In his days as a college hockey player from 2005 to 2009, Harvard assistant coach Rob Rassey skated in seven Beanpot games and tallied one goal and two assists. But he didn’t do it as a member of the Crimson.
For his part, Rassey spent his collegiate career as a forward at Northeastern. Though he cheered on his alma mater when the Huskies won the Beanpot trophy in 2018, Rassey’s five years and counting behind Harvard’s bench have changed his loyalties.
“Harvard for me all the way,” Rassey said with a laugh.
Rassey has become a mainstay of the Crimson coaching staff. But this summer, for the first time since 2014, the Harvard bench lost an assistant coach, Paul Pearl. Curiously enough, Pearl’s departure indirectly sprang from a personnel change in the National Hockey League. The New York Rangers hired then-Boston University coach David Quinn, prompting the promotion of assistant coach Albie O’Connell — who himself spent time as assistant coach for the Crimson. Pearl was nabbed for the vacant assistant job at BU.
Replacing Pearl is Jim Tortorella, most recently the head men’s hockey coach at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. While Rassey’s coaching career is relatively young, Tortorella has been behind a bench for over two decades. Before Saint Anselm, he coached Division-III hockey at Colby College for 16 seasons and also spent time at Providence College and the University of New Hampshire. That’s not even including his high school coaching stints, and his term as coach of the USA World Junior team. To him, his experience will be most valuable in settling into his new position.
“I’ve been around winning programs, been around enough people in this business,” Tortorella said. “What I brought to certain players, and what I bring to certain players today, is the details.”
“Certain players” include current NHL defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk and Brett Pesce, both of the Carolina Hurricanes, whom Tortorella coached at UNH. Harvard’s veteran defensive corps will prove an interesting opportunity for the new coach.
“It’s real important, not only that we get qualified hockey people,” coach Donato said. “But it’s more important that we get people that share the same passion that we want the program to represent…. Just as you try to, as a coach, have a team that you want to coach, as the head coach you want to have a staff that you want to work with.”
Tortorella’s coaching roots are about family as well as experience: he is the younger brother of John Tortorella, current head coach of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. But if Rassey, who mentors the team’s forwards, has an instinctive place behind the bench, Tortorella’s focus is unusual. He coaches the defense, but played goalie at the University of Maine. The interesting perspective influences the way he thinks the game.
“For whatever reason, goalies tend to be a little bit more cerebral,” Tortorella said. “It’s allowed a well-roundedness of [seeing] how everybody connects, from the forwards to the D, and the D to the goalies, and vice versa.”
While the two assistant coaches have their own responsibilities, they attack one specific task as a unit: recruiting. It’s up to Rassey and Tortorella to ensure the program has the right pieces — not just those who will fit into coach Donato’s system of play, but those who will fit into Harvard and its culture.
“It takes a large sacrifice on their part, too, in terms of putting in the extra work academically,” said Rassey, referring to student-athletes who choose long careers at Harvard rather than a quick transition to professional hockey. “The guys that get it are here, the guys that really appreciate it.”
For Rassey, the results of several strong years of recruiting are apparent in the skilled forwards he’s been able to work with. Under his mentorship, the Crimson has seen the rise of now-NHLers Jimmy Vesey ’16, Alex Kerfoot ’17, and Ryan Donato — and with them, the Harvard hockey program’s return to the national spotlight.
Aside from “the obvious ones,” as Rassey refers to them, the Crimson has also witnessed the talents of Kyle Criscuolo ’16, Sean Malone ’17, Luke Esposito ’17, and Tyler Moy ’17 in recent seasons. The latter three formed arguably the strongest line in all of college hockey — “The Three Amigos,” as they were playfully known — in 2016-2017 and became an instrumental force along the team’s Frozen Four run.
But the rotating nature of college hockey teams means that recruiting plays an even more significant role in keeping the program consistently competitive.
“We want to keep replenishing the cupboard with what we feel are high-talented players, and high-skill guys that can help us win,” Rassey said. “I think for us it’s a two-pronged thing: develop those guys when we have them, and make sure we get good guys here every year.”
Luckily for Rassey and Tortorella, Harvard is enticing in and of itself, despite the academic challenges it might pose. The coaching staff stresses to prospective recruits that they want players who will appreciate the educational and pre-professional opportunities they’re getting just as much as the team they’ll be a part of.
“If we put 25 kids in a room and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to get into Harvard,’ they’d say, ‘This is awesome,’” Tortorella said. He added with a smile, “Same thing in the coaching business. There’s 25 other guys that’d love to have my job.”
As the season progresses, the assistant coaches shift their focus from recruiting to the games at hand. Harvard is only one contest into the year, but there is already plenty of video to analyze and opponents to strategize for.
There are new challenges to look forward to and prepare for, and new firsts for a new assistant coach: first game at Cornell, first Beanpot, and possibly a first trip to Lake Placid.
“I wish I had a crystal ball to see, ‘Oh, here’s where we’re going to end up,’” Tortorella said. “But...we have some special guys and some really good players, and who knows what’s going to happen?”
Things can’t be left to chance and crystal balls, though, so Tortorella heads off to look at video with sophomore defenseman Reilly Walsh. Practice is done for the day, but work goes on.
—Staff writer Stuti R. Telidevara can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @StutiTelidevara.
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris conducted the interviews for this story. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.