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ECAC hockey preview

Lessons taken from the top

After a rough winter that included seven straight losses, coach Ted Donato guided the Crimson to the second round of the ECAC playoffs. After a rough winter that included seven straight losses, coach Ted Donato guided the Crimson to the second round of the ECAC playoffs. (2010 file/Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / October 8, 2011

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When you’re a hockey player, as Ted Donato was for many years, all you have to worry about is yourself. Your concerns are about your mental preparation, your fitness, your nutrition, and your health. You arrive at the rink when you’re supposed to, you practice and play hard, and then you go home to make sure you get your rest.

But when you become a coach, that all changes. Your responsibility is an entire roster full of players. You’re concerned about their fitness, their mental preparation, their health.

Last year was a trying one for Donato and the Harvard men’s hockey team. It started out well enough, with two wins in the first three contests, before quickly spiraling downward.

The Crimson lost seven straight heading into the holiday break. January wasn’t much kinder, as the team stumbled to a 2-8 mark. But something began to change in February. The Crimson finished the regular season 5-3-1 before upsetting Clarkson on the road with a two-game sweep in the first round of the ECAC playoffs. They were an overtime goal away from upsetting Dartmouth on the road in the second round.

In Donato’s view, it is something to build on, rather than dwell on what didn’t go right.

“I thought we played very well at the end of the season,’’ he said. “I think our guys are excited coming back because I think they really got a feeling about what it’s like to feel good about yourself, winning games and looking forward to games.’’

Donato acknowledged that long droughts between victories have not been easy to deal with. After all, he couldn’t go out and score a goal or make a save, and although he knew his players were trying, there was only so much that could be done.

“The last couple of years we have fought off a couple of losing streaks,’’ said Donato, 42, who is heading into his eighth season behind the bench. “It was a little bit of Murphy’s Law. We played some games where we outshot a team by a great deal and we didn’t make a couple of key saves or we took a penalty at the wrong time or we didn’t finish some opportunities and then they came down and stuck one in our net.

“It got to a point where we were finding ways to lose games as opposed to finding ways to win games. It was very frustrating, but I think there was a lot learned through that process and it helped us down the stretch.’’

It also didn’t help that Harvard started its schedule about a month late.

“It is very difficult to get up to speed when our first weekend, we’re playing teams that had already played seven and eight games,’’ said Donato. “Last year, Union’s power play came in at something like 44 percent. We played RPI and Union and both games were very similar. One game we won, one game we lost. We found ways to lose some of those close games. Later in the season, we were able to not only avoid costly mistakes but be excited about making some plays to win games.’’

Donato said the losses weren’t very much fun for anybody associated with the program. He said he felt the pressure to get the team back on track.

“I think anybody who doesn’t recognize it’s our business to have a winning program is not being honest,’’ he said. “We all want to win. We all want to be the best in our league. Whether it’s the pressures you have as a player and you’re not producing results or as a coach, you want to win hockey games. I’m confident in what we’re trying to do. I’m confident we’ll have a successful season.

“I think I’ve learned a lot about coaching and I’ve learned a lot about myself. Sometimes you have to go through these things. If you do things the right way, you’ve got to have faith that things will get turned around.’’

Last year, one of the more positive signs came on Valentine’s Day during the Beanpot consolation game; Harvard knocked off Boston University.

“I think the BU game certainly was a little bit of a catalyst point for us in the fact that we won a game where we still made some mistakes against a team that was also playing pretty well at the time,’’ said Donato. “To finally get rewarded shot a little bit of confidence into the group and I think we were able to carry that toward the end of the season.’’

Although Harvard was picked to finish seventh in this year’s ECAC preseason coaches’ poll, Donato said his expectations, and that of the team, are much higher.

“I come into this season with incredible optimism,’’ he said. “I’m excited. I think our guys made a big step in the closing parts of the year and we feel like we can pick up right where we left off.’’

One of the top players in the nation is junior defenseman Danny Biega. Another key performer will be senior forward Alex Killorn, and keep your eye on freshman goaltender Steven Michalek, a highly touted prospect.

“We’re young in a couple of key positions - certainly in the goaltending spot, we graduated two seniors,’’ said Donato. “From an experience standpoint, we’re young there, but we may just be more talented in the position as well, but without any experience. We return five defensemen who played in more than 26 games last year, so that’s a pretty solid corps.’’

What bodes well offensively, Donato said, is that the Crimson have most of their goal scoring back.

“We have five freshmen who were drafted, which is tied for the most in the entire NCAA, so I think there is a lot of reason for optimism here,’’ he said. “We’ll once again start a little bit behind the eight-ball schedule-wise, but I think there are reasons around here to feel very, very positive. I think we have some pieces in place and we have some guys who are now coming into their own health-wise and age-wise. We’re excited about what we have.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at