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Mark Mazzoleni is going home—and not to his house in New Hampshire.
After five years in Cambridge, Mazzoleni resigned as Harvard men’s hockey coach on June 16 to return to his native Wisconsin, accepting the top spot behind the bench with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League (USHL).
Professionally, the move from the collegiate ranks to junior hockey is a step backward for Mazzoleni, who in his five seasons at the helm guided the Crimson to an 82-72-13 record—highlighted by three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament and ECAC postseason titles in 2002 and 2004—and restored Harvard to national prominence following four consecutive losing seasons under his predecessor, Ronn Tomassoni.
Only four other schools have gone to the NCAA tournament each of the past three seasons.
“This is a big loss for Harvard,” Director of Athletics Robert Scalise said in a press release announcing Mazzoleni’s resignation. “Looking back, one can see that he has really done an outstanding job with our hockey program, and I am really proud of what he has done here.”
Scalise did not respond to several requests for further comment.
But despite his successes at Harvard, Mazzoleni never quite found his niche in Massachusetts, limited in his adjustment by the same Midwestern sensibility and style that often set him at odds with players and their parents. Mazzoleni also remained decidedly aloof from the campus, choosing to live with his wife and children in New Hampshire for financial reasons, even if it meant a long daily commute to Bright Hockey Center.
Still, little indicated that Mazzoleni and Harvard would part ways prior to his final year. The Crimson entered the 2003-2004 campaign ranked sixth in the nation and was regarded as the hands-down favorite to capture the ECAC title after posting a 22-10-2 mark the season before. Mazzoleni had personally improved from the fourth choice for his position in 1999 to the recipient of a multi-year contract extension, and carried Scalise’s blessing, despite the widely-speculated misgivings of a small circle of team parents and alumni.
Early inconsistency, however, sent Harvard tumbling from the polls and unleashed a series of background grumblings from that group, muted only by the seven straight wins that propelled the Crimson to the ECAC crown. Harvard’s third-period collapse against Maine in the first round of the NCAA tournament—a disappointing exit, given the high expectations carved out prior to the season—reignited those criticisms.
“I honestly don’t think [those complaints] had any role in his decision,” captain Noah Welch said. “We had meetings and stuff and at the end of the discussions, the athletics department always stood behind him and so did the team.”
Still, Mazzoleni conceded that he was cognizant of the critiques circulating primarily via internet message boards despite his best efforts to look the other way.
“I’m human,” Mazzoleni said. “I don’t read the stuff but I have friends that know me and in every group you have people who read it and forward it and I’ve had a couple sent to me.”
“If I wanted to respond to something, I’m not going to get on the internet or ask someone to post a response for me [because] that’s not a credible source for me to respond to,” he added. “To analyze me by what people say over the internet—that’s so unfair.”
When the University of Wisconsin brought former Green Bay head coach Mark Osiecki on board to fill a recently vacated assistant’s position, Mazzoleni’s name quickly surfaced among the frontrunners to replace him, thanks in large part to his longstanding friendship with the Gamblers’ president, Rob Nicholson.
Both Mazzoleni—a former goaltender for Michigan State and long-time Packers season ticket holder—and his wife still have family in the Green Bay area, furthering suspicion that, should an offer be made, Harvard might be searching for a new coach. Those inklings were confirmed following Mazzoleni’s trip to Wisconsin the weekend prior to his resignation, with reports of a contract offer leaking not long after his arrival.
“When I found out he was first offered a job and realized the offer he’d received was from Green Bay, I was a little surprised because [that would be such] a tough job to let go and we were expecting to have our whole coaching staff back next season,” Welch said. “But as soon as this job came up, I knew it was going to be tough for him to say no. As a player I wanted him to stay, but as his friend, I know he made the right choice.”
Although he had already taken the opportunity to inform Welch, Mazzoleni notified the team of his decision via e-mail the morning of the 16th, and the Gamblers announced the hiring at an afternoon press conference within hours of the announcement of his resignation.
“[The chance to return to Green Bay] provided us with an opportunity to go home, for our children to know who their family is, to do all the things we thought a family should do,” Mazzoleni said. “The downside [of being in New England] was that it is just you and your family. There are no kids or relatives around, so you miss out on things. That was one of the major parts of our decision, and you can’t put a price tag on that.”
According to Mazzoleni, the new post offers the chance to coach a more “diverse” squad—one composed of players at most two years from the college or professional ranks—while presenting new obstacles with the added responsibilities of general manager.
“It’s very similar to what we’ve been doing,” Mazzoleni said. “But there are great new challenges since there is a draft—and I’ll be formulating our draft strategy—and I can trade players.”
The search for a replacement—and just the fifth Crimson coach since 1950—began immediately.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of qualified applicants applying for the job,” Welch said, noting that the position will probably be filled quickly to ensure recruiting doesn’t suffer. “It’s well known nationally. And Harvard kind of put itself back on the map nationally these last few years. We’re not going to have any problems finding a great, qualified coach for next year.”
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.
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