ANALYSIS: Men's Hockey
Current coach's style, former coach's recruits combine for season's success
That was back when Donato was a sophomore, the NCAA tournament’s MVP, and just another disciple of coach Bill Cleary ’56.
Cleary was a legend, and during that championship season he oversaw an offense that averaged 5.62 goals per game, boasted a “line of fire” potent enough to scare the pros, and outscored its opponents by an even average of three goals per contest. Donato was a cog in Bill Cleary’s high-paced, jet-powered offense—but that was back then, and now, the name Ted Donato has taken on a second meaning in Harvard hockey lexicon: that of the winningest rookie coach in Crimson history, with this past season’s 21 victories.
It’s a nice addition, to be sure, but Donato didn’t earn it in the fashion everyone thought he might last July, when he was hired to fill the hole left by Mark Mazzoleni’s departure. At that point, the highly anticipated return of the “Billy Cleary Offense” was the first thing on everybody’s tongue.
It was no big secret that Mazzoleni was a defense-oriented coach, and that, per se, is by no means a bad thing. Mazzoleni’s teams made three consecutive NCAA tournaments before his exodus, after all, and despite regular-season disappointments that plagued the coach’s tenure, his squads always seemed to jell down the playoff stretch.
This year, with Donato behind the bench, it took the Crimson only a handful of games to click—in fact, Harvard played some of its best hockey during the busy stretch of November and December, when it knocked off four top-15 teams in one month.
But was this because of the fast-paced, high-powered, wide-open “Billy Cleary Offense” people had hoped Donato would return to the Bright Hockey Center? Not really. Donato deserves recognition for many things, but credit must also be given to the defense Mazzoleni had pounded into place—a defense Donato and his coaching staff immediately recognized as the cornerstone of the team, and a defense that ended the year second in the nation, with an average of just 1.88 goals allowed per game.
“It’s important to remember that this was a transition year,” said senior goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris. “We were all recruits of Mazzoleni, and as a result, Coach Donato had to use the pieces that were in place.
“Over the course of the next couple of years, Coach Donato will bring a higher octane offense, but I think that until that time comes when we score eight to nine goals a game—which, hopefully, will happen in a couple of years—that defense that we focused on over the course of the last three or four years will help us continue to develop.”
Of course, the stellar goaltending of Grumet-Morris, a Hobey Baker finalist, didn’t hurt. But protecting the keeper was a veteran defensive corps—a captain, an assistant captain, two juniors, a sophomore, and just one rookie—that Mazzoleni and his assistants had spent three years forming.
“I give him a lot of credit—Mazz brought a great team in here and great players,” said blueliner and captain Noah Welch.
“Coach Mazz brought them in,” he added firmly, “and Coach Donato brought the best out of each of them.”
Regime change was good, indeed, and Donato’s systems, strategies, and ideas should not be overlooked.
Moreover, every player praises the rookie coach for his breath of fresh air into the Bright, for the energetic practices that took the place of huddle-time at the board, and for the renewed excitement in each player as he walked across the bridge every day.
But oftentimes this season, for all the praise that has been draped on the program, Mark Mazzoleni’s name has been conspicuously omitted.
Joe Cavanagh ’71 graduated the spring before Cleary assumed Crimson coaching duties. Now a lawyer, Joe was one of the program’s most successful players, and his son Tom skated under Mazzoleni for three seasons before playing this, his last, for Donato.
In February, Joe explained the markedly “different style” he saw from Donato’s players.
“The former coach looked more defensive-oriented and as a result, they played in a relatively mechanical way,” the elder Cavanagh said. “This year’s team is much more free-flow, up-tempo, and I think they practice that way, their attitude is that way, and it shows up in the way they play. It’s more fun when you play the game the way it was meant to be played.”
“Having said that,” he added, “I will say that the older players learned to play very tenacious defense under the old coach, and I think that help[ed] this year’s team immensely.”
—Staff writer Rebecca A. Seesel can be reached at email@example.com.