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Catching Up with Coach Ted Donato

By Jamie MacDonald, 03/16/23, 10:15AM EDT


Donato reflects on the honor of playing and coaching at Harvard

Photo Credit: Harvard Athletics

For much of his life, Ted Donato has been an integral part of the culture at Harvard University — first as a player from 1987-91, then, after more than a decade of professional hockey, as its head coach since 2004.

That span of time, from the late '80s to this season, is made all the more interesting by the fact that Donato has played such a significant role in two of the very best seasons in the history of a program that dates back to the 1920s.

Back in 1989, the former Crimson captain scored twice in the NCAA title game, which led to Harvard clinching a championship win over Minnesota. He made the All-Tournament Team in the process.  

This past season, Donato led Harvard to a 21-6-2 regular season record and a top-10 ranking in the country. Donato, recently named Ivy League Coach of the Year, has certainly enjoyed watching from the best seat in the house.

“There are a lot of connections throughout our team of guys who have known each other going back all the way almost to youth hockey,” Donato said. “And I think this team was able to taste some success last year by winning the Ivy League, winning the ECAC Tournament and making the NCAA Tournament. There was a real positive feeling with the guys returning. They had that taste of success. I think as a group, we really appreciated it a lot more. This is a really talented group, but also a very close-knit group that gets along in all aspects and they support each other. As a coach, that's what you really hope for.”

Reaping the rewards

In addition to Donato’s recognition in the Ivy League, Harvard honors abounded from the conference. 

Hopkinton native Sean Farrell was named Player of the Year and Joe Miller was named Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, Farrell, Matthew Coronato, Mitchell Gibson and Southborough native Henry Thrun were named First Team All-Ivy, while Alex Laferriere was named Second Team All-Ivy, and Miller, along with Concord native Ian Moore were named Honorable Mention.

This season marked the sixth time over the past eight years that a Harvard player was named Player of the Year, and the seventh time in the past 10 years with a Rookie of the Year.

For Donato, the rewards might come from simply going to the rink every day.

“I really enjoy being able to work with young men at this age, to be able to be a part of what is such a special time in their life,” he said. “I think college should be some of the most enjoyable and memorable times that you have — and to couple that with playing Division I hockey for a place like Harvard is a real special combination. For me, being able to be a part of that and represent Harvard is really just an incredible honor.”

Of course, Donato would have to take some of the credit for building these blocks, too. Under his watch, Harvard has seen Noah Welch, Dov Grumet-Morris, Danny Biega, Alex Killorn and Jimmy Vesey earn All-America honors. Welch, Biega and Killorn, along with Tom Cavanagh, Louis Leblanc, Dylan Reese and Alex Biega all spent time in the NHL, with Killorn nearing the 800-game mark in the league.

Looking for the kinds of players who can thrive at Harvard is a unique prospect.

“I think that each school has to figure out what kind of people — and what kind of players — work best and represent what kind of culture that not only your team, but also your school, wants,” Donato said. “For me, the perfect recruit is somebody who accepts that challenge of trying to do two things at a really high level: go to a world-class academic institution and at the same time [someone who] loves to compete at the highest level. So, that combination, that level of commitment in character, that's something for us that is essential to the perfect recruit.”

Finding an identity

As a player, in addition to winning an NCAA title, Donato represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Winter Games (one of a dozen Massachusetts natives on the team), at the IIHF World Junior Championship and on multiple IIHF World Championship teams. He also played nearly 800 NHL hockey games, scoring 150 goals in a career that spanned from 1991-2004. 

Since, he’s spent nearly two decades behind the bench..

“My dad coached football, baseball and basketball at Roslindale High, and he was a teacher and ultimately a principal at Hyde Park High School,” Donato said. “So I did see firsthand what coaching was all about. My younger brother, Dan, was also coaching at Salisbury at the time. Now he's at Dexter. But we certainly had a great appreciation for sports and for coaching. So it was something as a profession that I looked very positively on.”

Now, as Harvard’s sixth head coach since 1950, Donato is central to the program’s stability over the better part of those two decades — which finds him, in turn, central to the culture of the program.

“I think everybody likes to have certain things that are non-negotiable as part of their culture, but I think each team kind of has its own identity,” he said. “We certainly have a playing style that we feel comfortable with — and you try to work that into your strategy and team play. But I also think that each team has an identity, just from the character in the locker room. And that, to me, is one of the fun parts about coaching. It's to see kids develop and grow up and mature — and to kind of come out of their shell with the experience of going to college. That's the fun part and that's the most memorable part, the guys who are great teammates, whether they are having the success that they want or not. To me, that’s what is most memorable and most impactful — what kind of teammates they are to each other. In that regard, I think this group is really outstanding.”

Eyes on the prize

Heading into the postseason, Donato was bullish on Harvard but with the obvious acceptance that, if it comes to it, one-game series aren’t always easy. 

“We certainly have expectations, but the nature of the playoffs, if you were able to get to the final four of the ECAC Tournament or the NCAA Tournament, is one-and-done if you don’t have success,” Donato said. “So, as much as you have expectations, I think you have to be very much in the moment and laser focused. You have to bring your best game and play the best when it matters the most. And that's a challenge. There are a lot of things that can happen during a game that can impact it, especially in one game versus a series. I think we're understanding of that and I think it's important that, as much as we have high expectations for ourselves, we understand it's a very short window.” 

Harvard opened the postseason with a first-round win over Princeton in the ECAC Hockey Quarterfinals, winning each of two games by a score of 6-1, and was set to play Cornell in the second round opener March 17 in Lake Placid.