CHICAGO — Adam La Reau, key player in Harvard’s emergence this season as a national hockey powerhouse, arrived in Cambridge in 2013 as the club’s unknown freshman.
To help the team, he had to have hockey experience, of course. But just how much?
“Zero,” La Reau said the other day, as the Crimson wrapped up preparations to play here this week in the Frozen Four, the Ivy League school’s shot to win its first Division 1 hockey title since 1989. “I’ve got about five minutes of ice time in my entire life.”
After nearly a dozen years as a US Navy SEAL, it wasn’t power plays or forechecking schemes that brought La Reau to the Yard. He enrolled in the Kennedy School of Government for a one-year masters program in public administration. Within weeks after arriving, virtually through happenstance, he ended up as a consultant with the hockey team when mutual friends connected him with coach Ted Donato.
“I was looking to get a graduate degree,” recalled La Reau, a 2002 graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy, “and to spend a little time filling in the seams of the things that I thought I needed to improve myself . . . have a little time to reflect and figure out what the next phase of my life was going to be.”
Donato, the former Crimson star and one-time Bruins forward, was sold on La Reau from the start. Within hours of meeting him in his office, he had La Reau propped in front of his players, inspiring them with his thoughts about goals, leadership, commitment to team — all of the bits and pieces that La Reau picked up in his years as a troop commander, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an environment where Harvard-Yale can be routinely overhyped as a war, Donato feels La Reau’s input has been incalculable. Beginning with that introduction in 2013 and through this season, La Reau has helped the Crimson shape team culture and build accountability.
“This is a group, at the end of every weekend, they debrief themselves, weigh in on the different goals they’ve set,” said Donato, crediting La Reau, who helped the players define and write a team ethos, parts of which are written on the locker room wall. “Whether it’s faceoff percentages, blocked shots, special teams, points, goals for, goals against . . . It’s a group that has great leadership and great responsibility. It’s really great to see. And I think they hold each other accountable, which is what any coach would hope for.”
Not only was La Reau instrumental in teaching leadership to the players, said Donato, but the coach noted how La Reau taught him ‘’the basic steps in how to hold people accountable and how to give them the tools to lead.”
One enlightening exercise La Reau led early on, recalled Donato, was for all the players to write down an important date in their lives.
“I didn’t really know the angle he was getting at,” said the coach.
The responses ran the gamut, recalled Donato, including such things as birthdays, the date of the NCAA Tournament . . . and the player who wrote May 11 as the date his mother was declared cancer-free.
“You really got an insight,” recalled Donato, “and for me as a coach, you know [one of the players] had a real dramatic thing happen in his life on May 11, so if I can send him a text on May 11 and say, ‘Hey, I know it’s a tough day for you, just want you to know I am thinking of you,’ now I have connected with this kid. I might have sat him out for a game and he’s pissed at me, but in the grand scheme of life he thinks, ‘You know what, the guy cares about me more than just how many goals I score.’ ”
La Reau, 37, grew up in Nutley, N.J., and liked all sports, though wasn’t familiar with hockey.
“I love the sport now,” he said. “But my high school didn’t play it.”
From the time La Reau was in middle school, he felt the call to military service and remained intent on joining the SEALs through high school and his admission into the Merchant Marine Academy in 1998.
His senior year at MMA, La Reau was among the hundreds on the Kings Point, N.Y., campus who stood and looked west to witness the billowing smoke upon the collapse of the World Trade towers on Sept. 11, 2001. By the spring, he became the first student in MMA history to enter SEALs training immediately upon graduation.
“That [9/11 attack] reaffirmed my conviction of [joining the SEALs] as soon as possible,” recalled La Reau. “Obviously interesting timing, that you get to serve your country in that type of capacity after an attack on our country.”
Upon earning his masters at the Kennedy School, La Reau helped found O2X, a Quincy-based company that helps train first-responders, including employees of the Boston Fire Department, among other fire and police departments around the country. He also has retained his consultant’s role with the Crimson hockey team and will be at United Center for the club’s semifinal matchup against Minnesota-Duluth. Denver will face Notre Dame in the other semifinal; the championship will be Saturday.
The Harvard team includes seven seniors, all of whom began working with La Reau from the start in 2013. One of them, high-scoring winger Tyler Moy, said he believes this year’s success stems from the culture the club has tried to cultivate over the course of the last four seasons.
“We’ve had high expectations from the beginning. Some would say they’re almost too high,” said Moy, a Nashville Predators draft pick. “We kind of joke about it. We have a goal list in our locker room. You look at the list and if you said at the beginning of the year we’d hit all of them, you might think we’re a little crazy. But you see red check mark after red check mark.
“It’s been a pretty cool experience so far. We’ve tried to soak it up, hold each other accountable.”
Often through the years, said, Donato, he experienced teams which preferred not to set goals. The fear of failure, he said, kept them from identifying their dream.
“But this group had the courage to say, ‘Hey, no, this is what we need, this is what we’re going to do, and this is what we’re going to get.’ That’s been fun to see for them,” he said.
La Reau, who now lives in Scituate, said he has come away from it all with a deeper appreciation of the sport, adding that he is “super proud” of what they have accomplished this year.
“You see the commitment among the players,” he said. “The overall focus is the culture, the culture of Harvard hockey, and the values they stand for is really something for them to be proud of.”