February 7, 2011

Has the Beanpot lost its luster?

BOSTON UNIVERSITY: The Terriers have dominated with a record 29 Beanpots, including 12 of the past 16. (photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

It was one of the best Beanpot games of the TD Garden era, and if someone tells you he was there to see the ending, he’s probably lying.

Thirteen years ago this month, a smattering of hockey fans — mostly students from Boston College — stayed up past midnight to watch Harvard’s Chris Bala complete a comeback for the ages and drive an overtime stake through maroon-and-gold hearts.

The Crimson were Beanpot afterthoughts in 1998, the only one of the four participants who came in below .500. Their starting goalie, J.R. Prestifilippo, was out with mono. Embattled coach Ronn Tomassoni would resign a little over a year later. But after falling behind nationally ranked BC in the opening round, 3-0, they improbably battled all the way back, tying the game with 26 seconds left in regulation when defenseman Ben Storey scored on a shot through a screen.

Bala, a freshman, was the hero in overtime, scoring a little less than three minutes in for a 5-4 win. Later, an old ballcap perched on his head, he got to relive the moment for a handful of writers who were long past newspaper deadlines and without websites to rush off and update.

“We were the darlings that week,” recalled Bala, who went on to a six-year pro career and is now the assistant admissions director at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., his alma mater. “It’s still one of the top personal highlights of my career.”

It was the kind of dramatic, unscripted and unpredictable finish that had Beanpot enthusiasts looking around the almost-empty building and reassuring themselves that, no, there wasn’t any reason to worry about the future of this parochial, midwinter gathering that’s captured the fancy of students, alumni and hockey fans going back to 1952.

So what if the new building, opened barely two years earlier, seemed sterile by comparison. Or that the crowds were arriving later and leaving earlier. Or that BU, in the middle of a six-year reign, was unapologetically — some might say boringly — turning the first two Mondays in February into its own showcase.

As the puck drops this month on the 59th Beanpot, and the fan bases from BU, BC, Harvard and Northeastern mobilize at the Garden, there are genuine weeds that began growing their roots back in the late ’90s. Though every Beanpot session since 1996 — except one, the 2000 final between BU and BC — has been a sellout, one issue is the crowd, especially in the first round.

“There’s been a tendency to have people in the building that aren’t diehard hockey fans of the schools,” said longtime BU coach Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.), comparing the first night of the Beanpot to the Red Sox home opener at Fenway. “They show up and watch three periods — the last period of the first game and the first two periods of the next game.”

Northeastern coach Greg Cronin (Arlington, Mass.) has found himself having to defend the excitement of the event to fans whose entry point is the 5 p.m. game on the first Monday.

“I have a house up in Kennebunk, Maine, and the local Sunoco station is owned by a guy I know,” said Cronin. “He brought a guy down to the Beanpot who had played for BU in the mid-’70s. He took him down for our game last year (a 2-1 loss to BU) and that was the dynamic.

“Like a lot of big sporting events, the Beanpot has taken on a corporate feel.”

By the time the second Monday of February rolls around and there’s a title on the line, the atmosphere is more charged. The focus is all hockey. But most agree something needs to be done about opening night.

“It’s become progressively worse, but it started 10 years ago, maybe longer,” Parker said.

* * *

What those fans have seen on opening night the past 15 years has rarely varied: one-sided wins by BU and BC, unless the two titans are playing each other, which the rotation dictates every three years.

Since 1994, the 17 championships have all been won by BU (12) and BC (five). In that span, Northeastern is 5-12 in its openers, with four of those wins coming against Harvard. The Crimson are 3-14 in openers, twice nicking BC, but seem to be playing in front of fewer and fewer supporters each year.

“The Harvard crowd has shown it’s not as big a deal for them,” Parker said. “Northeastern shows up more and more. It means a lot to them.”

Longtime followers draw comparisons to the period before 1980 when Northeastern was the odd team out, never having won a title and rarely even reaching the final. But the Huskies were magical that year. Wayne Turner’s overtime Beanpot winner against BC is the one that became part of the lore, but it was John Montgomery’s overtime goal against nemesis BU in the first round that was just as big, a huge upset that clinched a rare trip to the final.

The Huskies were able to parlay that momentum, following up their first title with others in 1984, ’85 and ’88 behind players such as Rod Isbister and Bruce Racine.

“The thing that happened with Northeastern was the best thing that happened for the tournament,” said former BU goalie and assistant coach Brian Durocher (Longmeadow, Mass.), who played in the late ’70s and now coaches the school’s women’s team. “It really started to make the tournament more of a three- to four-team competition. By the time you got to the end of the ’80s, it seemed like anybody’s tournament.”

Parker, who played on three Beanpot winners as a BU player in the 1960s — freshmen back then not being eligible to play on varsity teams — knows what winning a title can mean to a team. But he also knows winning so many of them hasn’t been the best thing for this tournament.

“The fact that BU has won it so many times, and now BU and BC — that’s got to change,” Parker said. “I want to win the Beanpot this year. But if we can’t win, I hope Harvard or Northeastern do. It will be good to make it a four-team tournament again.”

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Durocher said. “I think it needs something like that. One win could make the kids at Northeastern or Harvard think they could win two or three in a decade.”

* * *

His team a competitive 4-2 loser to BU in the 1997 final, his program still in the foothills of its eventual rise to national prominence, BC coach Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) gave the new TD Garden — then the FleetCenter — the plug it so desperately wanted.

“I thought the building sounded pretty good tonight,” York said.

For Boston hockey fans, the autumn 1995 move from the rustic, cramped, sweaty old Garden to the shiny, spacious, modern arena built adjacent to it, was a seminal moment, just like Bobby Orr’s airborne Cup clincher in 1970; the Bruins finally shedding the Canadiens in the 1988 playoffs; and Ted Donato (Dedham, Mass.), Lane MacDonald and Harvard capping their 1989 dream season with a celebration along the see-through dasher boards in St. Paul, Minn.

The hope was that all the edge and energy from the old Garden could be transferred to the new building without losing too much of the character. Looking back, that may have been unrealistic, as the old Garden was all about character.

“When I was going to the Garden in the ’70s,” Cronin said, “it was scrape, punch, kick and claw to get in there, and then it was like that inside. You were holding onto your father’s leg for dear life.”

“I think it was a big change,” Parker said. “Certain buildings had a flair to them that couldn’t be matched. The old Garden was so unique. The new Garden is so much more comfortable. You can walk down the corridors without falling out of your shoes because they’re sticking to the floor.”

Not that there haven’t been memorable Beanpot moments in the new Garden — Bala’s heroics in 1998; freshman Nick Gillis winning the tournament for BU in overtime that year; Krys Kolanos and BC finally ending the Terriers’ six-year reign in 2001; and Northeastern coming within an overtime goal of a long-overdue championship in 2005.

“The older guys on the team talked about the atmosphere,” Bala said. “The FleetCenter was a corporate feeling versus the Garden’s charm and intimacy and all the blocked views.”

After Harvard, Bala went on to a pro career that saw him suit up six times for the Ottawa Senators and the play the bulk of three seasons in the AHL before retiring. He’s also an assistant hockey coach at the Hill School; the head coach is former BC player Matt Mulhern, who is two years older. The two are planning to drive up for the Beanpot’s first round this year, likely trading stories all the way.

“While they had way more success against us than we had against them in our careers, I at least have that one game to hold over his head,” Bala said.

Nobody around here would argue the Beanpot’s relevance. For one, it’s a championship to win, in the heart of conference play, when the March finish lines aren’t visible, blurred by snow and grind. Each of the last three champions — BC, BU and BC — has gone on to win the NCAA championship.

Can it be improved? Sure. Will it ever be duplicated? No chance.

“You can’t replicate it,” Cronin said. “You just can’t do it. The history of the tournament, the neighborhood proximity of the schools … it just makes it very unique.”

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com