Sleeping Giant

The Harvard Crimson were on top of the college hockey mountain 10 years ago. Bright Center was packed to capacity every night, the 1989 national champions boasted three Hobey Baker Award winners in a seven-year span, and the recruiting pipeline was overflowing with future All-Americas like Ted Drury, Steve Martins and Sean McCann.

The second half of the next decade proved to be bit of a disappointment for the Cantabridgians, however. How bad? After advancing to the NCAA tournament in 1993 and 1994, would you believe falling to the depths of four straight losing seasons prior to this year? A goals-against average over 3.50 in this age of defensive-minded hockey? A power play under 15 percent?

It was a not-so-quiet secret in the ECAC these last few years that Bright was no longer a threatening arena in which to play. The Crimson’s troubles were enough to turn off their three core groups of fans: the influential hockey alumni who formerly congregated in the rink’s southeast corner, the unruly but erudite face-painting denizens of the area beneath the press box, and the cynical old-timers on the west end, many of whom remember athletic director Billy Cleary from his playing days.

A brief but stormy era of Harvard hockey may be coming to a close, however, under new head coach Mark Mazzoleni. The unbridled enthusiasm and fresh ideas of the former Miami University pilot have revitalized players who formerly dreaded their afternoon practice sessions. The Crimson roared out of the gate with four wins in their first five games, including a 2-1 victory at Cornell and a 13-goal home weekend against Dartmouth and Vermont.

No one who knew former head coach Ronn Tomassoni enjoyed watching him struggle during his last few seasons in Cambridge, but, for the sake of Harvard hockey tradition, it was time for a change. The simple fact is that Tomassoni’s last few Harvard teams earned a label as underachievers. The ECAC coaches picked Harvard for 3rd, 5th, 3rd and 2nd in the last four pre-season polls. The Crimson finished 8th, 5th, 8th, and 6th, respectively. Not the stuff of a championship-caliber program, which is what Mazzoleni honestly believes he has inherited.

“I felt in my heart that this is one of the elite eight jobs in college hockey,” Mazzoleni said recently as he reflected on his decision to leave Miami after five years. “I have no aspirations to coach in the pros and I have made the steady progression up the coaching ladder, so this is where I want to end my career. No matter how good we were at Miami, there was always Michigan and Michigan State. I think Harvard can be the Michigan of the ECAC.”

On his way up the ladder, Mazzoleni assisted Doug Woog at Minnesota and led Wisconsin-Stevens Point to consecutive Division III national titles. The Wisconsin native started his coaching career as an assistant to Val Belmonte at Illinois-Chicago. Belmonte, in turn, had been an assistant to Cleary and originally introduced the current Harvard AD to the current Harvard coach several years ago.

Mazzoleni’s familiarity with Cleary and the Crimson tradition made the decision to leave his family in Ohio for the time being and room with assistant Ron Rolston at Drury’s off-season home in Bedford, Mass, a little easier. The rest of the Mazzoleni clan will come east in the spring. Despite the 400 miles separating them, the family patriarch has made the drive numerous times to catch Paul, his oldest child, hold the line for the high school football team. That kind of dedication and commitment is emblematic of why he won the Harvard job.

“Mark’s work ethic on the ice as a player was phenomenal and he has been the same way as a coach,” Ron Mason, Mazzoleni’s coach in his last season as a goaltender at Michigan State 20 years ago, said. “I talked with Billy about Mark when he was interviewing for the job and told him that I thought Mark would be an excellent choice.”

Mason shares Mazzoleni’s view that Harvard is a sleeping giant among current hockey powers. A devil’s advocate might argue, however, that Harvard’s task is tougher now than just a few seasons ago. The competition for top-quality recruits who can survive the scrutiny of the rigorous Ivy League admission standards has increased due to program upgrades at Dartmouth and Princeton. In addition, the presence of several new Division I men’s teams heightens the battle for recruits in general.

Nevertheless, if Mazzoleni and Mason cannot convince you that Harvard can rise like a phoenix from the ashes, how about the decision made by Rolston? All he did was leave the same post at Clarkson, the ECAC’s team of the’ 90s, to take part in the renaissance on North Harvard Street.

“I would not have come here unless I thought that Harvard had as much or more potential than Clarkson to get to the championship level,” Rolston said with an air of certainty. “We have the opportunity to play an up-tempo style and still be strong defensively. We won a lot of games at Clarkson, but didn’t make it to the final four. I think Harvard has that ability.”

Rolston knows a little bit about winning hockey games. Prior to serving as Mark Morris’ top aide in Potsdam, he worked the bench alongside Jeff Jackson at Lake Superior State. He first encountered Mazzoleni while working in the CCHA in 1994.

“Mark called me back then to try and get me to work at Miami when he started there,” recalled Rolston. “When I heard he had this job, I sort of had a feeling that he would give me a call again. I always had a lot of respect for him. His teams at Miami played extremely hard. We faced them a couple of times in the playoffs when I was at Lake Superior, and it was tough.”

Rolston knew from his ECAC experience that the Harvard cupboard was far from bare. The Crimson have three former ECAC All-Rookie team players on the roster, one of the top recruits in the country and several other players who were considered blue-chip recruits at the time of their matriculation.

Tomassoni and departed assistant Jerry Pawlowski, of course, recruited all of the current Crimson skaters. The difference in their performance on the ice under Mazzoleni, however, is palpable. Late arrivals at the team’s second home game of the season, against Vermont, were treated to a four-goal third period uprising that included a spectacular one-on-one effort by freshman Dominic Moore and a pretty bang-bang play finished by his sophomore brother, Steve. Harvard fans have not seen offensive creatively like this since Steve Martins last shed the classic Harvard jersey in 1995.

“It is all about confidence,” senior captain Trevor Allman said. “We have to believe in the new system, believe in ourselves and get over the past. Coach Mazzoleni is allowing us to be creative. We want to generate offense by being a quick, transition-oriented team.”

The new Harvard style is predicated on puck possession and speed. When it works, it can be a thing of beauty. When it does not, it will result in a few odd-man rushes towards the Harvard end. Either way, it makes for a pretty entertaining evening.

“It is a little bit like a fast break offense,” Mazzoleni explains. “The goal is to keep pressure on opposing defensemen, and, if they start coming out of the zone and turn it over, push it right back down their throats. But the emphasis is also on being responsible with the puck. You can be creative, but not if it means exposing the puck or dribbling in areas where the opposition can take it away.”

Mazzoleni is relying heavily on his assistants, Rolston and former Maine volunteer assistant Nate Leaman, to help him revamp the Crimson. Rolston and Leaman bring to the table a familiarity with Eastern recruiting and experience with successful programs.

“I told Ron and Nate that I sure as heck didn’t know everything about hockey and that I hoped to put their best ideas to use,” Mazzoleni said. “We are certainly importing some of the things they did in their former positions; the end-zone offense is the same as Rolston used at Clarkson and we are using a forecheck similar to Maine.”

Arguably the biggest challenge facing the new staff is familiarizing themselves with the Academic Index, the Ivy League admissions barometer for athletes. The “AI” assesses various academic criteria, including SATs, Achievement Tests and class rank, on a weighted scale. Each recruiting class must exceed the permissible average AI score and all candidates must clear the minimum standard.

“We all have our calculators,” joked Rolston. “It has been a little overwhelming to get used to the system. We are a little behind in recruiting because of it; we still have to figure out who the good students are among the top players we have seen.”

The staff is also early in the process of assessing the talent at hand. Rolston had the luxury of watching Harvard in person and on tape prior to his arrival. Mazzoleni and Leaman are still trying to figure out which member of the Turco family is on the roster (Scott), which Moore goes where (sophomore Scott and freshman Dominic are forwards and oldest brother Mark is on defense) and which Nowak is which (freshman Brett is one of the nation’s premier recruits; sophomore Derek is out with an injury). Don’t even ask them to pronounce “Capouch”, as in sophomore defenseman Peter (the “C” is soft and the “ch” is silent — “Sapoo”).

Mazzoleni chose to take a fresh view of his talent by deliberately avoiding a look at the team statistics from last year. Consequently, players like seniors Matt MacLeod and Jamin Kerner are back in the lineup after primarily serving as spectators the last two years.

“MacLeod and Kerner have done a good job,” Mazzoleni said. “For whatever reason, they didn’t play much before. I just wanted to come in and give guys a chance to show what they can do based on what I see in practice and games, not what they did or didn’t do in prior seasons. If you want ice time, you are going to have to earn it.”

And there is plenty of ice time to go around in this new regime. Mazzoleni emphasizes short shifts and rolling over four lines. The Crimson intend to wear teams down with their speed and high-octane style.

In addition to the new offensive nuances, the coaching staff has invested significant time in shaping up the defense in front of goaltenders J.R. Prestifilippo and Oliver Jonas. Prestifilippo’s career goals-against average climbed from 3.18 to 3.56 as the blueline corps deteriorated around him over the past three years.

“Watching tapes after I took the job, I could see that the skill level was there but the team needed to play better away from the puck,” Rolston said. “They really followed the puck around, especially defensively. We need to get them to appreciate the benefit of good defense away from the puck.”

The defense now begins at the opposing blue line, where the strong-side forward locks on the puck carrier and leaves the other two opposing forwards to the defense. Senior Mark Moore is confident that repetition in practice will drill the new philosophy home and eliminate the odd-man rushes against.

“The different forecheck changes the way we play defense, although we will still play man-to-man in the defensive zone,” said Moore. “When you implement a new system it takes a little while to get used to it. We will learn.”

Moore and Allman are part of a large senior contingent that risks becoming the first to graduate without clearing the .500 mark since the Class of 1982. They are well aware of the responsibility that they bear.

“Coach Mazzoleni specifically asked the seniors to take charge and play a role in helping him make the transition,” Mark Moore said. “The fact that there are eight seniors on the team, as opposed to the four we had last year, makes it a lot easier. We can spread the responsibility around and each deal with one or two guys.

Moore’s family can claim as much of a role in improving attendance as Mazzoleni’s brand of firewagon hockey. The Moores staged a family reunion in Boston during the first home weekend, bringing 26 people to the games. With Mark hammering opposing forwards in the crease and Steve and Dominic filling the net at the other end, it is enough to make visiting coaches utter the English translation of Roberto Duran’s famous words of capitulation.

For his part, Mazzoleni is playing the role of town crier to fill seats. He wrote a letter to the alumni encouraging their support and then made a plea directly to the masses.

“It is part of my responsibility to go out and promote the program,” explains Mazzoleni. “We have 6,000 students at this school; if we can hook 200 freshmen a year and they bring their friends, we’ll be in good shape. I went to the freshman dining hall to speak to them, to encourage them to come support us. I told them that we would play hard and be disciplined. I wrote the same thing in the letter to the alumni.”

Will all three core fan constituencies respond to the coaching staff’s entreaties? The student turnout at the first home games of the year suggests that the hard sell is working at one level. The cynical old-timers and power alumni are probably not far behind if the team keeps winning.

“It has been a tough learning process,” Allman opined. “We’ve had to practice hard and learn a new playbook. There are a lot of new drills and we are still getting the hang of it. We have a long way to go.”

Harvard already shows significant signs of having made progress. If Allman is right, and there is more to come, it should make an evening at Bright Center a memorable event for the home team and its fans once again.