Harvard Crimson head coach Ted Donato joined The Stretch Run on ESPN New Hampshire Radio to discuss Jimmy Vesey’s upcoming decision about his NHL destination.
What was it like to coach Jimmy Vesey?
Ted Donato: The first thing I would say is that Jimmy is a very well-spoken and smart guy. I actually kind of stay away from really commenting too much on it because I think he does it so well himself. First and foremost, even though he finds himself in this situation, he’s a very intelligent, low-key guy who had this opportunity and decided he thought it was in his best interest to have this once-in-a-career type of chance. I see some places where it’s been played out that, “who does this kid think he is? He hasn’t played games in the league.” It is certainly a rule that is at his disposal. He decided to use it. I think, as people really get to know him and as he does get started wherever that may be, they will find a kid that is very humble, very hard-working, very talented, very down to earth, very much a team player. I think the situation has maybe changed some of the details as to what he really is like as a kid. I’m excited for him. He was a pleasure to coach because he worked hard even though he was the best goal-scorer in college hockey over two years. He was also a guy that played a 200-foot game, was physical when he needed to be, we could use him killing penalties, worked hard, and he was a great leader and captain. He really did it all, which is what you’d expect of a Hobey Baker winner.
I’ve wondered what, behind the scenes, this has been like for him. You look at it and there is a lot of spotlight cast upon him right now. Obviously he won the Hobey Baker; that brings spotlight, but it’s just been really drawn out by us in the media. Has he come to you at all and been like, “coach, how do I handle all this? What do I do?” Has he gone to you for advice at all?
Donato: I’ve talked to him at times throughout this process. I’m not sure anybody knew the life it would take on. He certainly is not the type of guy that looks for the spotlight, that looks for media attention or anything like that. I really can’t say that I’m comfortable trying to read into his mind, but there is a certain part of me that looks at it and is not all that enviable about having to go through this process. It is a great opportunity. There are a lot of great things. He can really find out how some different organizations feel about him or see his potential role, but it also is a lot of pressure for a kid that is pretty low key and is really just excited to get his NHL career underway. I think his dad and his family have been very down to earth in trying to be helpful for him to go through this process. It’s one thing if a guy is a 30-year-old free agent and has played 800 games in the league and kind of knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like; where he fits in and what kind of players he needs to play with, all that kind of stuff. It’s a little bit more difficult at the start of a career to express yourself in those ways but also to really pick which path is in your best interest.
If this were you, what would be the deciding factor? Would it being a top six forward? Would it just be the organization, the history? What would be your top priority in wanting to play for one of those teams if this were you?
Donato: It’s an interesting question. By saying, “if it was me,” I think we cover ourselves in the sense that it’s really what Jimmy Vesey wants and what he feels is most important. In some ways, it’s tough. He doesn’t necessarily have the full perspective that you’d have if you had already played a few years and had kind of seen what goes on in different areas and gotten to know the different franchises involved. I think a lot of the things you talked about are all important. I think, once you make that decision to go to free agency, first and foremost you want to make sure that you get yourself in a position where you think it is a great opportunity. That means you’re going to have a chance to be a top six forward and play with some talented guys in an offensive role. We’re all understanding that it could take him some time to make it at that level. He’s a very talented guy, but it’s still a big jump and there’s still going to be a transition period.
I think that every spot has pluses and minuses. Different organizations have different things that make them very attractive. First of all, it’s the NHL, so they’re all great choices. It’s what every kid that put on a pair of skates dreams of doing, just to get to that level. If you went team by team, they each have different things that are attractive. If you’re talking about Buffalo, you’re talking about some great young talent. Do you have a chance to become part of a young core of talent that is on the way up, or hasn’t really got it done yet? Do you go to a place like Boston, which has a great fan base and great history and traditions, but also comes with a certain amount of pressure from playing at home? You go through all of them, whether it’s Chicago — a great city and a great franchise – or the Rangers – great place to play, another real solid team. They’re all very good. They all have something that, I think, would excite anybody and certainly a kid looking to play in the NHL. At some point, where they see him fit and what opportunity he might be able to get are important, knowing that that’s an initial opportunity. He is going to have to run with it. He’s going to have to play very well. If he does that, more opportunities will follow.
Did you ever feel any added pressure playing for your hometown Bruins at the time the years that you were here?
Donato: In some ways, it can be the best place in the world to play. You’re at home, you’re playing for the team you grow up watching, the team you’ve always rooted for. It’s a dream come true to play in Boston for the Bruins. There are so many great people involved and there is such a following of the team. That’s really special, but it does come with some added pressures. If things aren’t going as well as you like, there are things that you deal with that you wouldn’t deal with if you were playing in another city. It’s not only added pressure on you, it’s added pressure on your family, your friends. There’s scenarios there that are less than perfect, but that comes with the great part that you can play in front of family and friends and have them be around and still really have a great sense for the organization and the community. I think there is a little bit of give and take there, but I know personally, for me, I loved every second I got a chance to wear that Bruins jersey. Quite frankly, I know Jimmy Vesey is and will always be a huge Bruins fan, but I’m sure he’s going to digest all the different options and pick which one he thinks is best for his career.
Jimmy Vesey did something we don’t see a lot of NCAA players doing now. More and more each year we are seeing players leave early and opt out to sign an entry-level contract. Obviously, you’ve got a a colleague there in Jerry York whose team got absolutely raided this offseason. What’s that been like for you, and how refreshing was it to see Jimmy Vesey stay the four years?
Donato: I think it was a very mature decision. Much like the decision he faces now, I think Jimmy Vesey really kind of thinks things through. Ultimately, it’s his decision as to what he wanted to do and what he felt was most valuable to him. I think he really valued graduating from Harvard. He valued the friendships and the experiences he was having, knowing the NHL was going to be the next stop. We’re not much different in all of these sports. You get more “one and dones” than you’ve ever had before. It’s great to look at the guys who make it, and there are certainly a lot of them, but there is a lot more that don’t make it. I still believe that to go to a great school and graduate and have that opportunity is a really valuable experience. I know, for us, we were thrilled to have him back, not only as a player but as a captain and a character person. It was a real blessing for us.
Everything you say about Jimmy Vesey, too — he has such a good head on his shoulders. That’s great for a young kid to have now, isn’t it? I know what these agents can be like, and the teams themselves teaming up to try to get the kids to leave. It must’ve helped that he seems like such a pensive type of fellow.
Donato: What’s happened, too, as I’ve talked to a lot of people around the NHL, a lot of these kids — even as they’re coming out of college early — are pretty mature and are pretty knowledgeable about all the trappings that can come with playing in the NHL. I think the one thing with Jimmy Vesey that makes him unique is that there haven’t been a lot of guys who have been free agents after going for four years. If your organization, in this salary cap world that we live in, [has a chance] to get a guy that doesn’t need multiple years of development, to get a guy who is developed physically and mentally to be able to come in and contribute right away. I think that’s a unique aspect. Financially, as you try to put these teams together, a first-round draft pick from three or four years ago, really, is what you’re looking at. Even though he got drafted later, that’s the value I would put on it. He’s earned it. He’s deserved it. He’s had to do it the hard way the last couple of years under a lot of attention, a lot of defensive structure displayed against him. He found a way to really put himself in a position to have this opportunity now. I know, on our end, we are just going to be supportive of whatever he decides and hope that he has a great run and a great career.
Transcribed by Alec Brownscombe