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Don Sweeney’s year out of hockey was revealing

Time at Phillips Academy showed former player’s singular focus

Those who know new Bruins general manager Don Sweeney cite his intelligence, hard work, and dedication.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In his former life — the one with tens of thousands of eyes watching, dozens of fingers typing, with playoff berths and a Stanley Cup riding on his shifts — there would have been a doctor. There would have been someone behind the benches or in the trainer’s room to stitch him up, stanch the bleeding and close the gash. Here, there was no one. Mostly, well, because no one was expected to bleed.

Especially not the one guy who actually knew what he was doing.

Usually, Don Sweeney would tuck his competitiveness away, acting more like the prep school admissions officer he now was and less like the NHL player he once was, skating around, passing the puck to his teammates and co-workers.


But something happened on this early morning in this coed intramural game. There was a mix-up in front of the net and suddenly a teammate’s skate had sliced open Sweeney’s lip, a nick in the face that a former co-worker said sometimes made the prep school applicants’ mothers “melt.”

It was still early — the games started at 5:30 or 6 a.m., enough time to play and head to their real jobs, at Phillips Academy, where Sweeney had been hired in 2005 — and Sweeney stuck it out, finishing one more hockey game in a career that saw 1,115 of them in the NHL.

Still, though, he needed that doctor. So he drove himself to the hospital, opting for Dermabond rather than traditional stitches to close up the cut. And he drove himself back, too, back to his desk in the admissions office, back to the office job he had taken in what would be his single year out of hockey.

He made it on time. He didn’t want someone else to have to cover for him.


Promotion no surprise

Most of them could see this latest promotion coming, from his playing days, even back in college. His friends, his teammates, his colleagues, they all knew that some day Sweeney would be in charge of things, using his intelligence and his hard work and his dedication to put his stamp on the sport.

So there was very little surprise to those who know Sweeney when, two weeks ago, the former defenseman was named the eighth general manager of the Bruins.

And they knew how it had happened

“It’s easy to sit on the other side and say, ‘Jeez, somebody did this or they were lucky to get this,’ ” said Harvard hockey coach Ted Donato, Sweeney’s teammate with the Crimson and with the Bruins. “To me, with Donnie there isn’t a lot of luck involved.”

There is, instead, this: “He’s a guy that didn’t leave any stone unturned,” former teammate Hal Gill said. “If he could eat a better meal to be better, then that’s what he was going to do. If he could work a little harder and get better, that was what he was going to do. Everything was done with a purpose and done with a focus.”

He might not have made it, otherwise.

But while his hockey career — from St. Paul’s to Harvard to the Bruins to his one final year with the Stars — was a testament to a single-mindedness shared by few, it’s that year spent at Andover that perhaps truly reveals Sweeney.


A true asset

It was, essentially, a sabbatical from hockey, after he had retired following the 2003-04 season. They knew he was going back. He seemed to know he was going back. But with two young children — twin boys born at just 25 weeks during the playoffs in 1999 — in front of him and 16 years in the NHL behind him, Sweeney opted for a world outside of his.

He had been talking, off and on, with Jim Ventre, a friend of a friend whom he had known since his Harvard days, about the idea of boarding-school life, about returning to the type of place where he had spent his high school years.

They were just conversations, more idle wondering than anything exploratory.

And then, six months later, there was an opening for an admissions officer at Phillips Academy. The ex-NHL player now would be reading admissions essays and interviewing candidates and attending functions and advising students.

“He really endeared himself to everybody here very quickly because not only was he very humble, [he was] very much committed to the students and in this community,” said Ventre, now the school’s dean of admission.

“He insisted that he should be an adviser and, in order to do that, he had to learn our curriculum and how to work with them. That’s not easy to do. But again, just like what he did in his athletic, professional career, he dedicated himself to reading everything, learning everything about the school. He was a real asset to us. We wanted him to stay. This is a funny thing: We really wanted him to stay. He was a fit.”


It was a mix of all the things Sweeney later would bring to the Bruins as he rose through the ranks in the front office, beginning with his time as director of player development, continuing through his run to director of hockey operations and assistant general manager, and now to GM.

It was recruiting and education and organization and team building and, yes, maybe, some cuts and bruises along the way. It was his future path, laid out for him amid pieces of his past. He could look to himself, to his experience at St. Paul’s and Harvard, to his student-athlete days, and relate.

He dropped by hockey practice and gave handwritten notes to the students he advised and gently prodded his fellow staff about beginning a wellness program. He was active and engaged and, for a year, he was theirs, though they did not advertise him, taking glee out of the moment when a prospective student – and parents – would show up and light up, realizing the interviewer was, gulp, Don Sweeney.

They trusted his opinions, watched him trust their thoughts. They saw his commitment, heard him ask the right questions, something he would repeat in his first years in the front office with the Bruins, according to former GM Peter Chiarelli. They understood his need to be coached, to get feedback and evaluate performance. They saw, in that year, the essence of Sweeney.


As Ventre put it, “Honestly, it was all about, he wanted to improve, he wanted to be the best he could be for us.”

Steady as he goes

He could have gone back to Andover, just as he could have gone back to Dallas, just as he did go back to Boston, over and over again.

“He was a guy that stepped in and really carried his worth,” former defense partner Garry Galley said. “I think that was why he was a Bruin for a long time. It was tough to be a Bruin for a long time, especially with [former GM Harry Sinden] there. There were so many different things that could happen. You could fall out of favor or whatever. Donnie was that constant.”

He still is.

He is still that person, of whom Chiarelli said last summer, “He’s an intelligent guy. He’s got a good sense of intuition. That really stands out, but his work ethic, it’s off the charts.”

“He progressed just step by step, like he was building a brick wall, just putting it in brick by brick,” his longtime agent Mark Witkin said. “Not calling attention to himself, but just doing the work.

“Some of the things that made Don different in his career was the fact that he did not rely on other people to do everything for him. Don was always wanting to do things for himself. He wasn’t needy. He didn’t need people to do things for him. He liked doing things for himself and learning.”

He is steady. He is consistent. He is not, as former coach Mike Milbury put it, Don Rickles.

But he listens and learns and asks.

And that was how, in a single year, he became all that Phillips Academy could have expected out of him. That was how he fit into a culture that was both foreign and completely familiar. That was how he refreshed himself to return to what — at least at this moment — looks like a long future in hockey.

“He was always checking, like is this going the way you hoped it would?” Ventre said. “And I would say, he far exceeded expectations.”

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.