the team’s most valuable player and leading his team to another 21-win season, an ECAC postseason title, and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA playoffs.
Sure, Harvard lost in the first round for the fifth year in a row, but at least it was getting there.
Donato takes a swig of water as the Crimson earns its first power-play opportunity of the night. During the ensuing television timeout, he bends over intently, instructing a huddle of helmets on how to convert on the upcoming man advantage.
Though Donato dodged the curse of the sophomore slump, he would not be so lucky in his third year. Harvard dropped six of its first seven ECAC contests of the season, and for the first time in years, it seemed as if the Crimson might be left out of the NCAA Tournament.
With more and more of the roster comprising of recruits brought in by Donato, the spotlight was finally on the former Frozen Four MVP and NHL veteran. Was he really a good coach, or was he just living off of Mazzoleni’s legacy?
The 2006-07 season did not answer the question definitively. Though Harvard finished 14-17-2, its first campaign with fewer than 15 wins since 1999-00, it produced five points in its last three ECAC contests and defeated Yale in the first round of the playoffs before falling to eventual conference champions Clarkson in the quarterfinals.
The Crimson missed the NCAA Tournament, but it certainly made a statement at the end of the year.
Donato howls at head referee John Murphy after a pair of coincidental minors are doled out. Clearly, only the Raiders were at fault. But it’s just a passing thought. Moments later, Donato’s focus is back on the ice. He tugs on his tie, turning to wag a finger at a player after a sub-par shift.
Year No. 4, then, would clearly be the test. Could Donato convert his expertise as a player into excellence as a coach?
Anchored by an outstanding streak from sophomore goaltender Kyle Richter, Harvard won four of its first five games and did not allow more than three goals in a game until early December.
But on Dec. 4, the world turned upside-down.
The Crimson did not win a game for almost two months, going 0-7-2 and spiraling towards the bottom of the conference standings. Forget the national rankings. Harvard wasn’t even part of the ECAC conversation, let alone the NCAA one.
This was Donato’s real first test.
As time expires on the second period, a scrum develops along the boards. Donato stares intently, wary of injury—or perhaps watching for penalties. Again, Murphy calls for coincidental minors. Donato waits at the bench to plead his case, but Murphy has no interest. After giving directions to MacDonald, Donato strides off the ice, glancing up at the Coca-Cola scoreboard and shaking his head at the unfavorable shot count.
The winless streak could not last. Donato—and his players—simply had too much pride. The real question was, could Harvard salvage its season?
Apparently, Donato found what it takes.
After a win at Dartmouth on Jan. 26 broke the Crimson’s negative momentum, Harvard knocked off No. 14 Northeastern to reach the Beanpot final for the first time since 1998. While seventh-ranked Boston College would not allow the Crimson to take its first Beanpot title in 15 years, Harvard battled the Eagles down to the wire, falling only in overtime.
The Crimson had regained its swagger.
The puck squirts into the Harvard zone, and Donato hops up on the bench to get a better look. He takes some notes during the television timeout, then says a word to his players as he tucks the papers back into his coat pocket.
Since the Beanpot, Harvard has reestablished itself as an ECAC power, moving into third place with wins over ranked opponents Princeton and Quinnipiac and adding four points against Yale and Brown.
For those critics who were questioning his ability to lead, Donato has an answer: he’s on track for another first-round bye in the ECAC playoffs.
But the 3-3 draw against Colgate leaves three teams tied for the last spot on the podium. If Donato really wants to answer his critics, he needs to show that his teams can reach the Dance. And given this year’s playoff mix, it may take an ECAC tournament title to do it.
The final regular-season contest against Cornell might not be crucial, but its result can certainly make the Crimson’s path to the NCAAs easier—or harder.
With 33 seconds left in overtime, Donato animatedly waves at center Doug Rogers, telling him what he missed on the last shift. Just moments later, Donato screams at the referees for a timeout and must yell for quite some time before he is granted one at the very last second.
As time expires, Donato sighs resignedly, realizing the opportunity his team has missed. He gives Vaughan an earnest handshake and a pat on the back. Once again, Donato will have to prove himself at Lynah—and this year, under an even brighter spotlight.
He seems ready to show he’s up to the task.
—Staff writer Karan Lodha can be reached at email@example.com.
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