Jan 27, 2023

‘A culture of complete fear’: Harvard women’s hockey coach Katey Stone under fire for alleged abusive behavior

Bob Hohler
Boston Globe
January 27, 2023

Katey Stone’s 26th season as the Harvard women’s ice hockey coach, brimming with promise most of the way, suddenly was sinking — and Stone’s anger was rising.

Her 2021-22 team, champions of the Ivy League and ECAC regular seasons, had entered the regional ECAC playoffs as the top seed, only to be upended in the first round by a mediocre Princeton rival.

As the Crimson skated through a subpar practice before the ultimate challenge, the NCAA tournament, Stone’s whistle shrieked. She abruptly curtailed the practice, profanely ordered everyone to the locker room, then stood before her players, two of whom proudly identified as North Americans of Indigenous descent.

In an outburst that witnesses described as degrading and dispiriting, Stone accused the players she had recruited of showing her too little respect and devolving into a collection of skaters “with too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”

Maryna Macdonald, a junior starting defenseman from the Ditidaht First Nation of Canada’s Vancouver Island, said Stone looked her in the eye when she made the remark.

“I had learned to navigate a lot of her toxic environment,” Macdonald said. “But now she was disrespecting me and my family and my heritage in front of everybody.”

Macdonald has since left the team, as has Taze Thompson, the 2021-22 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, who is descended from the Cree Nation of Alberta, Canada. Sydney Daniels, an assistant coach who had captained the 2016-17 Harvard team and is a member of the Mistawasis Nehiyawak First Nation of Saskatchewan, also abruptly departed before suing Harvard for alleged racial and other forms of discrimination related to Stone and the athletic department. Harvard has until Feb. 8 to respond to the complaint.

Stone’s tirade led to a review by the university, which decided to retain her as head coach, and triggered a backlash that continues to reverberate among former players who say Stone has emotionally damaged them, all while she has established herself as one of the most renowned coaches in the history of women’s ice hockey.

Sixteen of Stone’s former players told the Globe they fault Harvard for keeping her on the job despite numerous complaints about her alleged abusive coaching practices. Macdonald and Thompson are among 14 recruited players who have left Stone’s program since 2016, including three this season.

Stone declined to comment, as did Harvard athletic director Erin McDermott and the university.

Stone, in a letter e-mailed to her current team after being contacted by the Globe about this story, wrote, “This year, I have made it a priority to acknowledge and respond to direct feedback from the women in my program about my coaching style, and make a concerted effort to better support my players’ experiences.”

McDermott forwarded Stone’s letter to hundreds of former Harvard women’s hockey players, about 45 of whom then sent the Globe a letter supporting her.

Stone’s supporters, in interviews and e-mails, effusively praised her for developing them as students, athletes, teammates, and leaders. They called her kind, caring, and swift to respond to personal crises and tragedies.

“Harvard hockey is just short of holy to me, and that’s because of Coach Stone,” said Lauren McAuliffe, Class of 2004, a former captain who later served as an interim head coach at Northeastern. “It wasn’t just the four years I was there. It impacts me almost every day.”

Categories of complaints

Stone, 56, built the Harvard program into a national power after she took over in 1994. She has coached 24 All-Americans, 15 Olympians, and six winners of the Patty Kazmaier Award, the top individual honor in collegiate women’s hockey. The letter supporting her was signed by eight of those players, including Julie Chu, a four-time Olympic medalist, three-time All-American, and Kazmaier winner.

“I had a very positive experience playing for Coach Stone,” Chu said. “I felt very accepted for who I was as an Asian American and also as someone who was figuring out how to come out as gay to family and friends during my university time.”

The former players who detailed alleged abusive treatment by Stone represent a cross-section of backgrounds and skill levels: captains, marginal players, standouts who played professionally, players from elite private schools with family connections to Harvard, and players such as Macdonald with no ties at all. Their careers with Stone spanned nearly 25 years, and most asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from her supporters, the university, and its powerful alumni network.

Several former players said McDermott, while addressing the team after Stone’s outburst, said a 2019 survey of players commissioned by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences ranked the women’s hockey team last among the university’s 42 varsity sports programs in the quality of its student-athletes’ experiences.

“It’s a culture of complete fear when it comes to [Stone],” said Ali Peper, a captain of the 2019-20 Harvard team. “There is clearly a way to coach without making people hate their lives.”

By many accounts, Stone has created an environment — she calls it a “meritocracy” — that values talent, toughness, obedience, and a team-first ethic that generally prioritizes hockey over the rigors of Harvard academics.

‘“There is clearly a way to coach without making people hate their lives.”’

Her critics say she accommodates her favored players while mistreating others, creating fragile and sometimes fractured team dynamics. They detailed a litany of complaints, many of which they said they have shared with Harvard administrators to little or no avail. The complaints fall into seven broad categories:

  • Negative motivation. Each of the 16 former players said Stone denigrated them or their teammates in ways that made them demoralized, anxious, confused, or seeking mental health support. “Winning and fostering a supportive, non-toxic environment are not mutually exclusive,” said Chloe Ashton, a junior forward who left the team in December. “The best coaches produce good results by inspiring athletes physically and mentally. Unfortunately, that was not my experience in the Harvard women’s hockey program.”
  • Insensitivity to mental health issues. Stone was described by numerous former players as having little tolerance for those confronting emotional challenges. A former team leader who requested anonymity said that when Stone learned she was receiving mental health care, the coach told her, “You need to toughen up and not be a burden to your teammates.”
  • Pressure to return from concussions and other injuries. Several players said Stone downplayed the severity of their traumatic brain injuries or other physical ailments by pressuring them to return too soon or to play through excessive pain. Peper said Stone pushed her to play with a badly damaged hip that ultimately required surgery. “I will never forget the fear I lived in and the physical pain from injuries that were pushed past their breaking point as a result of the environment fostered by Coach Stone,” she said.
  • Body shaming. Several players reported developing eating disorders after Stone harshly criticized their physiques as too thin or too heavy.
  • Adverse influence on academics. Former players said Stone negatively impacted their educational goals in various ways, including advising them to take easier courses, to drop second majors, and to prioritize hockey practices over conflicting lab sessions and other class assignments.
  • Contradictory disciplinary standards. Former team members said Stone cut one player for a drinking infraction, then gave her a second chance, permitting her to train with the team for several months, only to cut her again. Yet when several seniors reported to Stone that one of her favored players had driven drunk and run a red light on Memorial Drive, the coach accused them of betraying the player and imposed no discipline, they said.
  • Hazing. As long ago as 2000 and as recently as 2016, Stone’s first-year players were subjected to initiation practices that included mandatory costume-wearing across campus, forced alcohol drinking, and role playing with sexual overtones, according to personal accounts shared with the Globe. “It made me feel extremely uncomfortable, and that feeling never really left,” a player from the 2016-17 team said.

The player reported the hazing and other concerns about Stone to Harvard in a signed survey document circulated by the school, she said, but she never heard from anyone in the administration.

“I thought that if I reported an illegal activity, someone would have reached out to me,” she said.

No one alleged that Stone was directly involved in hazing, but anti-hazing specialists say coaches are responsible for protecting student-athletes in their programs from bullying and hazing.

Stone’s supporters pushed back against most of the complaints, including her response to their emotional issues, academic challenges, and injuries.

“People are angry and really upset by this,” McAuliffe said. “I hope I’m clear that I really do question the motivation and what the impetus for these kids is. It feels petty and vengeful to me.”

Dr. A. Holly Johnson, Class of 1996, a former captain who served as team physician for the US Olympic women’s hockey team that Stone coached in 2014, said, “I don’t know the allegations against Katey, but what I do know is that as women working in a male-dominated field, we are held to a different standard.”

Johnson described Stone as a close friend and mentor, a passionate advocate for her players, a gifted motivator, and an honorable leader she hopes her daughter will play for one day.

Peper, the former team captain, said that she, too, values the friends and memories she made in the program. But there are painful memories, too.

“I will always cherish my time at Harvard,” she said. “But it was not without its physical and emotional scars. It saddens me that other young women were subjected to this culture long before I arrived, and its persistence is not fair to future Harvard players.”

Falling short in finals

Stone’s rise to prominence at Harvard began with her winning a national title in the American Women’s College Hockey Alliance in 1999. She has since qualified for 12 NCAA tournaments and reached the championship game four times, although she has yet to win an NCAA title and has advanced to the final only once in the last 17 years.

In 2010, when she became the career leader in victories in college women’s hockey at the time, Harvard quoted Stone as saying, “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t important. I’m a very competitive person. I want to be the best.”

Which is why her most prestigious moment in the international arena ended so painfully in 2014. As the first female coach of a US Olympic hockey team, Stone guided the Americans to the gold medal game in Sochi, only for her team to squander a two-goal lead with less than four minutes to play and lose, 3-2, in overtime to Canada.

The crushing finish was not unfamiliar to Stone, whose Harvard teams had lost three straight NCAA title games from 2003-05.

“The sting doesn’t go away,” she told reporters in Sochi.

Last February, her team was collapsing again in the ECAC playoffs after a regular season that earned her Ivy League Coach of the Year honors. Morale sank as Stone tried to root out what she described as unspecified players causing internal problems, according to several team members.

“We were all looking around thinking we don’t have issues here,” Macdonald said. “But when the coach says you have issues, then issues arise.”

Then came Stone’s ethnic comment, which Macdonald reported to the athletic department. Within hours of Macdonald’s report, Stone apologized to the team, but morale remained low, and the Crimson were no match for Minnesota-Duluth in their final game of the season, a 4-0 loss in the NCAA tourney’s opening round.

The administrative review ensued. Players were interviewed, some sharply criticizing Stone, others offering support, according to team members. Nearly six months later, the review ended with an e-mail from McDermott to the team.

“Most importantly, I want you to know that Coach Stone is our head coach and will remain our head coach,” McDermott wrote. “The findings of the review affirm that decision while also identifying opportunities for improvement, particularly with communication across several areas.”

Three days after McDermott’s letter, Northeastern announced that Thompson, the daughter of former NHL player Rocky Thompson, was transferring to play for the Huskies, a stunning move for a Harvard student-athlete.

Nearly every other player who has left Stone’s team since 2016 has remained as a student at Harvard.

Thompson, who in 2021 was named the Harvard team’s top scholar as a member of the ECAC’s All-Academic team, declined to comment. In 2022, the entire Harvard team received ECAC All-Academic honors for earning grade-point averages of at least 3.0.

Thompson is now a key contributor on a Northeastern team ranked first in Hockey East and fifth nationally at 23-2-1. Stone’s current team is 6-12-3.

Daniels, the former captain and assistant coach who cut ties with the Harvard program after the ethnic remark, now scouts for the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets. She declined to comment.

Another member of the 2021-22 team said she would not discredit anyone else’s experience with Stone but said hers was entirely positive.

“We all struggle in our own ways throughout our Harvard hockey careers, as any Division 1 athlete really does,” she said. “Coach is definitely hard on us. She asks a lot of us, and those demands can sometimes seem too high, but those demands helped shape me into a better person, 100 percent.”

Last straw for this player

In Macdonald’s case, it was no secret on campus before Stone’s “too many chiefs” statement that her heritage was central to her identity. The Harvard Gazette published a story in 2020 that cited Macdonald’s Indigenous roots, including her grandmother enduring the forcible removal by the Canadian government of her and other Indigenous children from their homes into residential schools. The goal was to assimilate them into white culture.

A Canadian national commission has described the forced removals as cultural “genocide.”

“The legacy of that trauma has really impacted my family,” Macdonald told the Globe. “I try to honor every day how much my ancestors went through for me to be able to go to a place like Harvard.”

She remains close to her grandmother, and she often volunteers to help her mother, who is the principal of the All First Nations Haahuupayak Elementary School on Vancouver Island.

At Harvard, Macdonald enlisted her hockey teammates to participate in Orange Shirt Day, which recognizes survivors of the residential schools. She also raised awareness about the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women by posting on social media an image of a red handprint across a woman’s mouth — a symbol of the movement — each time she scored a goal.

But Macdonald said she felt ill-treated by Stone almost from the start, in part for minimizing her traumatic brain injury.

Stone accompanied Macdonald in an ambulance after she was knocked unconscious in a game at the University of New Hampshire just before Christmas break of her freshman season. But when Macdonald returned from break 10 days later, still suffering from severe concussion symptoms and not cleared for hockey activities, she missed the morning session of the team’s first two-a-day practices, and Stone was furious.

“She never asked why I was late,” Macdonald said. “She just ripped me apart, said I was selfish and a disgrace to the program, that I didn’t deserve to wear the jersey.”

Stone’s sharp reprimand sent Macdonald into an emotional tailspin, she said, in which she contemplated suicide. Later, she said, Stone claimed to have forgotten about her concussion at the time of the rebuke.

Still, Macdonald said, Stone continued to single her out for ridicule, as she did last February when Macdonald arrived late from physical therapy to a team video session, and Stone began clapping and chanting, “I hate Mac,” encouraging her teammates to join in.

“It was strange and sad,” one of Macdonald’s teammates said.

When the university ended its review by keeping Stone’s job intact, Macdonald formally quit the team. She is due to graduate from Harvard in May, with an eye toward attending law school and with a year of intercollegiate hockey eligibility remaining.

“I still valued my teammates and wanted to keep playing with them,” Macdonald said. “But this program needs to heal and move forward, and that can’t happen without new leadership.”

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