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Harvard education

Past learning curve, Donato ready for next test

There has been a lot of turnover in talent, and Harvard has had back-to-back nine-win seasons, but nothing dampens the enthusiasm of coach Ted Donato. There has been a lot of turnover in talent, and Harvard has had back-to-back nine-win seasons, but nothing dampens the enthusiasm of coach Ted Donato. (File/Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / October 7, 2010

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The crowd at St. Paul Civic Center on April 1, 1989, was staunchly on the side of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who were playing Harvard for the NCAA men’s hockey championship.

In the Crimson dressing room just before overtime, there were obvious nerves, but one player — sophomore Ted Donato — tried to ease the tension.

“He had a great enthusiasm for the game, which was infectious to the entire team,’’ said then-coach Bill Cleary. “There were 18,500 people in the stands and 500 were for Harvard. I was wondering what I was going to say and all of a sudden, Teddy gets up in the middle of the room and said, ‘This is what it’s all about! This is where we want to be! We should be salivating here!’ ’’

Cleary was as perplexed as everyone else.

“I said, ‘Teddy, what the heck was that word?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know, but it sounded good, Coach, didn’t it?’ He broke the whole team up, and that’s how we went out on the ice.

“He can keep you loose, which is a great talent.’’

Harvard went on to win the championship, and after Donato retired from professional hockey in 2004, he brought his enthusiasm to his new job as head coach at his alma mater.

It seemed a nearly seamless transition, with the Crimson winning 21 games each of his first two seasons. The next two seasons, Harvard won 14 and 17, but the last two years have been difficult, with the team winning just nine games both in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

Donato, 41, has high hopes for his seventh season, which opens Nov. 5 against Union at Bright Center. He admits, though, that the last couple of years have not been easy. It started when the team lost 10 players after the 2007-08 season.

“It’s been frustrating,’’ said Donato. “There was a very large turnover after our fourth year. On one side, I think we did a good job with those players, they had success. They played in three ECAC championship games, they made two NCAA appearances, won an Ivy League title, won an ECAC title, and we had great development with that group.

“But we also were hurt greatly when they left. The hard part is they all developed into good contributors and they all left at the same time. It’s been a little bit of a two-year process and it’s been frustrating. On the positive side, I’ve learned a lot more through the difficult and frustrating times than I did when things were going a lot more smoothly initially.’’

Donato said the way his coaching career started made the learning curve difficult to gauge.

“We had a great deal of success in the first two years,’’ he said. “Maybe I fooled myself into thinking, ‘This is going to be easy.’ One of the things that has taken a little bit of a learning curve was not just how to coach, but how to run a program. There’s a difference there.

“As a pro, you coach the team. You’re not drafting the team or you’re not worried about the schedule and the administrative stuff. In a college environment, how to replenish your team as far as recruiting and development and those types of things, that is something I’ve learned a great deal of over the last five or six years.’’

Last year, the team got back goalie Kyle Richter, who missed the 2008-09 season because of academic issues. Because of the lengthy layoff, Richter never completely rounded into form. This season, the squad will do without the special talents of forward Louis Leblanc, who turned pro after his freshman season.

“It was a little bit of a shock with when and how it happened,’’ said Donato. “He enjoyed his experience immensely last year and the hard part was I felt this was the best place for him [this] year, for a number of different reasons. But there’s a lot of pressure on kids.

“We certainly have no hard feelings. We wish him the best. But if I didn’t say we were initially disappointed or frustrated, that just wouldn’t be the truth. We’ve moved on and really are excited about the guys we do have.’’

Donato’s players have a high opinion of the bench boss, not only because of his positive personality but also his credentials.

“Obviously, he knows a lot about the game,’’ said Richter. “Being a player at the NHL level for as long as he was, he has the general knowledge which really helps us as players because he can relate to us and kind of give us the personal feedback that we need. He’s helped me a lot, giving me advice.’’

Donato didn’t think much about a coaching career before the NHL lockout happened in 2004-05, which coincidentally is when the Harvard job opened up. His father, who was a three-sport coach, was a great influence, as were former Bruins coaches Brian Sutter and Pat Burns and former Bruins assistant coach Tom McVie.

“Those are guys who made major impressions on me,’’ said Donato. “As a coach, you can’t change who you are, but there are pieces of people that I was fortunate enough to play for where I took what I thought were their best characteristics and was able to learn from them.’’

If there is a negative, it’s figuring out how not to obsess when the team isn’t doing well.

“The most obvious difference for me is that when you’re a player, you can move away from the losses a lot easier than you can as a coach,’’ he said. “One of the hardest balances for me is I take the losses a lot heavier than I enjoy the wins.’’

For Donato, coaching is only a part of the picture. He has had to learn how to run an entire college program.

“When I first got here, I really just focused on working with the guys we had and coaching,’’ he said. “There was a good base of structure in place.

“I really feel, in the last year and a half, we’ve revitalized and reorganized and restructured how we need to run the program to have success at a consistent level.

“It hasn’t come without some bumps in the road but I really think we’re poised to take it a real positive direction. I’m very optimistic.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.