Not only did Dedham native Ted Donato play nearly 800 games in the NHL, including parts of nine seasons with the Bruins, but he’s also been behind the bench as head coach at his alma mater, Harvard, since the 2004-05 season. He’s a hockey dad, too, as the father of four hockey players now ranging from 13- to 19-years-old.
In other words, he’s seen a lot of hockey.
All those rinks, all those wins and loses, and all those car rides home have given him ample practice on managing life after a tough loss as a player, a coach and, perhaps most important, a parent.
We recently talked to Donato, whose Crimson ranked in the top 10 nationally as of Nov. 27, about that very topic. His suggestions:
1. Remember what matters
“I think your child’s response is going to be, in most cases, connected to your response as an adult. If you’re supportive and make your judgment effort-based rather than on results, that’s much healthier for the relationship.
“We talk about something with our players, and I mention it as often as I can: I’ve had the opportunity to play with a lot of players at a lot of levels, and no one really remembers whether someone scored X number of goals. What they really remember is the kind of person he or she was when they played. When it’s all said and done, you’re going to want to spend time with people you enjoy and who can handle situations, good and bad.”
2. Find a silver lining
“A lot of us have kids who have been on teams that weren’t the best, and I think you really have to focus on what your son or daughter can do to play his or her best. It’s really about finding the silver lining.
“While it might be that your child’s team is shorthanded and under siege, you can say, ‘You’re getting a lot of opportunities to play defense and to handle situations that some other kids who play on great teams don’t have.’ Ultimately, it will be helpful to their improving as a player.
“You have to come back to the fact that everything you do should be about making the game of hockey a great life experience for your kid. Focus on the positives, but understand that your reaction to a tough loss, or your interaction with your child, will send a strong message as to what’s important.”
3. Provide some perspective
“I’ve asked this of kids when they sometimes get short-termed in focus, ‘So, who won this tournament three years ago?’ And they’ll say they don’t know – exactly. While we want to do our best to win, it’s really about the opportunity to get better and to play our best against different competition. The real focus should be on using this as an opportunity to improve and become better as a hockey player and a person. To never have adversity as a person wouldn’t be the most beneficial.
“As a college coach, we go and we recruit, but we don’t only recruit the kids on the winning teams. We go to watch each kid, and we watch how he performs in that game. The coach isn’t going to say if he’s looking at a kid, ‘I really like that kid and he had a heck of a game, but, unfortunately, his team lost.’ That’s not how it works.
“You have all these showcases and tournaments, and you want to do the things that make you successful and interesting as a player, but it’s not about winning and losing.”
“There are a lot of different methods to communicate with your children. Sometimes, you want to take the cue from how they feel about the game. I think you need to say something, but you also have to listen. We’re parents first and hockey fans second. I think our children, if you give them time to talk about it, will give you a lot to learn as a parent. I’ve seen games where the parents are all heartbroken that the other team had this late goal, or something was wrong, or it wasn’t fair, but you get in the locker room and the kids are all laughing and smiling.
“Make sure that the kids are having fun. When it’s all said and done, the kids that are enjoying it, and love the challenges of it, are usually the ones that go on to have the most success and get the most value out of the experience.”
5. Go easy on the coaching
“I always think of the joke where the little kid is yelling at his mother, ‘Warm the pan up! Put some butter in the pan!’ and, when she looks at him, he says, ‘Well, you yell at me during hockey.’ While you can be helpful, the important part is really more about the life lessons than the Xs and Os. I find that the old adage applies: They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
“You want to be supportive of your child and you want to be helpful to the coach. If there are things you think he or she could do better, ask how he or she might go about doing it. Ultimately, the motivation is coming from them.”
**What not to do**
“The important step becomes what kind of people and character you want as role models. I do think having a person that you think is a great role model should be, first and foremost, where you select to play. And I think it’s important that the kids have an impact as to how quickly they want to move along or upward in their development. It’s not always whether you’re on the best team. They have to like playing hockey if they want to commit as much time and want to develop and improve on it. If they’re not enjoying it, they won’t put that commitment level in it. Too often, parents make their kids mercenaries, jumping from one program to the other, and it makes it difficult to develop relationships, which is an enormous part of the experience. So, if you’re a player for hire, so to speak, it really puts the emphasis on what you’re doing on the ice. That’s shortsighted and usually ends up in a little bit of a revolt when the kids don’t think the decisions were made with them in mind.”