Harvard hockey was in the fast lane when he was on the team. And no one was faster than Lane MacDonald, who led the Crimson to the 1989 national championship.
When Lane MacDonald was a high school senior in Wisconsin in 1985, more than one Ivy League coach wondered how to lure him away from the many Midwestern men's ice hockey powerhouses close to home. Harvard coach Bill Cleary couldn't have known that a Crimson alumnus already had recruited Lane years earlier.
Smart, athletic and possessed of a great hockey pedigree (his father, Lowell, had been an NHL player), MacDonald was viewed as the kind of player could lead a team to an NCAA championship. But a family evening a few years earlier already had started him on the road to Cambridge. Harvard grad Bob McManama, a teammate of his father on the Pittsburgh Penguins whom Cleary had coached, had come to dinner -- and Lane's parents' comments about McManama's having attended Harvard had left an enduring impression on him.
MacDonald's parents continued to emphasize academics throughout his childhood, insisting that when he chose a college it would be superior academics, not hockey, that would be the most important factor. The Ivy League thus was a natural draw for MacDonald, and while he was interested in more than one school, he ultimately remained true to his earlier impression and chose to attend Harvard.
That proved to be a history-making decision for the Crimson, as MacDonald had a story-book career at Harvard, graduating with four school scoring records (including career goals), and ranking in the top five in 11 different statistical categories. He was twice named a first-team All-American, played on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, and in his senior year in 1989, won collegiate hockey's highest individual accolade, the Hobey Baker Memorial Trophy (he remains the most recent Ivy Leaguer winner). The Baker award capped a spectacular season in which MacDonald captained the Crimson skaters to Harvard's first national championship in any team sport.
What made MacDonald such a special player? Coach Bill Cleary cites his combination of skill, speed and extraordinary skating ability. "He is the best skater I've ever coached -- effortless and graceful, with great speed. How fast was Lane? One gear faster than anyone who wanted to catch him." With Macdonald's ability to pass, handle the puck and finish plays, he was truly the complete player.
But for many great athletes, it's the intangible qualities that often are decisive. MacDonald had a toughness that belied his quiet demeanor, and that he would need to rely upon more than outsiders would know. As a high school hockey player and football player, MacDonald had taken a number of blows to the head, and during his college career he was plagued by repeated concussions and frequent migraines. During his amazing senior year, the pain and the risk of doing more damage to his health brought him to the verge of walking away from hockey.
Three years before, the Harvard team, led by 1986 Hobey Baker winner Scott Fusco, had come all the way to the national championship game, taking a lead into the final period. But Fusco had been injured in the semi-final game and wasn't on the ice for the Crimson in the finals. Without its star, Harvard had been unable to hold on, and Michigan State came from behind to win the national title.
Now in 1988-89, MacDonald's loyalty to his team and his sense of responsibility as captain, his desire to win an NCAA championship for Bill Cleary, and the conviction that a championship was within the team's capabilities all made it impossible for him not to play. As MacDonald remembers, "Winning was fantastic on so many levels. That season the expectation was there that we could win so there was great joy but also relief. It was important for Harvard, but also symbolically as it showed that one can achieve at the highest levels both academically and athletically."
MacDonald wanted to continue playing hockey after college, and hoped to return to the Winter Olympic Games in 1992. Conceding that his history of concussions made it risky to play in the NHL, he decided to try playing professional hockey in Switzerland. But the pain from old injuries, and the risk of new ones, had robbed him of the joy in playing.
"I had almost had to stop as far back as the Olympic year [in 1988,] so when I went to Switzerland I knew that I was playing on borrowed time." His decision to retire from competitive hockey, made after several months of playing, actually came as a relief.
Returning to the U.S., MacDonald spent a year coaching at Harvard before putting his Economics degree to work -- first in investment banking and then by earning his MBA at Stanford. He is now a General Partner with Alta Communications, a private equity firm that deals primarily with investing in media companies. He and his wife Wendy, a Cornell alumna, have three children and live in the Greater Boston area.
MacDonald still plays hockey weekly at his old skating grounds, Bright Arena at Harvard, with a group of Harvard alumni and other former players, including some Crimson teammates and, until several years ago, Coach Cleary ? who says that MacDonald still his head-turning speed.
"Those young guys just shake their heads. He can still skate by them. What I always loved about him is that he played the game the right way: Skill over roughness, even when he was a target out there. I always told him, 'Lane, they gotta catch you before they can hit you.'"
Apparently Lane MacDonald is still one gear faster than everyone else.
Ed. note: MacDonald's coach at Harvard, Bill Cleary, is a hockey legend. As a player at Harvard, Cleary set an NCAA record for scoring, and then was a leader on the U.S. gold-medal team in the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. Cleary became Harvard's head coach in 1971, amassing 324 wins and the 1989 national title before becoming the Crimson's Director of Athletics. MacDonald's teammates during his four years included two other historic Crimson skaters: current Harvard head coach Ted Donato, a 13-season National Hockey League veteran who won the 2006 Ivy and ECAC Championships, and 1986 Hobey Baker winner Scott Fusco, whose brother Mark also won the Baker award for Harvard in 1983.
— Meredith Rainey Valmon