“This is Harvard Hockey, A Tradition of Excellence.” The tag-line on Harvard men’s hockey’s media guide doesn’t leave much room for error. 21 Ivy League titles, 12 Frozen Four Appearances, the 1989 NCAA Championship; the Crimson’s history dating back to 1897 backs up the guide’s bold claim. More than any other Harvard sport, save for crew, the men’s ice hockey program here in Cambridge boasts accolades not only impressive for a highly-academic school in the Ivy League, but also relevant on a national level.
With nine NHL Draft picks, a returning First-Team All-American in captain Danny Biega and a No. 17 preseason ranking, the Crimson appeared poised to reignite that tradition of excellence this season. Instead, with four regular season games left on the schedule, Harvard currently sits in last place in the ECAC at 4-12-2 (7-15-3 overall). For the seventh straight year, the Crimson entered February with a losing record. My question to Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 and everyone associated with the program is: What gives?
In years past, Donato has responded with the reasonable answer that the nature of Harvard’s schedule—a late start to the season compounded by a lengthy winter break—has prevented sustained momentum. This claim has been given some legitimacy by Donato’s teams’ composite record in the month of February. Since Donato took over the reins of the program from Mark Mazzoleni in 2004, the Crimson has gone 40-26-8 (.595) in 74 February games and just 83-88-27 (.487) in all other games. Recently, the difference has been even more pronounced. In the last five years, Harvard is 24-26-7 (.482) in games played after Feb. 1, and 26-57-17 (.345) in games played before that date.
The Crimson is currently on a four-game unbeaten streak, the longest unbeaten stretch in what has been another long, disappointing season. With a win over No. 15 Boston University and a tie against No. 19 Dartmouth, it would seem that Donato’s self-fulfilling prophecy of late-season resurgence is making another appearance. After dealing with inconsistencies inherent to the team’s schedule, the Crimson is finally realizing its potential. It’s a classic story of redemption.
The only problem is, these scheduling problems are not unique to Harvard. Both No. 13 Yale and the Big Green are in the Top 20 despite dealing with almost identical schedules. Ivy league teams don’t start until late October—as opposed to early October for other ECAC teams—and generally have around a two-week winter break at the end of December. If these other teams are able to build and maintain momentum in the early season and sustain that momentum through the end of the year, then what makes Donato’s Harvard teams exceptional?
This season, the Crimson has been hit with a number of personnel issues, notably the departure of defensive mainstays Patrick McNally and Max Everson. This has contributed to a slew of defensive issues that have led to Harvard giving up 79 goals against, third worst in the ECAC. But despite NHL-caliber offensive firepower in freshmen Jimmy Vesey (Nashville Predators, third round) and Brian Hart (Tampa Bay Lightning, second round), sophomores Colin Blackwell (San Jose Sharks, seventh round) and Petr Placek (Philadelphia Flyers, sixth round) and senior Alex Fallstrom (Boston Bruins, fourth round), the Crimson is currently last in the conference with just 56 goals scored in 25 games.
Making things worse, after leading the nation in power-play conversion percentage last season, Harvard is 58th out of 59 NCAA Division I hockey programs, scoring on just 11 percent of its power-play opportunities. Clearly something more is amiss.
In the past, calls for Donato’s job have been silenced by late-season success, and with the team’s recent form and the ECAC tournament looming in just a few weeks’ time, that may very well happen again. But Harvard should critically assess what it considers excellence on the hockey rink. Donato carries prestige, having played on that 1989 national championship team and following it up with a long career in the NHL. He has displayed an incredible ability to recruit top-shelf talent, with recent Donato recruits Alex Killorn ’12 and Louis Leblanc, formerly ’13, contributing to the Lightning and Montreal Canadiens, respectively, and the likes of Hart, Vesey and Biega sure to follow.
These factors all contribute to building up the aura around one of Harvard’s premier athletic programs, but unless Donato can find a way to make the successes of the name on the front of the jersey match the successes of the names on the back, consistently over an entire season, Harvard hockey will continue to represent a tradition far-removed from excellence: that of disappointment and unmet expectations.
—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @akoenig14.