They sit alone in the dark. They fidget like teenagers. They joke like best friends. They try and fail to clear their heads and pretend this is just another game.
Here in gray Worcester and the grayer breakfast room at the Holiday Inn Express, flanked by the waffle machine and the complimentary orange juice dispenser, they somehow sit in the same corners as they always have: Kyle Criscuolo up front, every bit the teacher’s pet; Jimmy Vesey hunched over somewhere in the middle, doing his best to obscure the 6’3” 205 lb. frame that the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators desperately want to sign; Desmond Bergin, the anchor of Harvard’s defense, silent as always in the back.
This could be any of the 33 pregame film sessions that the Harvard men’s hockey team had held since October, and yet number 34 is different. They know that Boston College awaits them in seven hours across the way at the DCU Center, and that if they don’t win, their season is over. They also know that the Eagles beat them just six weeks earlier and that basically every top-tier local player goes to Boston College or maybe Boston University but usually not Harvard. Why would a sure-thing NHL-er shoot for a 95th percentile SAT?
And yet they are proud, proud to be Harvard Hockey players and proud to be Harvard students. They are confident in how they’ll represent their school tonight. They are desperate to do it well. They know they’re ready, but they can’t wait to see just how ready they are. They love each other. They relish the chance ahead. This is the best time of their lives: Five months into a grueling sleep away camp of workouts and bag skates and bus rides, they are as close as they ever will be. They never want it to end.
“I know we’re going to win tonight. I believe we’re going to win tonight,” their coach, Ted Donato ’91, tells them. As his voice quivers, they know he is right. It’s the most emotion he has shown during a gameday film meeting since he invited The Crimson inside his program before the 2015-2016 season, convinced that his team was special but not totally understood by the rest of the campus or the media.
If you believe winning cures everything—and at Harvard, that isn’t even close to true—losing makes things a hell of a lot worse. The Crimson went a combined 20-36-7 from October of 2012 through March of 2014. They were led, if you can really say that, by the talented but frustrated Vesey, who remembered the two seasons thusly: “We sucked, and teams came in and basically kicked the shit out of us every night.” There’s nothing eloquent about that statement because there was nothing eloquent about that time.
Three years later, here they sit in Worcester. After years of weak attendance at home games, students are about to board busses to the DCU Center. ESPN is televising the game. And the Predators are in the stands because they want to sign the once frustrated freshman who turned into the best player in college hockey and fly him to Tennessee to play an NHL game tomorrow night.
In short, everything has changed. Harvard men’s hockey is back. Here’s how it happened.
To understand where the Harvard men’s hockey program has been and where it is now, you have to get to know Ted Donato. This isn’t easy. Recently, a well-meaning professional hockey coach asked former Harvard captain Max Everson what he thought of Donato.
“It’s like, how do you even answer that question?” Everson thought to himself. That Everson has spent literally hundreds of hours with Donato probably made answering the question even harder: the guy has layers.
The first is Donato’s experience in the NHL and at Harvard. Donato skated for the Crimson from 1987 through 1991 and scored twice in the 1989 NCAA championship game, helping Harvard raise its only national championship banner in program history. From there, Donato played 13 years and 796 games in the NHL, including parts of nine seasons with the Boston Bruins.
At Harvard and in college hockey, few things trump tradition and experience: As a national champion-turned NHL veteran, Donato has instant credibility in both communities. This was much of the attraction when Harvard hired him in July of 2004.
“If you are a Pee Wee player in this area, you can look at Ted Donato and say to yourself, ‘If I work hard, I can go to Harvard,’” Athletic Director Bob Scalise said at Donato’s introduction, summing up the administration’s enthusiasm.
And yet one thing a Pee Wee player could not look at Ted Donato and see was a coach: fresh out of the NHL, Donato had never coached a game, nevermind run a whole program.
His first two years behind the Harvard bench provided some answers to the coaching questions, at least. Playing with recruits from previous head coach Mark Mazzoleni, Donato piloted the Crimson to consecutive 21-win seasons and NCAA Tournament berths. Though the Crimson bowed out twice in the first round, the fast start “gave me confidence in the fact that I could coach,” he said.
It took longer for Donato to master the administrative side of running a program. This included the art of getting recruits into the University. Harvard’s academic standards for recruited hockey players are among the highest in the Ivy League and all of Division I. Working with a smaller pool of potential players, Donato embraced—and perhaps pioneered—what has become a popular Harvard pitch: “it’s not just about the four years you’re here, it’s about the 44 after.”
“I always said that was me, 100 percent,” he said. “I’ve been saying that for 10 years.”
Donato admits that he learned these and other responsibilities essentially on the job. “Nobody gave me a lesson on fundraising,” he quips.
This brings up a second layer of Ted Donato: ego. Like all professional athletes, he has one. He’s not shy about his NHL success, or that he maximized his earnings by playing on a number of one-year contracts, betting on himself each year and generally making out ahead. But as a coach, Donato has done his best to put his ego on the sidelines when a different approach might benefit the program. He’s willing to make changes, even if it means looking at the log in his own eye.
Donato’s humility was tested profoundly four years ago. The season before his toughest year as a coach, the 2011-2012 Crimson campaign had ended in the ECAC championship game with a 3-1 loss to Frozen-Four-bound Union College. En route to the final, Harvard surged in the last third of the season with the help of three exciting freshmen: goalie Steve Michalek and defenseman Patrick McNally—two ECAC All Rookie Team selections—and Everson, a defenseman. After the season, the mood around the team was positive: The Harvard Gazette declared the campaign “A Measure of Redemption.”
“There are seasons where, as a coach, you feel spent at the end. You need to take a breath and regroup,” Donato told the university’s official news publication. “Then there are seasons like this. And you can’t wait to get playing again.”
But as he spoke in the spring of 2012, things were already set to unravel. About two months after the article was published, a number of his players turned in a take-home exam in one of Harvard’s most popular classes, Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress.” After similarities emerged across a handful of exams, the College conducted a full review of the class’s more than 250 exams. Shortly after they returned to Harvard for the fall semester, Michalek, McNally, and Everson were notified that they were being investigated. By Dec. 7, when Harvard skated against Merrimack, all three had left the team.
The problems were significant, on and off the ice. In the former department, the roster losses were crushing for the Crimson, who was forced to call up a club hockey player just to form a team for two games in January. With McNally and Everson, two defensive standouts, Harvard had allowed 2.14 goals per game; without them, that number skyrocketed to more than four. Embarrassing defensive breakdowns became the norm.
“When you’re finding ways to lose hockey games, this is how you give up goals,” chided NESN broadcaster Andy Brickley during the Crimson’s 4-1 loss to Boston College in the Beanpot.
Off the ice, it was worse. The team did its best to help Michalek, McNally, and Everson leave discreetly, but the media immediately connected the departures to the Gov. 1310 investigation, publicly tying the players to the “Harvard academic cheating scandal.”
Before his players left, during their absences, and after their return—when NCAA eligibility became an issue—Donato was their advocate-in-chief, pouring hundreds of hours into their cases. This role occasionally put him at odds with others at Harvard who simply wanted to move on from the cheating incident.
“I have a great relationship with Coach Donato, and unfortunately that’s probably because I made him work really hard for me along the way,” McNally said. “He was a tremendous help to me…. He did take it personally. He had a vested interest in us.”
This is the third layer of Ted Donato: unflinching loyalty.
“In each kid individually, I think that there’s a connection that we had that really impacted me,” he said this year. “None of us are above making mistakes in life, [and] the public nature of it is something that I wouldn’t want on my worst enemy, never mind a kid that’s trying to do a lot of things the right way in life.”
All of Donato’s work for his implicated players could not save the season on the ice. One bright spot was Jimmy Vesey, the centerpiece of Donato’s top-ranked freshman recruiting class. Vesey, from local Harvard-feeder Belmont Hill, led the team with 11 goals and 18 points and was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Harvard finished 10-19-3.
It is difficult to be optimistic after a 10-win season, but ahead of the 2013-2014 campaign, some believed that the returning talent would return the team to relevance.
After a year off from school, Steve Michalek, Patrick McNally, and Max Everson returned for the fall of 2013. The season began awkwardly in October, as Ted Donato benched the returning players for the number of games they had appeared in the year before. Because they had played partial seasons before leaving, the trio was in a complex situation with the NCAA and would likely need a waiver, eventually, to receive their full four years of eligibility.
But even after the players got back into game action, reintegration wasn’t immediate. For Michalek and Everson, the college game was a step up from the United States Hockey League, where they had played on their year off. For McNally, it was a return to competitive action entirely: he had been too old for the USHL and so had spent his year off working.
“We had a good lineup, but those guys were coming off not playing [college] hockey for a year, and they weren’t the same,” Jimmy Vesey remembered.
When Donato looked at his team, he increasingly worried about off-ice dynamics, recognizing a connection between the state of the team away from the rink and its performance every weekend.
In his players he saw impressive individuals, good hockey players and good guys in school and the community, but he didn’t see cohesion or a team-wide commitment to leadership. Donato believed he and his staff were at least partially at fault.
“We had to take a hard look and say, ‘are we making a big enough commitment and taking enough responsibility for the answer to that question of how are you perceived on campus?’” he said early in the 2015-2016 season. “I don’t think that we were ever a team full of derelicts or negative people on campus, but I felt we could be better, and I felt that to have a winning culture, you had to have kids that wanted to win on campus.”
The solution came early in the 2013-2014 season, when a friend connected Donato with former Navy SEAL Adam La Reau, a leadership and team-building speaker who was beginning a one-year program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“I got a phone call from somebody who was a friend of a friend and said, ‘Hey listen, I know Coach Donato really well and they’re having a tough time with leadership and a tough time just kind of getting guys [together], uniting, and creating a process of winning,” La Reau remembered.
A few hours later, he was sitting across from Donato in the hockey offices, talking about leadership and how he could help the Crimson come together and build a winning culture again. La Reau’s “process of winning” was all about goal setting and accountability: He wanted to help the Crimson by helping each player think like a leader and see it as his responsibility to hold teammates accountable towards shared objectives.
The work began with an introductory survey. One question asked each player to indicate an important date in his life: some players answered with hockey events, but many others gave personal dates and experiences that meant a lot to them. Flipping through the responses, Donato realized that he hadn’t completely taken stock of his players’ off-ice stories, even as those narratives likely motivated them each day. He began to note these days and occasionally pulled a player aside, just to let him know that his coach was there for him.
But other results from the survey weren’t as pretty. When asked about their goals, members of the Crimson were all over the map. Some just wanted to win a few more games—to be respectable, but not great—while others seemed most concerned with their chances to make the NHL. Curious one day, La Reau asked the team to tell him why the top recruit in the nation would choose Harvard: though there were at least two or three players in the room who had been among North America’s top recruits, nobody could offer a coherent pitch.
The inconsistent goals and weak recruiting pitch suggested a bigger problem: the players didn’t really know what their mission was, what values were important to the team, or what it meant to play for Harvard Hockey. Working with La Reau, Donato and team captain Dan Ford began to work on a team ethos that would seek to answer these questions. When it was completed the next season, it read in part:
“Team members embrace the responsibility of acting with integrity in all facets of life, for their decisions reflect upon their University, coaches, teammates and themselves. We understand and accept the sacrifices necessary to reach our full potential as a team.”
Another section read:
“I am expected to always act with the team’s interest first. I view every day as an opportunity to get better as a person, player and teammate. I am disciplined with my studies so when I am at the rink I can focus solely on Harvard Hockey.”
The ethos was part of a new commitment to changing the team’s culture: “Grit, aggressiveness, mental toughness, and perseverance form our identity,” the abstract read. It went along with a number of new goals that La Reau, Donato, and the players agreed on, many of them having little to do with hockey.
The usual milestones—winning the Beanpot and the national championship—remained in place, but they were complemented by an agreement that the players would push for a higher team GPA; embrace community service as a team, rather than individually; and place a men’s hockey player on the athletic department’s student advisory council.
Over the next few months, the Crimson limped to another disappointing campaign on the ice, finishing 10-17-4. The few positives centered on the freshman class, which had been another dominant recruiting effort by Donato. It included two of North America’s most sought-after players, Sean Malone and Alex Kerfoot; during an otherwise disappointing season, the rookies benefitted by getting regular ice time.
The end of the season was bittersweet: the calls for Donato’s job remained, but behind the scenes everything was changing. In captains’ elections, the players picked two teammates well suited for the task at hand. Everson had gone through more than almost anyone to wear a Harvard jersey. He also represented the progress Donato’s program had made before the 2012-2013 season; now three years older, he was a senior set to be a lynchpin in the revival everybody had planned. Junior Kyle Criscuolo had emerged as a primary facilitator of La Reau’s efforts to work with the team in areas like academics and community service.
As the Crimson broke for the summer, they hardly resembled the team that had won 20 games in the past two seasons. Under Criscuolo—an undersized player who was a gym rat by nature and necessity—and Everson, Harvard was in the process of embracing a new intensity in the gym, with Vesey working on adding eight pounds of muscle and Kerfoot striving to transform a frame that had been undersized his freshman season. During the summer, many players stayed on campus working out five mornings a week in a grueling regimen known as Summer Dogs.
They were also treated to a blast from the past: summer reading. The first edition of the men’s hockey team reading list included Alfred Lansing’s “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage,” a personality profile book called “Strengthsfinder 2.0,” and “Winner’s Manual” by former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel. The goal, in La Reau’s words, was to give the players “books and language so they can start thinking at 20,000 feet, so they can start thinking about the team, about themselves, and about being better teammates.”
Everything about the 2014-2015 season screamed “fresh start.” Over the summer and early fall, the finishing touches had been put on what is now the Bright-Landry Hockey Center. Renovations to the concourses and brand new team locker rooms, a palatial work room for equipment manager John “Odie” O’Donnell, and a sprawling coach’s suite instantly made the players feel like professionals.
Now all they needed to was play like them. Ted Donato says that he never lost sleep over the prospect of being fired, but a third-straight 10-win season was not a gamble he could afford to take.
“When you’re a coach, ultimately you’re hired to be fired,” he said early in the 2015-2016 season. “I’ve lived in a results-oriented business [in the NHL] which didn’t take breaks for anybody…. It wasn’t lost on me that there is pressure to win and pressure to run a program the proper way.”
Entering the year, Donato was confident about Adam La Reau’s work with the group. One big change that started with La Reau and ran through co-captain Kyle Criscuolo was community service. Individual players had done service work before, but now it became a team-wide pursuit.
The first big event was a charity wiffle ball tournament in the spring, and then the Crimson began the fall by volunteering at a school in an underprivileged area.
“Outside the rink you get to know the as people better, especially the new guys and freshmen,” Criscuolo said. “I think it was pretty important.”
The next step was to take the good feelings to the ice. In June, Donato made another move that a less confident coach may not have made, bringing in Paul Pearl as his associate head coach. Pearl brought to Harvard 19 years of head coaching experience at Holy Cross—twice as many as Donato—161 more career wins, and more NCAA Tournament success.
“That tells you that Ted Donato is very confident in himself, confident in his ability,” ESPN’s Barry Melrose said during a recent broadcast. “A lot of coaches would not bring in a guy that might challenge your authority [or] take some credit away from you, but Teddy really realizes that the bottom line is, ‘We have to get this program to where it should be and can be.’”
Pearl brought clear positives to the staff, most obviously his experience coaching the defense, which had been a problem for the Crimson in previous seasons. Pearl’s teams were also known for structure, grit, and attention to detail—attributes which would complement Donato’s freer, more creative approach to the game. The second assistant, former Northeastern forward Rob Rassey, complemented this relationship by handling the brunt of the staff’s recruiting responsibilities.
Perhaps the most important lingering question from the prior season was who Jimmy Vesey would play with. During his first two years, Vesey had scored 24 goals with an inconsistent rotation of playing partners, mainly due to the Crimson’s injury problems. Everybody agreed that Vesey needed a consistent ride, and during preseason practices run by the captains, he began skating with Criscuolo and Alex Kerfoot.
It was a natural combination: Criscuolo was a points machine, Kerfoot a lethal distributor of the puck, and Vesey a natural destination for those passes, one who could shoot or act as a decoy to free his teammates. Donato had tried the combination for four games to to start the 2013-2014 season, but Kerfoot had gotten hurt, and the trio had not played together since.
A few weeks later, Donato wrote 19-14-11—jersey numbers for Vesey, Kerfoot, and Criscuolo—on the locker room whiteboard as Harvard’s top line before the season opener against Dartmouth. The line paid immediate dividends, as Kerfoot scored Harvard’s first goal in the renovated Bright-Landry Hockey Center, assisted by Vesey and Criscuolo. The tilt ended 3-3, with two electric goals from Patrick McNally, who looked every bit like the dynamic two-way defenseman that Donato’s offenses thrived on.
“I thought they were outstanding, and I think we needed them to be,” Donato said afterwards of the Vesey-Kerfoot-Criscuolo grouping. “They have the opportunity to be a real go-to line for us.”
In the next two seasons, 19-14-11 would dress as Harvard’s top line 59 times, accounting for a staggering 205 points in games they played together, or 3.47 per game.
After the Dartmouth tie, Harvard went undefeated in its next four, highlighted by a statement victory against No. 8 Boston College. Once again, the 19-14-11 line was dynamic: Kerfoot scored a hat trick, propelling Harvard to a 6-3 win, its first over BC in eight years.
The BC win was the first in a stretch of 10 wins in 12 games, Harvard’s best run in recent memory. Even the players were surprised: they had never had this much success before.
“At the beginning of games it was like, ‘Is this going to be the one where we actually fall apart?’” sophomore forward Luke Esposito said. As the New Year approached, Harvard showed no signs of doing so. They were rolling with outstanding play in net from Steve Michalek and at left wing from Vesey, who had 10 goals by the turn of the calendar.
Riding the wave, Harvard made it to No. 1 in the national PairWise rankings—which are used to select the 16-team NCAA Tournament field—on Jan. 10. That night, the Crimson stumbled against Yale in the “Rivalry On Ice” at Madison Square Garden, sending fans into a mini-panic and reporters to their keyboards, looking to write something negative.
Harvard promptly ran Clarkson out of the Bright-Landry Center, 6-3.
After the win, the Crimson was 11-2-2. Predicted by the media before the season to finish ninth in the 12-team ECAC, Harvard was now a sexy pick to reach the Frozen Four in Boston.
It was the first time in a while that people expected the men’s hockey team to win every night. In interviews and around campus, Vesey began to talk about “the resurgence of Harvard Hockey.” It was certainly in the making, with his help: his 10 goals by the end of December became 18 by the end of January and 22 by the end of February. People started to ask him about his candidacy for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the best player in college hockey. “I don’t think about that much,” he’d say. Vesey preferred to talk about “the resurgence” and “restoring the tradition” of the program.
But as Vesey surged, the Crimson came back to earth. Injuries were a major culprit. Colin Blackwell, heavily recruited and named ESPN Boston’s “Mr. Hockey” before he matriculated in 2011, was a local mystery: after 33 points in his first two seasons, he did not dress once in 2013-2014 due to major concussion issues, and at the start of the 2014-2015 campaign his presence was nothing more than a rumor. Some people thought Blackwell was still a factor, but nobody was sure if he would ever play again.
Sean Malone was approaching similar speculative status: every week some predicted his return, and, save three games in December, he did not appear on the Crimson line sheet. Other injuries included Kerfoot for nine games—Dec. 5 to Jan. 30, during which sophomore Tyler Moy filled in on the first line and Harvard went 6-4—and Esposito from Jan. 24 to Feb. 7.
The Crimson took each of these more or less in stride. The team may have slowed down, but it still seemed a sure bet to make the NCAA Tournament.
But then, on Jan. 23 at Cornell, McNally seriously damaged his knee. The team did its best to call the injury a “lower body” one and not release a timetable, but everybody who saw the play thought “ACL.” While McNally publicly held out hope that he might return during the postseason, many declared the end of his collegiate career, including the first doctor who examined him.
“We were told he was out for the year. That’s what we had to go on,” Donato said.
The loss was crushing: players hate seeing any teammate go down, but the connection with Michalek, McNally, and Max Everson was especially strong. After Gov. 1310, from Donato on down, the program had rallied behind the players who left. They appreciated how much they had gone through in order to wear the Harvard jersey.
On March 13, the Crimson’s bus pulled up to Ingalls Rink—“the Yale Whale”—with confidence. McNally was with them. He was not close to 100 percent, but he desperately wanted to play and the doctor said he could. Donato penciled him in.
“You have to understand that Patrick McNally was a guy that played with a chip on his shoulder and loved the spotlight and loved competing in the big games,” Donato said later. “I think that having that personality injected back into the lineup—along with the skillset of the talent, but really the confidence—I think that was really helpful. We knew that Pat was a difference maker.”
Donato let Brock Malone, the team’s information director, break the news.
“You’ll want to see this, guys,” Malone said as he walked into the press box with the Crimson’s active roster for the game. And there was No. 8, to the left of 37, McNally playing with Desmond Bergin. “Huge return for Harvard Hockey,” tweeted “College Hockey News.”
It was an all-time college hockey series. By now, Vesey’s torrid goal-scoring pace—he had 25 entering the series—had caught the notice of his NHL team, the Nashville Predators, who watched intently and drew up plans to get Vesey to Tennessee whenever Harvard was eliminated. But Vesey kept Harvard rolling, scoring the game-winners in Game 1 and the deciding Game 3. McNally figured prominently, particularly in the deciding game when he tied it up late in the third period.
Harvard’s then-junior class had entered the series with an 0-9-1 record against Yale: for a Crimson team plotting its own revival, getting past the Elis was no small feat.
“I’m too tired to put any intelligent thoughts together,” Donato said afterwards, the adrenaline coursing through his veins and bringing out the giggles. “I told the guys after, ‘I just feel humbled to be a part of it.’”
It was one of the biggest wins of the coach’s career, on the shoulders of a herculean performance from McNally and yet another Vesey triumph. The next weekend in Lake Placid, Harvard’s skill and speed—accentuated by the larger ice rink at the Olympic Center—overwhelmed Quinnipiac and Colgate, with Vesey scoring goals 28, 29, 30, and 31. He was leading the country, and Harvard was headed to the NCAA Tournament as the ECAC champion.
After winning the ECAC Finals, the Crimson flew to South Bend, Ind., for the NCAA Midwest Regional. In the regional’s first game, No. 16 Rochester Institute of Technology upset No. 1 Minnesota State-Mankato, practically snowplowing Harvard’s road to the Frozen Four in Boston. The players knew what was on the line before they hit the ice.
“You talk about rebuilding the hockey culture at school: how do you do it better than that, than playing in the Boston Garden?” now-junior forward Devin Tringale said.
But it was not to be: Omaha came out and took advantage of the Crimson’s troubling habit of allowing soft goals early in big games. They led 2-0 at the end of the first, jarring Harvard into a hole the team couldn’t dig out of. Omaha 4, Harvard 1.
Vesey was shaken after the game, Everson sniffling but stabilized, Donato simply stunned. The season had been part revival, part roller coaster: at one point, they had fallen from No. 1 in the country to No. 21, before the storybook run that saw them beat Yale and win the ECAC title. The question put to Vesey at the post-game press conference was: Is Harvard men’s hockey back?
“When you look at our lineup, we’re still very young, very talented, and we have a great coaching staff,” Vesey said in the postgame press conference. “I’d say Harvard Hockey is here to stay in the long run in the national picture.”
Vesey finished the season with 32 goals, tops in the country, and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. The Predators told him they wanted him on the next flight to the NHL.
If the program was, as Vesey said, “not going anywhere,” the question remained: was Vesey?
After scoring his second game-winner in three nights against Yale in March 2015, Jimmy Vesey became emotional in the Harvard locker room. As he celebrated with his teammates and hugged Pat McNally, whose third-period goal had extended the game long enough for Harvard to win, he couldn’t imagine leaving Cambridge for Nashville.
And when the Crimson lost to Omaha in the NCAA Tournament two weeks later, Vesey could only think of unfinished business. Harvard lost on a Saturday and was home Sunday afternoon. By Tuesday, Vesey had told the Predators that he was coming back to school.
“I knew that I wanted to finish it through, and I know we have a lot more in store for us this year,” he said the next season.
Vesey’s return was a milestone moment for the Crimson. In many respects, it validated everything Ted Donato had been preaching internally: here was his best player, so committed to his team and his school that he was passing up a $925,000 contract. As the season got underway, Vesey began to work with Brock Malone, the team’s information director, to put his thoughts into writing. A few months later, “The Senior” appeared in The Players’ Tribune.
“I would’ve had a hard time looking my coaches in the eyes and telling them I was leaving,” Vesey, a government concentrator, wrote. “[Harvard] is a tight-knit community, everyone’s pulling for each other, and everyone shares the same hatred for our Ivy League competition.… You don’t want to let [the community] down, either.”
In two sentences, he captured just how far the program had come. Attendance had jumped since his freshman year, and with direction from Adam La Reau and Donato, the team was working hard to fully integrate itself with the rest of the campus.
As the 2015-2016 campaign got underway, those efforts continued.
Off the ice, the players were embracing efforts in the community and in the classroom: the team GPA during the fall would rise to 3.45. The team had also worked with the its faculty liaisons, Law School professor William P. Alford and Timothy B. Brown, managing director of capital gifts for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to organize a faculty dinner.
Another project that began early in the season was Vesey’s candidacy for the Hobey Baker Award. Last season, his 32 goals had not been enough to unseat a yearlong favorite, the Boston University freshman phenom Jack Eichel, but Vesey and the staff had found the experience, particularly the behind-the-scenes campaigning for support, eye opening. He entered the 2015-2016 season as one of the favorites for the award.
And, on the ice, the Crimson was aiming high. As the team entered the season, the goal of an NCAA title—one set by every team, but feasible for few—seemed more realistic than ever. At a preseason meeting, Kyle Criscuolo and Vesey—a newly elected co-captain—stood at the locker room white board and wrote National Championship at the top of a long list.
If Harvard was to reach the Frozen Four in Tampa, the coaching staff knew that the burden of preparation fell on them.
In a sense, though, the program had been building toward this for years. Because of the nature of college hockey recruiting, this roster—Harvard’s best in some time—had actually been built between 2010, when the current senior class was recruited, and 2013, when Donato had pulled in the current freshman class. That group included his son, Boston Bruins second-round pick Ryan Donato.
One of the reasons many people around the program saw the 2015-2016 season as Harvard’s best opportunity in some time to make postseason noise was that the senior class, led by Vesey and Criscuolo, had now played together for three full seasons. There was a similar meshing effect with the coaching staff, now together for its second year. In particular, the structured approach of Paul Pearl was emerging as a neat complement to Donato’s, which centered on the former NHL-er’s ability to see things on the ice that nobody else could.
“Hey guys, not a bad team tonight,” he said more than once, “but let’s not worry about them. Let’s get out there and play our game.”
Early in the season, that’s exactly what Harvard did: the Crimson was 4-1-1 at Thanksgiving, and that weekend, Harvard won twice more to capture the Shillelagh Tournament. The four-team draw was hosted by Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., the site of the Crimson’s devastating loss to Omaha in the NCAA Tournament the previous March. The players had written the return engagement on the locker room whiteboard as one of the season’s goals. “Win the Shillelagh Tournament—check,” Vesey wrote on social media after the Crimson’s 4-0 defeat of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the final.
The next checkpoint came a month later in Minneapolis. Donato loves mid-season tournaments because he feels they simulate the one-and-done situations the Crimson hope to play in every postseason, and on Jan. 2, Harvard had a chance at another trophy. The night before, they had rolled over Ferris State, 7-3. Tonight, the opponent was the University of Minnesota. The Gophers were expecting a sellout in their 10,000 seat arena.
“We have a chance on a pretty good stage here. We have a chance to win this tournament,” Donato told his players at the end of the film session, which Rassey had run. “This doesn’t come along enough times, guys. And to me, when we look back on this, even years from now, this will be one of our signature wins. We want to look back and say ‘we went into Minnesota and won their tournament.’”
It was a signature game in more ways than one. Harvard got out to a 2-0 lead, but nothing could quiet the Gopher crowd: the Crimson had never played in an environment quite like this. Multiple times, Harvard goalie Merrick Madsen’s net came loose due to an issue with the ice. The Gopher crowd, though, saw the situation as Madsen purposefully pushing the net off in order to interrupt the Minnesota attack.
“He’s doing it on purpose!” someone yelled as thousands of boos rained down on the Harvard sophomore.
The same crowd exploded when the Gophers cut the lead to 2-1, and then scored two goals in 28 seconds to lead 3-2, with 5:31 to go.
Still trailing 3-2, Donato pulled Madsen from the net with 90 seconds to play, giving Harvard an extra forward. With 58 seconds to go, he called timeout. He had told Rassey to be ready to draw up an end-of-game “we need a goal now” play, and as Vesey, Criscuolo, Alex Kerfoot, Luke Esposito, Colin Blackwell, and Victor Newell skated over, the young assistant stepped confidently into the huddle.
Rassey gave the group a simple plan: Esposito, Harvard’s best faceoff man, would need to win the draw in the Minnesota zone. Then he would cycle the puck to the top of the zone, and the Crimson would work on getting it near the net to Vesey, who could shoot himself or pass to an open man with a better angle.
It worked perfectly. Esposito got the puck to Vesey, and the entire Gopher team seemed to lunge at the Harvard star. This left Criscuolo open: tie game. In overtime, a similar Gopher error—lunging at Vesey and leaving Criscuolo open—gave Harvard the 4-3 win.
The game was a three-hour exhibition of everything the Crimson had been working for during the last three years. Nobody in the media could remember, for example, the last time Harvard had scored with the goalie pulled to win or tie a game. “I can’t either,” Donato said after. “That probably means it’s been too long.”
“Grit, aggressiveness, mental toughness, and perseverance form our identity,” the team ethos claimed, and in Minnesota, the Harvard team had shown all four qualities.
“Win the Mariucci,” Vesey wrote on Instagram that night, “Check.”
After the win in Minnesota, Harvard had a grand opportunity. They were 8-1-3, and with wins in the next week at home against BU and in New York against No. 1 Quinnipiac, they would move to No. 1 in the nation.
Instead, things went in the other direction. With 10 minutes remaining in the third against BU, Criscuolo scored from Vesey and Kerfoot to give the Crimson a 5-3 lead: the game appeared to be in hand. But then, with 4:11 to go, Blackwell went to the box on an unsportsmanlike conduct call that surprised both benches. The Terriers responded with three goals in the next two minutes. BU 6, Harvard 5.
Donato was livid, first at the official and then at his team. They had taken their foot off the gas at exactly the wrong time. Madsen, coming back to earth, hadn’t been there to bail them out.
“I think he would be the first one to say that he wasn’t as sharp as he wants to be, or needs to be,” Donato told reporters about his goalie after the game.
Privately, he was even more cutting.
“Merrick was terrible in that BU game,” he said. “Awful.”
He told Madsen the same thing, and the sophomore tried to appreciate the candor. “It pushed me harder in practice every day…. At least we’re not beating around the bush,” he said.
Prior to the BU debacle, Madsen had yet to lose a game. Thrust into action after Steve Michalek, along with McNally and Max Everson, lost their appeals for an extra year of eligibility, Madsen rattled off a 7-0-2 record to go along with a .956 save percentage through his first nine games, appearing to put a stranglehold on the starting job.
But the next time out, Jan. 9 against Quinnipiac at Madison Square Garden, the staff decided to see what they had in freshman goalie Michael Lackey, who had been injured throughout the first half. But the Crimson didn’t show up early—“[Lackey] got thrown to the wolves in that game,” Tringale remembered—and the freshman faced a series of odd-man rushes in the first. Harvard was down 4-0 after 13 minutes. The Crimson mounted a comeback, but lost 5-4 in OT. Donato tried Lackey again the next weekend against Clarkson, but had to pull him after he allowed three goals in the first 30 minutes.
“When Lackey came back [from injury] we thought, from what we saw in practice, that they were pretty close,” Donato said a few days later. “Maybe we were wrong. We’ll see.”
The goalie controversy ended with Madsen back as the starter, just in time for Harvard’s Beanpot semifinal matchup against Boston College, one of the biggest games of the year: Harvard had not won the four-team tournament since 1993 or even been to the final since 2008.
Harvard schedules an Ivy-maximum 29 regular season games per season, but there is nothing like the Beanpot. When the Crimson walked to the team bus outside the Bright-Landry Hockey Center on Feb. 1, two Boston Police motorcycle escorts were waiting.
The tournament meant even more than usual to the 2015-2016 team. With Vesey, Tringale, Blackwell, Desmond Bergin, and the Donato family, the Crimson had a local feel, and Vesey had been vocal about wanting to win before he graduated.
“Our guys have had this game circled on the schedule for a long time,” Donato said an hour before puck drop. “It’s been a long drought here at the Beanpot…. I know our guys are very excited about the game.”
But it wasn’t to be. Harvard opened with a massive defensive breakdown, treating Madsen to an unmarked Eagle free in front of the net. BC led 1-0 just 1:35 in, and although Harvard took the lead at the end of the first, two penalties in the second doomed the Crimson. In what should have been one of the most frantic, emotional third periods of the season, Harvard had nothing. BC 3, Harvard 2.
“Yeah, it sucks,” Vesey said later. “Especially my senior year, we had bigger plans than that.”
The Beanpot ordeal stretched into the next week, when Harvard trudged back to the Garden to play in the consolation game. The opponent was Northeastern, a team four games under .500 but playing some of its best hockey. And the Huskies quite clearly wanted to win more than the Crimson. Lackey got his last start of the year and, once again, the defense in front of him was nonexistent, allowing two and three-on-ones at will. Northeastern 5, Harvard 1.
When things were going badly, the coaches usually preferred to talk to individual players in private. The staff agreed that it didn’t make much sense to embarrass a player who was trying his best just for the heck of it. But the Northeastern loss had exposed recurring flaws, particularly in the defense, and so Donato told the team to get dressed for practice but wait in the locker room on Wednesday, Feb. 10. Pearl cued up the video.
“There’s some bad stuff in here,” he began.
The clips showed various hustle miscues and a general weakness at moving the puck out of the defensive zone, which was giving opponents great chances in front of the Harvard net.
“It’s wearing on everybody where we turn it over like it’s a damn Pee Wee game,” Pearl said, his voice rising. “We cannot give it away to the other team.”
What got to the coaching staff most was an emerging trend of giving up on plays and not sprinting to the puck.
“When you’re not playing as hard as we can, you’re letting the team down,” Pearl told the defensemen. “We can’t do that when we have six games left in the season and want to win an ECAC title.”
Years ago, it may well have fallen on Donato to both blow up at the team and then pick up the pieces, but respect for Pearl was so high that the head could skip straight to playing savior.
“[Pearl] also has a mean side to him as well, I think the presence of a head coach and an associate head coach really put us in line, made us focus,” senior defenseman Brayden Jaw said. “Paul brings a really strict and fierce demeanor with him that you don’t want to piss off.”
The dirty work done, Donato walked up to the whiteboard and began drawing: going forward, he wanted Harvard’s defenders to get more involved in the offense. This wasn’t explicitly forbidden in the current system, but Donato wanted more firepower. He knew that aggressive play up front would demand a little more from Madsen, but he needed the team to play with more confidence, and scoring created confidence.
“We’re talking about making a little adjustment…but let’s not think of it as an X’s and O’s thing,” Donato said. “It’s a commitment level and execution thing.”
The team responded. They split at home the next weekend, and then on Feb. 19 tied Cornell, 2-2, to earn at least a share of the Ivy League title. Feb. 20 was Senior Night, and in one of the most entertaining games of the year, Criscuolo scored his 17th, Vesey his 19th and 20th, and Harvard won 7-4.
The team was thriving in the newly aggressive system that Donato had given them to play. Jaw, who had come to Harvard as a forward before moving to defense, was emerging as a potential two-way threat in the new scheme, racking up four points in the four games that followed the Feb. 10 film meeting. His previous season high for points was three.
Since the loss to Omaha in the previous year’s NCAA Tournament, the Crimson had thirsted for postseason hockey, for the chance to redeem the loss and keep moving forward as a program. On Sunday, March 20, Harvard was on its Peter Pan bus leaving Lake Placid, N.Y., as the ECAC runner-up when it received its next destination. The Crimson would play Boston College in Worcester, Mass., that Friday in the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinals.
March had mostly treated the Crimson well. The team had run all the way to the ECAC Finals on the strength of an onslaught from the top two forward lines. In the ECAC Quarterfinals, the Crimson had outscored RPI, 13-4. Most encouraging was the performance of Sean Malone, the talented but oft-injured forward who had scored three goals against the Engineers.
After beating St. Lawrence in the conference semifinal, the Crimson faced Quinnipiac for a second consecutive Whitelaw Cup. They began the game out-skating the Bobcats five-on-five, but a five-minute penalty to Esposito at the end of the first period gave Quinnipiac target practice on Madsen. They scored twice and ran away with the game, 4-1.
The players and staff saw the game as a late wake-up call, a reminder of how ill-timed penalties could ruin seasons in March.
“There’s nothing worse than losing your conference’s championship game,” Pearl said before practice the week of the NCAA Tournament, “but there could be an advantage to losing the championship game and still going [to the NCAA’s] because now they know what it feels like.”
The biggest story of Harvard’s ECAC playoff run, however, was one nobody wanted to think about. During the second period of Harvard’s 8-2 series-clinching rout of RPI, 6’7” defenseman Wiley Sherman had gone down awkwardly in the corner. He skated a few more shifts, but left the locker room after the game with a cast somewhere on his upper body, as the team preferred to disclose. It was an important enough area that he was done for the season.
Looking ahead to BC, the coaches were concerned about the lineup without Sherman: against the Eagles’ forwards, who had tremendous size and speed, the Crimson were worrisomely small on the back end. In Lake Placid, sophomore Thomas Aiken had filled in well. Aiken was the team’s only walk on, but he was playing like a recruit. Not only had he avoided mistakes, but he also made two critical plays, getting back as the last man and potentially saving a goal in each game.
But Aiken was still small and relatively inexperienced, and the coaches worried that trotting him out against BC’s size up front would create a fatal mismatch. Jacob Olson, another freshman who had made a game-saving poke check in Minnesota, offered more size, if less polish. A third option was Newell, a lynchpin of the defense and the power play in the first third of the season, who was approaching full health.
“Your gut when you look at BC is no Tommy Aiken,” Pearl said in the coach’s locker room on Wednesday, the Crimson’s last full day to prepare. “But then you watch the tape from Lake Placid, and he’s one of our best players at times.”
On Thursday, March 24, the Crimson got on its Peter Pan charter and drove to Worcester for NCAA media responsibilities and a short practice. The staff was leaning towards starting Aiken in Sherman’s place, a decision they would firm up that night.
It was not the end of Harvard’s problems on defense. Not even close. Not traveling with the team on Thursday was Bergin, the veteran leader of the defensive corps. Bergin had been fine the day before, but around dinner time he’d come down with the chills and a fever. He woke up on Thursday with a 103-degree fever, 36 hours before the biggest game of his career.
“I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to play,” he said later.
And yet there he was the next morning, white as a sheet in a gray Harvard Hockey sweatshirt after being dropped off at Worcester’s DCU Center by his mother.
“Well Des, I’ll guess we’ll just give it a try, huh?” Donato said, greeting him and smiling nervously.
Bergin hit the ice for 15 minutes at the end of Harvard’s Friday skate. He told Donato he could play, but the coach told Newell to be ready.
After the skate, the Crimson headed first to a local restaurant for lunch, then back to the hotel for film. Everybody was early—a rarity for the Crimson—and Pearl ran the clips. The team sat in silence, focused and listening for his impromptu poetry as the words filtered through the room:
On the forecheck, we can’t let them pass into odd-man rushes.
If we can get the center open, we just have to work together, D’s and center.
We know if we run our little D exchange they’re going to try to jump it.
We’ve got to know that and vary what we do on the draw.
Offensive zone draw they’ll run, kind of swing up high and just throw something on the net.
This is all stuff we work on, guys, that we just have to be good at tonight.
Can’t get beat up the ice by their 3rd or 4th guy.
They’ll be jumping.
This is all stuff we’ve seen, guys.
It’s just a matter of us playing our systems.
The Friday film meeting was always brief, meant to highlight the same aspects of every opponent’s game, and many elements were review. Today, moreover, the coaches were more concerned about BC’s rich forward talent than its particular systems. Though Madsen was tending some of the best net of his career, few predicted that he would shut the Eagles out.
Thus, the staff emphasized special teams. Harvard had recently struggled on the penalty kill, but when other teams went to the box, the Crimson featured one of the best power plays in the nation, scoring nearly 30 percent of the time. Pearl was the primary architect.
Just know guys: If we get four power plays tonight, we’ve got to score twice.
Pearl wrapped up and ceded to Donato, who opened up the Moleskine notebook that he carried with him almost everywhere—to the rink, to the couch at night where he took notes on NHL games, and to bed in case an idea popped into his dreams.
It was something of a running joke among the Harvard team that some of Donato’s pregame speeches were near identical—alternating emphases on “play our game” with “let’s start fast boys” and “we gotta play physical out there”— but this was different. This was the NCAA Tournament.
Even going way, way back when we were here, when we played these teams, the only guys that thought we would win were the guys in our room.
Donato rarely brought up the 1989 national championship during the season, and certainly not at the weekend film meetings. But with the Crimson an underdog against a more traditional hockey power, Donato had been here before.
When we played Michigan State, they said ‘Michigan State will destroy them.’
When Donato took the Harvard job in 2004, about 15 years after he scored two goals in the Crimson’s national championship victory over Minnesota, he had talked about focusing “more on the journey than the end result.” He believed in that message, to a point. Tonight was that point: somebody’s season was going to end.
The only guys we need to believe need to be in this room.
I know we’re going to win tonight.
I believe we’re going to win tonight.
We don’t need to pull a rabbit out of the hat, we don’t need any magic, we just need to play hard.
We just need to play as as a team, and we’ll get our two points tonight.
College hockey is a game of momentum, and for all the progress Harvard has made in the last three seasons, the team has often struggled to find momentum in the biggest of games.
But the Crimson felt that this year, and this game, would be different. The players had planned for this for 12 months, the NCAA Tournament hanging in their heads as they worked out every summer morning in Tim Mullen’s grueling Summer Dogs program; as they became creatures of the road and missed Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and countless campus social events; as they skated suicides to Ted Donato’s whistle after a 5-1 loss to Clarkson in January.
“We didn’t play that well in the Beanpot and we lost 3-2, and they were like ‘Mighty BC,’” said Jimmy Vesey, who still remembers the lack of interest the Eagles showed in him as a high school player. “So we were confident. We talked in video, went over them, [we] thought that they were very beatable as a team.”
Because the first semifinal game in Worcester required double overtime, the Harvard-BC nightcap started more than an hour late, forcing the players to suppress their adrenaline as long as they could. But when the game finally got started, the Crimson showed life, surviving an early BC barrage and controlling the play for the next six minutes, courtesy of a number of strong shifts from the second unit of Luke Esposito, Sean Malone, and Colin Blackwell.
But then, eight minutes in, the Eagles seized the momentum when 6’4” forward Alex Tuch—a first-round pick who left after the season for an NHL contract—went into the crease, pushing Merrick Madsen into the net and, as Desmond Bergin tried to push him away, found the puck and put it across the line.
“That goal to me was almost like a, ‘here we go again,’ type thing,” Devin Tringale said. “Just deflating. I mean, obviously you never show that during the game, especially because I’m a vocal guy. I’m just like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna score, we have the next one,’ but deep inside, [there’s] that pit in your stomach.”
It got worse. Trailing now by two in the last minute of the first, Vesey dangled into space and passed the puck to Brayden Jaw at the top. The defenseman who had thrived in Donato’s reorganized system shot it and created a juicy rebound that Kyle Criscuolo backhanded past BC goalie Thatcher Demko—and into the right post. CLANG was the closest the Crimson would get to a game: BC made it 3-0 early in the second and didn’t look back. The Eagles added an empty-net goal to win, 4-1.
When the final whistle sounded, Vesey dropped to one knee and the Crimson lingered, stunned. After handshakes, they went back to the locker room, where Donato said something brief and gave his players time to say goodbye.
As the seniors took their jerseys off for the final time, each player hugged the graduates, and then the seniors hugged each other.
Harvard’s season ended in tears on March 25 in Worcester.
“Well that was probably the saddest room I’ve ever been in,” Esposito said. “ A lot of emotions flying around, guys sad that we lost but also sad that it’s the last game you’ll ever play in [with the senior class].”
“We truly believed we were going to Tampa,” Criscuolo said, speaking of the site of the Frozen Four.
Two weeks later, everybody was celebrating, thanks to Vesey. But before he could put a triumphant stamp on Harvard’s season, he had to figure out his next professional steps.
Drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2012, he had chosen to play all four years of college. This meant that, after his Harvard career ended, he could either sign with Nashville immediately or become a free agent after Aug. 15, gaining the ability to pick his team.
Predators officials followed Harvard’s year closely, and a delegation attended the Crimson’s final game against Boston College. They wanted to sign Vesey to a contract and fly him to Tennessee to play as soon as possible. But after the game, Vesey met the media and went back to campus.
“My mind was kind of made up at that point,” he said later. “We had just lost the season: that’s one of the things that pissed me off most about the whole situation. It took me a few days to regroup from that loss, and the last thing I was thinking about was going to Nashville. If I did go, it probably would have taken me a few days.”
A few days later, Vesey announced his intention to become a free agent. Predators fans everywhere cried foul, alleging that Vesey had returned to Harvard primarily to game the system and earn free agent status.
“No, that’s bullshit,” Vesey said as the dust settled. “I tried to focus as much as I could the whole year on Harvard, but it did weigh on me a lot the whole year.”
As speculation about his NHL destination exploded, the Harvard forward had one last thing to accomplish in college hockey. At the end of the season, Vesey had been selected as one of the final three candidates for the Hobey Baker Award.
But even as he made the Hobey Hat Trick for the second straight year, most experts predicted that Kyle Connor, a freshman forward at the University of Michigan who had 71 points to Vesey’s 46, would take the prize.
“I didn’t think they’d fly me down there just to lose,” Vesey said.
He was right. In a ceremony in Tampa, Florida on April 8, Vesey became the fourth Harvard player to win the Hobey.
Vesey, as usual, was quiet at the banquet, rising for a short speech—he was, once again, the team’s MVP— in which he thanked his teammates, coaches, and supporters of the program.
Donato had more to say. Addressing the players, parents, and supporters, he spoke of “the idea that being a better person makes you a better Harvard Hockey player,” and gushed praise on Vesey, Criscuolo, and the seniors. “The guys in this room have really redefined the kind of leadership we want in this program,” he said.
As the dinner broke up and the players headed to their last bus ride of the season—from the Downtown Harvard Club of Boston back to Harvard Square—Donato could not stop smiling.
“You saw how the negatives can spiral,” he said, “but now we’re seeing how the positives can spiral, too.”