Thursday, November 5, 2015

Ryan Donato Debuts at Harvard; Vesey's Balancing Act; BC moves on

Ryan and Ted Donato: Crimson and Clover
Sharing the Rink, Fathers and Sons
The Bright-Landry Hockey Center was positively buzzing Sunday night to see the home debut of the Harvard Crimson, and no, the student body hadn't braved the perpetual construction of Anderson Bridge to make the trek to Alston. Instead it was a Who's Who of NHL scouts, alums and player agents who did, and why not? Harvard's offensive juggernaut contains the NCAA's version of the Magnificent Seven, led by sure-fire NHL scorer Jimmy Vesey, PLUS it was the home debut of the Chosen One, Ryan Donato, Bruins 2nd round pick and son of Harvard coach Ted Donato. USA Hockey personnel man and Harvard alum Ben Smith was in the house scouting for the World Juniors, and he was positively giddy over the Crimson colt. "He's not the primary reason I'm here," said Smith in the second intermission, "he's the only reason I'm here."

The night before Harvard had annihilated Dartmouth up in Hanover, racing off to a 7-0 lead in the 2nd period before calling off the dogs. Vesey amassed four points in what breathless eyewitnesses claimed was the most impressive performance in his brilliant career. Young Donato QB'd a power play that went three-for-three, picking up a pair of helpers. Boston's hockey establishment had been waiting seven months to see Harvard's collection of rare talent, delayed four weeks after the official opening of Division I hockey because of the Ivy League's equivalent of New England Blue Laws, postponing Ivy games until Halloween. Finally the middle aged hockey literati got to feast their professional eyes on the likes of Vesey, Alexander KerfootKyle CriscuoloSean MaloneColin BlackwellTyler Moy, and Mark Messier's nephew Luke Esposito, Harvard's traveling circus of professional caliber skill players. Those mentioned above have familiar names and playing styles, but the house full of trained eyes had only seen the teenage Donato light up prep school goalies; now he was tangling with the men of college hockey. In his home debut, the kid lost his NCAA virginity by firing home a 15' wrister to put Harvard ahead 5-2 in the third to close out the evening's scoring. To set up the goal, San Jose Sharks prospect Blackwell spent three full seconds grinding out possession behind the goal line, an eternity in hockey, before delivering a pristine pass to the drooling pup. Donato was asked if he was going to buy his linemate a steak for the effort to set up his milestone.

"I might have to," said the Kid."Last night I gave him one, so yeah, I was pumped." Then boy wonder delivered a tasty morsel to the media contingent. "Colin Blackwell, prep school guy, I love him, he’s been one of my role models. I’ve known him since I went to Harvard hockey camp as a kid and he was my counselor, it’s pretty awkward now that he’s now my linemate; he’s a great guy." A salient story line dropped in our laps in the kid's first presser? Donato will be impossible to ignore, off the ice or on. He is the focal point of a radical experiment by Donato: not four but five forwards on the power play, with his son playing quarterback on the point. "I’ve never been at the top of a power play before, but I definitely like it. Obviously I’m still learning, but I have four incredible guys along the ice with me so it’s not too hard. We’ve got such skilled forwards, it’s really hard to defend." His dad Teddy, whose offensive gifts kept him in The Show for 13 years, is throwing caution to the proverbial wind when it comes to man-up situations. "You know what, we’re more concerned with scoring goals than the possibility of the puck going the other way. We realize there will be some growing pains, there will be some chances against, but we want to play aggressive, we want to move the puck around. We have a lot of guys that we can mix in to find the right group, so I think it gives us some good flexibility and depth."

Not only has young Ryan never run a power play, nor defend against odd-man rushes, but in order to play on a top line, the natural center is playing out of position. "It's the first time I've ever played wing before, so I'm learning how. Also the speed is a lot different, I think I'll adjust my game to that and keep getting better." Another challenge for Ryan is what, exactly, should he call his father? "There are awkward moments when 'Dad' slips out of my mouth, and then 'Coach.' It goes back and forth." Pops is more concerned with finding ice time for his stars than coddling his kid. "I don’t really think about it much. I’m doing what I need to do for the group. Maybe it’s a little bit different after the game, when I have to wait to talk to him because I don’t want to make him look bad. I think he knows that he’s going to have to earn everything he gets.  I kinda joke, but I’ll probably be harder on him than normally, but I think he’s kind of used to it by now." 

Minutes earlier, Dartmouth's veteran coach Bob Gaudet was sharing his experience with coaching offspring, as he had coached two of his sons Joe Gaudet (Dartm.'10) and Jim Gaudet (Dartm. '12) in Hanover, spanning six seasons from 2006 to 2012. "It's tough when you coach your own kid, you don't want to be harder on him then you are on some of the other guys, that's the tendency." Gaudet was warming to the topic of hockey parenting as he held court underneath the Bright Center stands, certainly preferable to the subject of being swept by the relentless Crimson. "I look back at my two boys, I'm biased, I have fond memories, they are two of my favorite players, they played hard all the time, they were assistant captains. As a coach, Teddy's the same way, you want to have the same relationship with your kids through four years of college, not screw it up. Thank goodness I was able to maintain it, and with the hockey mom at home. I think Teddy  gets it, his son's going to be a really good player here."

This is college, and a major exam is staring at both father and son Donato this Friday: Blood rival Yale is coming to town. Consider them the equivalent of Sparta in the City States of the Ivy League, Harvard being Athens with all its talent and skill. Located in gritty New Haven, Keith Allain doesn't have the built in recruiting advantage of his Crimson counterpart, so he builds his squad with defense, tenacity and supreme goaltending. Despite losing a heartbreak best of three playoff series to Harvard last March at Yale, The Bulldogs still beat Harvard an astounding four times last year, neutralizing Vesey and company with first team All Americans Rob O'Gara on defense and Alex Lyon in goal. While Harvard has the luxury of ignoring matchups because of its remarkable depth, Allain micro-manages every shift to claw his way into games. Yale just got through an impressive tourney victory down in Trenton lat weekend, and is eager to reclaim their pound of flesh from Harvard up in Cambridge. The Crimson 2015-16 fantasy ride may hit a painful speed bump if the Bulldogs successfully employ their smothering defense against the team they know intimately.
"It's certainly become a pretty tough rivalry, after last year’s playoff series," said coach Donato. "Both teams are feeling pretty good about their potential to be around towards the end of the season. This is a great matchup for us and a great challenge."

Vesey attacks Pucks AND Books (Courtesy Harvard Crimson)
Veritas Renaissance Man... College hockey's most dynamic player was relaxing on the concourse with family and friends late Sunday night, chatting up a hero-worshipping 9th grader from Malden Catholic high school. Jimmy Vesey had a week-old red scratch down his forehead from a nasty exhibition game with New Brunswick, and his legs were filled with lactic acid. In five days he would be clashing with Yale's supreme defenders whose sole purpose is to shut him down, yet that was stashed back in his priority list. His biggest challenge in the upcoming days is his psychology class, the last requirement as he plots his path to a Harvard diploma. "It's my toughest course. The professor's name is Daniel Gilbert. He's famous." A quick Internet search reveals a professor that is a bigger star in his field than Jimmy is in hockey. Fortunately Vesey is a trained student from four years of academic grinding at the prestigious Belmont Hill country day school, giving him the inherent confidence to meet this challenge. He has embraced all of Harvard's academic challenges, including writing final exams and term papers twice while in Europe playing for Team USA at World Championships.
There is intense scrutiny on Vesey this season. Not only is he a front runner for the Hobey Baker Award and the target of every opponent's game plan, but every NHL team is eager for his services. Due to a loophole in the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, he can opt for free agency if he doesn't sign with the Nashville Predators, the team that drafted him back in 2012, by next August. When NBC's Pierre Maguire erroneously stated that Vesey would opt for free agency in an early season broadcast, it set off a minor feeding frenzy. Young Vesey, however, is unfazed by the commotion, allowing his dad Jim to run interference from all the NHL personnel men and player agents trying to test the his loyalty. Jimmy is using all his energy to maintain his balance between academics and hockey, both at the highest levels. He trusts his inner circle implicitly, and has learned from both his parents how college hockey stardom does not necessarily translate to career success. His dad was hockey's answer to Crash Davis from the film Bull Durham, an offensive star in the minors that only had a taste of mocha in The Show. Jimmy's mom Ann points out that one of his best buds, Shayne Gostisbehere, the guy who carried Union to the 2014 NCAA championship, blew out his knee playing pro hockey after foregoing his senior and a valued diploma. Jimmy made an informed choice to struggle through his final year at Harvard rather than chase Stanley Cup glory in Nashville last spring. The official Team Vesey stance re his professional direction is that he will choose whatever path gives him the best chance to make the NHL. If come March it turns out that Nashvilled has loaded up with several excellent left wings, it will no longer be an attractive destination. That is the only way he would opt out of Nashville. Ultimately, he wants to be in the 2016 Stanley Cup hunt, and that can only with the Predators. His choices, and his entourage of straight-talking loved ones, are in direct contrast with the much publicized player departure at Boston College five days prior.

Jerry York "We moved on"
BC's response to the The Bracco Affair- "Irrelevant"... After Jeremy Bracco slunk out of Boston College last Wednesday to forego college in order to play major junior in Canada, Eagles captain Ted Doherty called a players-only meeting demanding that his mates declare loyalty to the squad, and if not, to leave. Needless to say, not a single Eagle bailed. As reported by Scott McLaughlin of WEEI in Boston, Doherty said "I thought our best two days of practice the entire year were Wednesday and Thursday. We did a great job of blocking out all the distractions. It (Bracco's departure) was irrelevant." That single word was the ultimate slap in the face to Bracco, a freshman who was reportedly struggling with both his academics and the fact that he was not a star on this squad. He was, in fact, not even a standout of his freshman class. Doherty's claim of "irrelevance" was born out in last Friday's final seconds victory over #5 Denver at Conte Forum. Eagles gentlemanly coach Jerry York addressed the situation without using Bracco's name. "We moved on and we played very, very well. We demand an awful lot from our players. If you're not ready for that, then it's not a good environment for you." Irrelevant, indeed. A galvanized BC squad has now shut out opponents in 4 of their last 5 games, a first in program history.

Puck Droppings... A former BU player was at the Bright Center Sunday scouting for the Blackhawks. He lives in the Boston area and still works out at BU. He says Terrier Captain Matt Grzelcyk is still recovering from his torn ACL. He said Gryz played the final month of last season, that amazing run to the NCAA Final, with a torn ACL. BU just announced that Grzelcyk will return on Friday for home and home with Northeastern... Harvard appears to have found their replacement for departed goalie Steve Michalek. 6'5" Sophomore Merrick Madsen, a Flyers 6th round pick, was solid if not spectacular for the Crimson last weekend, stopping 43 of 45 shots in the 2-game series... Dartmouth's Nick Bligh, who scored a highlight reel goal vs Harvard Sunday, was a junior hockey teammate of Jimmy Vesey for the South Shore Kings back in 2012. Bligh caught up with Vesey post game Sunday, having graduated from sweat pants to suits, as both young men exchanged pleasantries... One of the rare undrafted members of Harvard's "Magnificent Seven" is Luke Esposito, the 5'10" son of Mark Messier's sister Mary-Kay Esposito, a valued member of Mark's inner circle. Mess has coached his nephew Luke and remains very close, instilling the values and intensity that permeate a winning dressing room. Mess is no stranger to the Harvard licker room. Despite his diminutive size, Luke's package of intangibles makes him a legitimate NHL prospect. 

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