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Harvard’s precious Stone

The truth about coach Katey Stone is that “It’s not so much about the wins; it’s about the culture’’ when it comes to building up women’s hockey at Harvard. The truth about coach Katey Stone is that “It’s not so much about the wins; it’s about the culture’’ when it comes to building up women’s hockey at Harvard. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / October 4, 2011

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They stood a little apart, on the outskirts of a football huddle, listening. They felt what their father was saying, absorbed it, understood it, taking in the words and the tone, and the messages. Katey Stone and her brother would spend practices messing around, playing with blocking dummies, having fun. But at the end, when the team would assemble into the huddle, they would stop. They would listen.

She was 5 years old. Six, maybe.

Stone grew up on her father’s football fields and baseball diamonds, sitting next to him on the bench in the dugout, keeping stats, listening in. She saw the discipline and the respect, the demands and the motivation, the way to build her future.

She was the last to make good on her past, the days of studying at the feet of her father, Larry, a high school coach, each of her three siblings entering coaching before her, something her father had hoped would happen. She made it, though, the offer of the job as the women’s ice hockey coach at Harvard extended and accepted, changing so much.

It could have been lacrosse, after all. Stone ponders alternate paths, and comes up with a vision of herself as an athletic director at a private school, a lacrosse coach at a college, something in athletics, something to carry on the family business.

She has done that, indeed, as she hits 18 years at the helm of the Harvard women’s team, changing a program and a sport and herself in the process, last year becoming women’s college hockey’s all-time wins leader, and then being named the head coach of the US women’s national team.

“To me, what it’s about is some of these unbelievable kids that I’ve been able to coach and have relationships with and for them to come back and be so proud of the experience that they had in the Harvard hockey program,’’ said Stone, who stands at 356 wins. “To me, that’s why we do it. It’s not about me. It’s about Harvard having something they’re so proud of in the women’s hockey program.

“That, to me, is the culture. It’s not so much about the wins; it’s about the culture.’’

Major influence It wasn’t as if sports was all that they talked about, sitting around the dinner table in the evenings. There were other interests, other topics of conversation, other things going on. But Stone remembers her father and his passion, remembers him planted in the living room, remembers the wheels turning, as he coached at Exeter and Portsmouth high schools in New Hampshire and was at the Taft School in Connecticut for 34 years.

“I don’t remember a lot,’’ she said. “But I remember that.’’

And when she lists her influences - people such as Jerry York and Lou Holtz - she spends the most time on what her father taught her, on how his approach to coaching had an impact on her own, on how who he is has changed who she is.

“He was incredibly demanding, extremely disciplined, but he was so respectful,’’ Stone said. “He never swore at his players. I don’t do that either. I don’t feel that that’s a proper way to motivate any athlete, regardless of whether they’re male or female. You motivate based on respect and challenge. He was a great mentor for me.’’

She listened. She learned. And she took those lessons - and more - and turned Harvard into a great program, a program that has won one national championship (1999) in Stone’s tenure and has been to the national title game three more times, losing from 2003-05.

“It was frustrating initially, but it was really fun,’’ Stone said. “I spent all my time here. And if I wasn’t here I felt like I wasn’t working toward our cause. It took some time to get kids to believe in what we were trying to do. It didn’t take that much time, though. These kids were dying to be really good.’’

And she was the one to take them there, not only putting up all those wins, but also making Harvard hockey into, as current Union College coach Claudia Asano Barcomb, who played for Stone at Harvard, put it, “a true family.’’

It’s a place, Stone said, where she has had perhaps 18 bad days in 18 years.

As her father said, “She’s perfect for the job. But you don’t know that ahead of time. We’re very proud of her, and of what she’s accomplished. She’s done it what we feel is the right way. There’s no [stone] unturned, so to speak, in trying to be the best.’’

Practice is perfect Practice is her time, the time when Stone can let go of everything around her, can ignore the phone calls and the recruiting pitches, can concentrate on why she loves what she does, and why she’s been so successful at it.

It’s when she sees the pieces fitting into her puzzle, sees what’s she’s working toward come together. She likes things simple, uncomplicated, easy. She likes her players to be prepared, to be fundamentally sound, to work hard, to have fun.

They have been all that.

And with her success at Harvard, with her growing influence in the women’s game, Stone has gotten other opportunities. She has worked with the national team, has grown the game, and finally got her chance to be head coach of the US women, putting her in position to potentially coach at an Olympics.

“I think she’s really transitioned women in hockey,’’ Barcomb said. “She’s pushed the envelope in a lot of ways to make sure we get what we need to be successful at all levels. I think she’s always on the front line and not afraid to ask for more.’’

She has seen the game grow more competitive, has contributed to that. She has seen the game grow more demanding, gain more resources, lead to more expectations. It has flourished, and she has been a significant part of that.

Stone never has settled for second, not with Harvard, not with the national team, not with women’s hockey. As she said, “We’ve already done everything. We just want to keep doing it.’’

“I don’t ever worry about winning games,’’ she said. “The pressure can catch up to people. I enjoy winning, believe me. That’s why I do it. But I don’t fixate on, we have to win. I’m more interested in what the process toward success is.’’

But she has won, more times than any other coach in women’s collegiate ice hockey history. And she’ll try to win more, both at Harvard and with the national team. She’ll try to win and then, when it’s time to walk away, when it’s time to leave the program she has built and guarded and loved, she wants only one thing.

“I just hope that people look at this program and they look at it with respect and they say they do it right there,’’ Stone said. “That’s all.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.