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Tomassoni and Harvard: Married From the Start

By John B. Roberts

Ronn Tomassoni had a lot on his mind on Friday, July 9, 1982.

The Eveleth, Minn. native was to be married the next day, and few things beyond putting on that ring were important.

But Charlie Morrison, the Union College hockey coach, had a last thought to add to the maelstrom rushing through his assistant-coach's mind. Morrison called Tomassoni to encourage him one final time to apply for the assistant coach position at Harvard.

Although the Rensselaer graduate felt he was too young--Tomassoni was 23 at the time--Morrison's words overruled his assistant's qualms. After the Union coach hung up, Tomassoni decided to make one call of his own.

"Timing is everything," Tomassoni says now.

Then-Harvard Hockey Coach Bill Cleary ran an insurance business during his coaching years and would spend few of the summer hours in his Dillon Field House office. But on that auspicious Friday afternoon, Cleary was taking care of some of his hockey odds and ends.

After his chat with the soon-to-be newlywed, Cleary went home for the weekend, thinking about Tomassoni as a possible assistant. While Cleary says now that he does not remember Tomassoni as a Rensselaer player, Morrison's recommendation--combined with a call from a bridegroom--intrigued him.

On Monday, Cleary called back, but Tomassoni was on his honeymoon at a lake cabin--which fortunately had a phone. The newlywed was shocked when the Harvard coach finally reached him.

"I don't know how I got the number, but I made sure I got it," Cleary says. "I quickly learned he had some special qualities. He had that sense of maturity about him. He's a very keen observer."

The rest is history. Tomassoni came out to Cambridge right after his honeymoon, interviewed with Cleary and spent the night at Cleary's Auburndale home. A few days later, Cleary coach offered Tomassoni the job.

"One week later, I was driving a U-Haul to Boston," says present-day Harvard Hockey Coach Tomassoni, nine years later. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

All In The Family

That Ronn Tomassoni should end up a hockey coach is not terribly surprising.

His introduction to the game--like many college hockey players--came at the age of four. Tomassoni did not join his first organized league until age 10, however, years late in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

"I was too busy following my brothers to their games," Tomassoni explains.

Ronn was the youngest of three boys, each spaced two years apart. Tomassoni's father, of course, was the Squirt team's coach and passed on his love of the game to his trio of boys. He had also passed up a hockey scholarship at North Dakota to enter the mining business.

That could not have been very difficult in Eveleth, Minn. In yet another non-coincidence, Eveleth--a small town of about 5000--is the home of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Among the collection of stars in the Hall is present Harvard Athletic Director Bill Cleary, inducted in 1977 in recognition of his collegiate and Olympic play.

The combination of his family involvement, Minnesota's love of the game and Eveleth's obsession with hockey made Tomassoni both a player and a student of the game. He ended up a captain of Eveleth High School's hockey and baseball team.

Tomassoni was the Co-MVP of the Eveleth team his senior year with Mark Pavelion, who would later play for the Olympic team and the New York Rangers.

Tomassoni, who would later become one of the collegiate game's best recruiters, was sought by both the Rensselaer and Notre Dame programs. He never looked at sentimental favorite University of Minnesota, despite being a Golden Gopher fan.

"I just felt I was going to go away from home, either farther east or farther west," Tomassoni says. "I had only been to Minneapolis twice before, but I just wanted to see what was out there."

This wanderlust brought him to Rensselaer, although the choice between the Engineers and the Irish was mostly a financial decision. Rensselaer offered a full, four-year grant-in-aid scholarship, while Notre Dame proferred a partial scholarship.

Originally a chemistry major, Tomassoni would switch to Rensselaer's management program after two years.

"I originally thought I was going to be a dentist," Tomassoni says. "But after finishing my first two years, I reevaluated both my interests and my situation."

With average grades in courses such as organic and physical chemistry, the future Crimson coach would finally decide to leave science behind for management, although he graduated with a minor in chemistry.

On the ice, Tomassoni was a self-described "20-30 point" right winger for the Engineers. He worked well with Rensselaer Coach Mike Addessa, which would pay dividends later.

His playing days were interrupted, and then arrested, by a season-ending injury his junior year. In a bizarre precursor to the ill fate his future team, the Crimson, suffers every time it travels to New Haven, Conn., Tomassoni broke his left arm in two places in the Yale Whale.

The break did not heal properly, and he would play his senior year--for which he was the Engineers' captain--with a cast on his wrist. Although he lasted through that year, tallying two assists in his only contest against Harvard, a 6-2 win in Cambridge, Tomassoni decided not to play in Italy following his college career.

Unsure of what he was going to do after graduation, Tomassoni was happy to take the unpaid graduate assistant position Coach Addessa offered for the 1980-81 academic year. This started the future head coach on the coaching track.

We Want You!

Tomassoni piled up the first of his many frequent flier miles that season. His main responsibility was recruiting, and he remembers one period where he was on the road for 32 straight days.

"Recruiting is one of the most important parts of the business," Tomassoni says. "You've got to go out and get the players. But it might be the worst part of the business."

Kevin Sneddon, next-year's Crimson Captain, was the object of much recruiting in 1987 for his outstanding play for the Burlington (Ont.) Junior B Cougars.

"Some schools point out their own advantages. Others cut down opposing schools," Sneddon says. "Coach Tomassoni and Harvard were up front about everything."

Princeton and Cornell, his other possible options, did not stand a chance. Sneddon, who was leaning towards Harvard anyway, was nevertheless impressed by Tomassoni.

"It's quite an art to tell you the truth," Sneddon says. "He's so good at it.

"Of course, he was biased towards Harvard, but other schools pushed me too much. And when players don't come here, he is still nice to them, which is not always the case," Sneddon adds. "That's one of the good qualities of Coach."

The personal touch has held true through every job the Eveleth native has held. He spent one year at Union College as an assistant coach under Morrison, doing double duty recruiting and coaching, although this time with a small salary. And, though the jump to Harvard was an unexpected bonus, Tomassoni's duties were very similar.

"Coach Cleary said very clearly, 'Ronn, I want you to coach and be with the kids,'" Tomassoni says.

The travel and evaluation of future Harvard players continued, though. Tomassoni missed about two games every season, usually over Thanksgiving, but otherwise was able to balance his responsibilities.

As head coach, Tomassoni missed seeing two of next year's freshman in action. That pair doubles the number of Harvard players he missed in eight years as assistant and then associate coach.

"Brian Popeil (a Class of '90 defender) was the only player I missed," Tomassoni says. "He was a contact recruit."

Life at the Top

Tomassoni's efforts were not unnoticed. In 1987, Notre Dame once again expressed interest in him, this time as a head coach.

After an interview, Tomassoni was offered the job. Harvard did not want to lose the young coach and his skills to another program, however, so Cleary renamed his assistant coach Associate Coach Ronn Tomassoni.

The responsibilities did not really change, but the salary rose. More importantly, Harvard's action sent him an implicit message.

"In a way, the promotion was probably prepping me for this job," Tomassoni says. "It was not a guarantee, but it was obvious that Coach Cleary was not going to coach forever."

"When he decided to take the AD job [in 1990] it was kind of double swords," Tomassoni says. "It was an opportunity for me, but I was sad to see him step down. I enjoyed tremendously working with Bill Cleary."

The transition was almost seamless. The two coaches--Cleary and Tomassoni--had worked together for eight years, and, in Cleary's words, "his philosophy about the game coincides with mine."

For the team, the change was "incredibly smooth," according to Sneddon.

The Crimson advanced to the semi-finals of the ECAC tournament this year--one round further than the 1989-1990 season, and its 13-7-2 record was a three point improvement upon last year's ECAC record.

By all accounts, the switch was well-executed. Sneddon, when pressed, admitted that this year's squad was a bit more aggressive, but could not find any other differences in style of play.

Meeting His Goals

Tomassoni, now a one-year veteran of the trials of the head coaching position, seems very content with his job.

"This was my goal, although I did not know it would come at Harvard," Tomassoni maintains. "I wanted to be a head coach at the Division I level, and, as far as I'm concerned, I don't think there's a better job in the country."

"When Coach Cleary offered me the job nine years ago, I had already rented an apartment and put down a deposit, which I lost by leaving for Boston," Tomassoni adds. "It was a good investment."

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