February 4, 2013

From NEHJ: Bean there, done that

By Andrew Merritt

The Huskies celebrate their 1985 Beanpot title. (Photo: Northeastern University)

Admittedly, it’s one of those ideas that could get you kicked out of a Boston sports bar.

Is it time to change the Beanpot?

Bear with us, here.

For the past 61 years, Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern have met in a two-leg battle for a squat little trophy that’s barely big enough to hold with two hands, but one with a history and following that fills the biggest arena in the region. And for all but 14 of those years, the team that has passed the Beanpot around in celebration has been Boston University or Boston College.

On Feb. 8, 1993, tournament MVP Ted Drury (Trumbull, Conn.) led Harvard to its 10th Beanpot title, as the Crimson beat BU, 4-2, at the old Boston Garden. In the 20 years since that day, the old Garden has been replaced by the new one, and BU and BC have won every Beanpot title.

The Beanpot dominance by the Terriers and Eagles is hardly a revelation — for many years, the tournament jokingly was called “The BU Invitational,” because the Terriers have won 29 of the 60 tournament titles. In fact, the only recent change in the script is that the ’Pot lately has belonged to the boys in maroon and gold, not scarlet and white, with BC winning the past three titles and four of the past five.

Since Harvard’s 1993 win, the Terriers have won 12 titles and the Eagles have taken the remaining seven. The tournament has in some years felt a little stale, punctuated by the regular sight of BU or BC parading around the Garden ice with the trophy, while Northeastern and Harvard fans trudge dejectedly into the February cold, half-heartedly proclaiming, “Wait ’til next year.”

It wasn’t always this way. Harvard won the first tournament in 1952 — before it had even picked up the “Beanpot” name — and took two of the first three titles. The Crimson won it every few years over the ensuing two decades. Northeastern finally won its first in 1980, and picked up three more before the decade was out. But the last Husky to raise the Beanpot did it in 1988, and Harvard’s luck has run dry since Drury’s boys won in 1993. The 19 years since mark the longest stretch in tournament history that neither Harvard nor Northeastern has won.

BC’s Tommy Cross hoists the 2012 hardware aloft for Eagles fans. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

Ultimately, the Beanpot is a bit of an anachronism. When it started, it was simply a way to get the Garden a few more nights of paid attendance. It’s the only college hockey tournament in the country with the same four teams playing every year, and it’s the only one with its peculiar schedule, which was implemented in 1958. 

It also got its start at a time when college hockey was a much smaller universe, and the Northeast was its undisputed capital. The ECAC in 1962 was a 28-team behemoth that included essentially every hockey-playing school east of the Mississippi. Now, the game has grown across the country, with 59 teams competing in Division 1, the ECAC one of five major men’s conferences, and Harvard the only Beanpot school still among the ECAC ranks.

Since it started, the Beanpot grew in popularity to the point where it wasn’t just a midwinter athletic diversion, but a social event and alumni reunion rolled into one, highlighted by some really exciting hockey. It had a ready-made spot in the New England sports consciousness, coming during that dead period between the end of the football season and the first days of Red Sox spring training.

But a funny thing has happened over the past decade: The New England Patriots seem to always be playing meaningful games in January and, in six of the past 11 years, February, too. The Bruins made their Stanley Cup run two years ago, and the Celtics also have enjoyed a renaissance after years in the doldrums. Meanwhile, Red Sox fever has only grown as the team finally ended its World Series drought, and the talk about the upcoming season starts ever earlier.

All of those pro successes have pushed the Beanpot out of the spotlight in some years.

“It’s been much harder to get coverage these days, especially the last few years with the Patriots being very strong, Red Sox pitchers and catchers reporting, the Bruins two years ago, the Celtics in 2008,” said Steve Nazro, who as the Garden’s vice president of events gets to hand the Beanpot, tournament MVP and Eberly (goaltending) trophies out each February. “There’s lots of stuff going on, and it’s harder and harder to get a foothold in the media. I think that’s one of the issues.”

So, back to our question: Is it time to change Boston’s beloved midseason college hockey tournament, or would that be tantamount to painting the State House dome purple and tearing down Fenway Park’s left-field wall?

While you imagine a world without the Green Monster, let’s look at some options.

Add an at-large?

BU’s Kieran Millan was the tourney’s top goalie last season but couldn’t wrest the ’Pot from BC. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

If the biggest problem with the Beanpot is a lack of parity, then the simplest solution is changing the lineup. Perhaps the injection of a New Hampshire, Providence or UMass might change the look of the tournament. You also could follow the lead of the Great Lakes Invitational, which traditionally features Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and an at-large team brought in on a one-year invite.

One idea we kicked around here at the New England Hockey Journal was to resurrect the old Governor’s Cup tournament between UNH, Maine, Vermont and UMass-Lowell, and each year’s winner gets to replace the Beanpot consolation game loser in the following year’s tournament.

“That’s sort of like the British soccer model, and I have paid attention to that, but I think you’d be hard pressed to say to one of the schools, we’re moving you out after four years,” Nazro said.

Besides, if it’s not the four Division 1 schools within the Boston-Cambridge-Chestnut Hill triangle, it’s not really a Boston tournament anymore, and the drama and camaraderie of the Beanpot always has been predicated at least partly on the four schools’ proximity to one another.

Shift to Fenway?

So if we’re not touching the lineup, what about the location? Would another BC-BU Beanpot final be a little more compelling if it were played, say, at Fenway Park? Possibly, but ultimately that gimmick would lose its novelty quickly, and we’d probably end up right back where we are now.

Besides, the Beanpot has long been synonymous with “the Garden,” whether “Boston” or “TD” is in front of the title.

“For the Garden, it’s one of our jewels,” Nazro said. “It’s one of those things that employees and suite holders, that’s one of the reasons they’re here. I don’t think that would have any traction whatsoever.”

If it ain’t broke ...

Coach Ted Donato won the Beanpot as a player for Harvard in 1989. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

And is the tournament really in trouble after all? Last year’s final was a sellout, and NESN two years ago agreed to a five-year extension of its broadcasting rights for the tournament. Nazro said the network has been happy with its Beanpot ratings each year.

“They’ve given us great support, the commercials (that run during the broadcast) are for quality products,” he said. “I don’t see their numbers, but when they talk to me, they’re very upbeat about the event. They don’t come to me and say, ‘You need to change this, you need to put Tufts in,’ or anything like that.”

In the end, the Beanpot still is an immensely popular piece of midwinter entertainment, regardless of how little the script seems to change each year. But that doesn’t mean the two teams who have been left out in the cold are content to go along for the ride.

“I think when I look back at when the Beanpot had luster, it was when all four schools had a chance to win it,” said Northeastern coach Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.), who won two Beanpots (1984 and ’85) as a Huskies player. “In the ’80s and early ’90s, you went into that building and all four teams had a chance to win. What needs to change is Harvard and Northeastern have to win the thing.”

Harvard coach Ted Donato (Dedham, Mass.) also won the Beanpot as a Crimson player in 1989. He said regardless of Harvard’s title drought, the tournament is a highlight on the calendar each year.

“It’s certainly a draw for the players. I think they get excited about it; it’s a great opportunity to play at the Boston Garden, to play on TV and be treated like a pro for a night,” Donato said. “It’s an exciting environment and an exciting experience. When we’ve been fortunate enough to make it to the finals, it’s been added enjoyment and exposure, and we’d like to push ourselves over the top and win it.”

Though Donato agreed a Harvard or Northeastern win would add some intrigue to the tournament, “the tournament’s always exciting.

“There’s no question that BU has over the years been the most outstanding team, and BC more recently has been very outstanding. Northeastern and Harvard would both like to win the Beanpot and have the chance to celebrate a local championship.”

The reality, it seems, is this: The Beanpot still works, even if it feels like you can already start writing “Boston …” in the entry for this year’s champion before the first Monday in February. And while it could use a dose of parity for the sake of making that second Monday night a little more interesting, the “same old, same old” is part of the reason it’s such a beloved part of the Boston sports calendar.

Besides, there’s a glimmer of hope for Northeastern and Harvard — last year, Michigan Tech won the Great Lakes Invitational for the first time in 32 years, marking the end of a drought that was even longer than what the Huskies and Crimson have endured.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
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