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Brains on ice

Thanks to effective recruiting (and a built-in fallback plan), Harvard is becoming a professional-hockey prep school -- in spite of Ivy League rules.

Harvard hockey The team practices and plays home games in the Bright Hockey Center, which was built in 1979 - and is showings its age. The Latin inscription on the back one goalie's helmet (above, right) reads "In fide et in bello fortes," or "Strong in faith and war." (Photographs by Josh Campbell)
By Nathaniel Popper
October 11, 2009

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Louis Leblanc became a celebrity this past summer. In June, the wiry 18-year-old was the first draft pick of his hometown team, the Montreal Canadiens, a franchise with no rival in the hockey-mad province of Quebec. All of a sudden, the soft-spoken son of a chemist was an object of obsession for newspapers and fans.

“It’s pretty crazy. You’re in a restaurant, and people want pictures and autographs,” Leblanc said late in the summer.

In August, Leblanc moved south to attend Harvard, where he’s living in a freshman dorm, studying, and playing his first season with the college hockey team (the Canadiens can wait). Leblanc intends to major in economics and has enrolled in the freshman survey course with professor Gregory Mankiw, onetime chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. When I met with Leblanc during his first week at school, he was wearing mesh shorts and a Team Canada T-shirt and was coming from a class on gender and performance. “It’s a class on how people react and perform, I guess,” he said. “A lot of athletes take it.”

Leblanc has wanted to be a professional hockey player for as long as he can remember. But after he was drafted by the National Hockey League, he didn’t listen to the scouts who wanted him to skip college and dedicate himself to the pro game.

“It’s a business for them, and the minute you’re not good anymore, they don’t talk to you, right? So I’m doing what’s best for me. If I play hockey -- that’s obviously my main goal, to play hockey in the NHL -- if that happens, then great,” Leblanc says. “If I don’t, then I’ll have a Harvard degree.”

Harvard is known for turning out superstars in many fields, but because it doesn’t offer athletic scholarships and follows stringent Ivy League rules regulating players’ academic lives, professional athletes are not the typical Harvard product. Yes, there is the occasional James Blake, the highly ranked tennis player, and the football team has had a few recent success stories, but most athletes at the school have no professional aspirations.

Leblanc’s sport, though, is a fascinating anomaly. The Harvard hockey team has remained a regular training ground for the professional ranks, and 79 Harvard players have been drafted by NHL teams since the league was founded in 1917 -- more professional draft picks than any Ivy League team in any sport. Unlike pro football or basketball, drafted players don’t have to immediately join their pro teams, so players can arrive on campus already drafted or sign while they’re in college.

The Harvard hockey team’s most triumphant moment came in 1989, when it won the National Collegiate Athletic Association Championship, beating the University of Minnesota. Since then, the team has not done as well in the rankings. Despite this, the rate of players going to the pros from Harvard has actually increased.

A few weeks before Leblanc was drafted this summer, Craig Adams, 32, played a vital role in helping the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup. Back in 1999, when I was a freshman punching bag on the Harvard junior varsity hockey team, Adams was the hard-hitting history major and captain of the varsity team. A decade later, I watched Adams on my television screen, lifting the Stanley Cup alongside a bunch of millionaire NHL superstars, many of whom had never taken a college course in their lives.

Adams and Leblanc gave up a lot to play hockey in Cambridge. At a college hockey powerhouse like Minnesota or Boston College or Boston University, they would have had athletic scholarships and star status on campus. Leblanc, by contrast, spent his freshman orientation adjusting to anonymity.

“It’s not like walking around Montreal,” Leblanc says, “but, you know, Harvard is a little different. It’s one of the best schools in the world, and hockey -- it’s not their main focus.”

Leblanc’s effort to thrive athletically and academically in this unusual atmosphere is part of an ongoing experiment of sorts, one testing whether one of the best universities in the world can continue to turn out players at the very highest professional level. It is an experiment that involves challenges and occasional glories that even I did not fully understand when I was in the middle of it on campus.

* * *

The Harvard hockey experiment is being led by a Boston-bred coach, Ted Donato, a 1991 Harvard graduate who was a fun-loving forward on the national championship team before moving on to a long career playing in the NHL, including many years with the Bruins.

Harvard’s top brass showed its interest in maintaining a serious program when Donato was hired in 2004, but the coach, now 40, doesn’t have an easy job. Unlike other Division 1 schools, Ivy League colleges, in deference to need-based financial aid programs and an amateur ideal, can’t use athletic scholarships to recruit players. And because of league rules, Harvard is not allowed to play as many games as other Division 1 teams, and it has to start full practices later in the fall. The Bright Hockey Center, where practices and home games take place, was built in 1979, and the rink’s age shows. (By contrast, Boston University and Boston College pay for top players to attend their schools, and both built glittering new rinks. It’s perhaps not surprising that Boston University won the national championship last year, and Boston College won it the year before.) Donato has been pushing for a new rink, and while there had been plans on the table, they were shelved when Harvard’s endowment plunged.

The coach says he gets conflicting messages from the administration. “There are times when I think that we have great structure and support, and other times where you feel you are a small part of something that is much larger than any sport or any one entity,” Donato told me over the din of the rattling wall-unit air conditioner in his cramped office.

Even within the athletics department, hockey has a lot of competition at Harvard. There are 41 intercollegiate teams, more than any other university in the nation according to the school, and a good dozen of these teams are nationally competitive each year. In the 2008-2009 school year, both the men’s and women’s soccer teams went to the NCAA tournaments. Harvard also has a history of producing successful professional athletes, but primarily in a bygone era when football and baseball were less dominating vocations.

Harvard hockey has followed the opposite trajectory. Harvard took part in 1898 in one of the first collegiate hockey games, yet for the majority of the 20th century, Harvard players did not see the pros as a career option. Almost all NHL players came from Canada, and specifically from a system known as major-junior, which gave young Canadian prairie boys, some still in high school, the chance to train full time.

The most enduring image of Harvard hockey comes from this earlier era, thanks to the sappy 1970 blockbuster movie and book Love Story, about a Harvard hockey player turned law student who gives it all up for love. The movie captured the wealthy, preppy milieu in which hockey was, and is still, popular in New England -- but back then, there was no talk of the pros.

During this era, the face of Harvard hockey was Bill Cleary, a prolific scorer in the class of 1956 who led the United States team to the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. He went on to coach Harvard for many years, leading his fast-skating team to the 1989 national championship. It was only late in Cleary’s coaching era that Harvard players -- and college players more generally -- began to show that they could make it in the big leagues.

For pro players from Harvard at that time, the jump involved a sometimes uncomfortable transition. Don Sweeney, 43, a 1988 Harvard graduate and later a Bruins defenseman who is now an executive with the pro team, began his professional career while he was still at Harvard. During his senior spring, Sweeney commuted between his minor league team in Maine and classes in Cambridge. On the day of his first pro game, he says, “I was writing papers that afternoon while my roommate was taking his pregame nap.” Harvard hockey was a very different game from the Canadian major-junior league, where most of Sweeney’s teammates had trained -- college players rarely fought, and they wore full face masks, which kept their teeth and noses intact. Cam Neely, a player on the Bruins team Sweeney joined, remembers that “there was a period there where we really weren’t sure if Donny could or would fit in with the rest of the group because of our different backgrounds.”

Neil Sheehy, another of the earlier pro players from Harvard (he graduated in 1983), turned these preconceptions on their head. He was called “Harv” by his teammates but at one game, fans put up a sign that labeled him “the Butcher from Harvard.” He won a reputation for fighting and pestering Wayne Gretzky. “You use the assets you have to inflame their emotion, and then they want to kill you more, and when they lose control, you are in better shape,” says Sheehy, 49, now a lawyer and a players’ agent in Minneapolis. “I took an asset I had and I just flipped it.”

* * *

At the beginning of my freshman year I was living out my own Harvard hockey story. I had grown up in Pittsburgh dedicated to hockey, and though I hoped to play in college, I wasn’t recruited. Still, when I got to campus, I figured I would show up for tryouts to see what I could do. Things had changed since Love Story. The varsity-level players had been recruited from early in their high school careers, and many of them had taken a year off before school to focus purely on hockey. This was no longer a sport that you could turn on and off. Training and weight lifting began as soon as the players arrived on campus, and during the season, they would use every minute of the weekly 20 hours that the NCAA allows for practices.

Over the last five years, Donato has won over many recruits by telling his own story of moving from Harvard to the NHL. He has also done all he can to help the program be more competitive, like instituting 6:30 a.m. workouts during the off-season. The results show: This year’s team includes six NHL draft picks, and the incoming freshman class was one of four in the nation to be profiled by The Hockey News. In its August 3 issue, the magazine asks, “How about a hurrah for the smart kids?”

In fact, Harvard athletics has received a bit of unwanted attention lately. Last year, The New York Times published a story exposing lowered academic standards for players

on the Harvard basketball team. And in his 2003 book, Reclaiming the Game, coauthored by Sarah Levin, former Princeton president William Bowen demonstrated that recruited Ivy League athletes had lower SAT and grade point average scores coming in than the rest of the student body and also underperformed in college.

The Ivy League recruiting process revolves around the Academic Index, or AI, which is calculated from the SAT scores and grade point average of each incoming student. The league mandates that the average AI of all recruited athletes at any school be no lower than one standard deviation from the AI of the class as a whole. The exact numbers are carefully guarded, but at Harvard, people close to the athletics program say that the average AI for the whole school has been around 225, which means that the athletics program has to have an average around 210. There is also an individual AI floor of 171 that no Ivy League athlete can ordinarily go below.

The way in which the scores are averaged means that a school can allow one team to have a lower AI as long as another team has a higher one to balance it out. Chuck Hughes, who was a goalie on the 1989 national championship team and later an admissions officer at Harvard, says that basketball, football, and hockey, both men’s and women’s teams, are generally below the athletic department’s average. It probably doesn’t hurt that the dean of admissions at Harvard, William Fitzsimmons, was himself a goalie for Harvard during the late 1960s. But Bowen says that despite how competitive the hockey teams are, in his experience, hockey was not much different from any other sport. “Recruited rowers are a lot more like recruited hockey players than you might suppose,” he says. And Hughes says that because hockey is a relatively high-profile sport, the admissions office at Harvard is extremely careful with each recruit. If a player does have weaker test scores, Hughes says, he or she will have to balance those out with stronger teacher recommendations or grades. He adds that players are sometimes brought in for intense interviews with as many as five members of the admissions board.

“The coaches don’t decide who gets in,” says Hughes, 39, who now runs a prep service for high school students called Road to College. “The deans of admissions at all these schools, I see them telling coaches ‘no’ all the time -- especially in the top sports.”

When I arrived at Harvard and got to know the team, what struck me was the breadth of personalities represented. There were a few of the Love Story prep-school types as well as a few meatheads who seemed out of place on campus. There were also the quiet, inscrutable figures who had gotten ahead by working hard both in hockey and in school.

But the team also had some of those special scholar-athlete hybrids that I have not encountered anywhere else. I think of Oliver Jonas, class of 2001, the starting goalie from Germany who got his bachelor’s degree in physics in three years and used his fourth year to get a master’s. He went on to play professional hockey in Germany, where, during the week, he pursued a doctorate in biophysics.

Perhaps the most iconic Harvard hockey players of my era were the three Moore brothers. The oldest, Mark, who graduated with Jonas, was a big defenseman who majored in math and got drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins; after leaving hockey, he started the Harvard Alumni Alliance for the Environment. The youngest, Dominic, class of 2003, is a speedy goal-scorer in the midst of a successful NHL career. The middle brother, Steve, class of 2001, was starting out in the NHL when another player hit him from behind on the ice and nearly paralyzed him -- an incident that shook the hockey world in 2004. Steve graduated with a degree in environmental sciences and public policy. He says it wasn’t easy, but now that his hockey career is over, he is glad he has a Harvard degree to fall back on.

“There were times when I was taking organic chemistry when I was definitely feeling like there was a lot on my plate,” says Steve Moore, 31, who is living in Toronto and just starting to think about what he’ll do next. “They don’t cut you any slack for being an athlete. There’s no consideration for how much time you spend down at the rink. But those types of challenges stay with you and make you a better person.”

* * *

Indeed, hockey aficionados marvel less at what the school gives up to get players and more at what players give up to attend Harvard. “They have to find the smart kids, but also the kid who is willing to play in front of 2,000 half-interested fans and in an old building,” says Adam Wodon, managing editor of College Hockey News.

Joe Bertagna, who played at Harvard in the 1970s, is the commissioner of Hockey East, the conference in which Boston College and Boston University play. He sees in the Ivy League a “culture that really keeps athletes down a little bit -- it is almost a class thing,” he says. “You can be exalted if you want to do arts or books, but not if you do sports.”

On top of this, Ivy League players often face doubts from professional scouts. At the Bruins, three of the top executives are all former Harvard players -- Don Sweeney, who oversees player operations; John Weisbrod, class of 1991, director of collegiate scouting; and Peter Chiarelli, the general manager, who graduated in 1987. The men are big boosters for the Harvard program, but Chiarelli admits that, professionally, they retain a degree of skepticism about players in the Ivy League, given the distractions these players are facing.

“You just have to dig deeper with the Harvard guys, because that player is going to be so well rounded, you have to see where the player’s priorities are,” Chiarelli, 45, says. “While they are talented and while they are committed to work hard, oftentimes they will have other really serious career paths that might be with all probability more lucrative.” Chiarelli himself gave up on the minors after one year and went to law school.

Leblanc, the freshman from Montreal, says that when he was interviewed by NHL teams before the draft this spring, he encountered a lot of resistance to his Harvard plans. “Most teams didn’t really understand my thought process,” he says. “Obviously it was a concern for me, but I trust coach Donato, and I kind of bought what he told me. He went here. He played in the NHL. He had a 13-year career. It worked out fine for him.”

Just not for everyone. Chris Biotti, the only Harvard player besides Leblanc to have been chosen in the first round of the NHL draft, left school for the pros in the late ’80s after two years and never got a foothold in the NHL. But then there’s Craig Adams, who was chosen in the last round of the NHL draft in 1996 but who now has hoisted the Stanley Cup twice. Adams, the child of two Canadian doctors, picked Harvard, he says, because “I thought I was kind of covering all my bases there.” Harvard has the added benefit of making life in the NHL seem like a low-stress job. “It’s a lot of fun, because you don’t have to do anything but worry about playing hockey,” Adams tells me from his new home in Pittsburgh, where he just signed a two-year contract. “If you are tired, you can sleep. You concentrate on eating, sleeping, and preparing to practice and play. That’s not a luxury you have at Harvard.”

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