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The Harvard hockey team sat quietly, devastated. A successful season had ended in disappointment. After losing its leading scorer in a semifinal contest, the Crimson lost three two-goal leads in a defeat by Michigan State in the final game of the 1986 NCAA tournament.
In the locker room, Peter E. Chiarelli ’87 longed to still be out on the ice, celebrating a championship. Growing up under the wings of a former national champion, seeing the trophy case full of awards on a daily basis, it was only natural.
“[My dad] had trophies and plaques from when they won,” Chiarelli remembered. “Old program stuff I had always seen growing up. We challenged a couple years for a national title. It would have been nice to get one.”
It would take Chiarelli 25 more years to get his trophy, but when he did as general manager of the Boston Bruins, he took an entire city to the top of the mountain with him.
TRIBULATION AND NEAR TRIUMPH
From the beginning, Chiarelli was close to greatness. A plethora of trophies in his house reminded him of that. Chiarelli’s father, Frank, led Rensselaer to the 1954 national title and still holds the NCAA records for goals per game in a career, goals per game in a season, and points per game in a season. The elder Chiarelli went on to set Peter on a quest for hardware of his own, teaching him about hockey and skating outside with him, and his brother Mike, near their icy Ottowa home.
Despite his prestigious hockey pedigree, Chiarelli did not achieve instant success upon his arrival at Harvard. After a freshman campaign in which the team went 10-14-3, the center suffered through a personally disappointing sophomore year, during which he spent a lot of time on the JV squad. Chiarelli has credited that year with motivating him to work even harder, as he gained a reputation as one of the most determined players on the team.
During his junior year, Chiarelli earned a spot in the regular rotation. In the NCAA tournament that year, the Crimson beat Western Michigan and Denver before facing Michigan State in the finals.
Despite the Crimson’s early two-goal lead, Michigan State netted a goal with just over two minutes left in the third period to take a 6-5 advantage. Harvard was unable to answer.
“Aw man, brutal,” said Mark J. Carney ’87, a former roommate and teammate, about the game’s result. “Brutal.”
“Being in that game and losing ultimately was devastating to a lot of us,” said Donald C. Sweeney ’88, a former college teammate and the current assistant general manager of the Bruins. “We thought we should have won that championship.”
Chiarelli’s junior year ended with a bit of good news though, as he was named the team captain for the ’86-’87 season.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Carney said. “The combination of not just the skill level, but the work ethic, the quiet leadership, the team focus, all those things [helped support] him being captain.”
Under Chiarelli’s leadership, the Crimson looked poised to avenge last season’s championship disappointment and was ranked No.1 for much of the year.
Harvard didn’t even make it to the championship game though, falling to North Dakota in the semifinals, missing an opportunity to challenge Michigan State, which had advanced to the finals.
“We just had a bad day, just had a bad game,” Lane MacDonald ’88-’89 said. “We were extremely disappointed.
To this day, Chiarelli remembers sitting down in that locker room, disappointed, having lost his final college game.
“I think I might have just [told] a few of the guys that they should be proud,” Chiarelli recalled. “It was really disappointing. We started the year 18-0 or something like that, we were ranked No. 1 for most of the year, and I thought we were going to win it. It was really disappointing that we didn’t get to the final game.”
Two years after Chiarelli’s departure, a Harvard team with a number of the same players would finally get a title, and some credited the former captain with mentoring the key contributors on that team.
“We had a lot of great role models on our team who instilled a lot of lessons in us about hard work, commitment, sacrifice,” MacDonald said. “Peter certainly played a role. He was a terrific captain.”
Though Chiarelli may not have personally brought a crown to Cambridge, the experience he earned over his four years in Crimson would prove invaluable later in life. The creation of a championship team, famed coach Bill Cleary, the losses at the doorstep of greatness, and the year of leadership would all help shape Chiarelli.
“You can see the building blocks of what makes a great GM,” Carney said.
GOING BACK TO BEANTOWN
After graduating from college and spending a short time in a European hockey league, Chiarelli headed back home to Ottawa to regroup. After exploring a career in law, Chiarelli eventually joined the staff of the Ottawa Senators, his hometown team.
Sweeney accurately predicted that once Chiarelli committed himself to the business of hockey, he would rise through the ranks quickly.
“He had the former player background from a college standpoint...with the lawyer background and doing all the behind the scenes stuff with Ottawa, it should have been only a matter of time before someone recognized that he’d be a good leader,” Sweeney said.
That time came in 2006 when Chiarelli became the general manager of the Boston Bruins, and renewed his quest for an ever-elusive cup.
FINALLY A CHAMPION
After a last-place divisional finish, the same determination that helped Chiarelli re-emerge in the Crimson lineup helped him prevail on a much larger stage. Over the next five years, the Bruins won their division three times as Chiarelli put together a consistent winning team.
Then, in the 2011 playoffs, Chiarelli got the breaks that went the other way back in the ’80s. Two out of the Bruins’ first three series were decided by one-goal Game 7s. Had the outcome been different, Chiarelli might have been out of a job. Instead, he was in the finals.
To start the Stanley Cup Finals, Chiarelli watched a story unfold that was all too similar to what he experienced in college.
As Boston fell behind 0-2, his chance at the long-sought after trophy appeared to be slipping.
But the resilient Bruins battled back, winning three of the next four games to take the series to a deciding Game 7. In the final moments of Game 7 with Boston up 4-0, it became clear that he had finally reached the pinnacle of his sport. He had done it.
“I just remember going down to the ice and it didn’t seem real,” Chiarelli recalled. “You could just see the emotion all around, the release, the unconditional joy. It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before.”
Friends and former teammates saw a man who had finally achieved his ultimate goal.
“In conversations with him, you could just tell the sense of satisfaction in terms of accomplishing the goal that was so hard to reach,” MacDonald said.
“That was a great way to sort of bring it all together from the first time I met him freshman year just before the first tryout... Less than 25 years later, and he’s lifting the Stanley Cup,” Carney said.
—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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