Much has changed since Cooney Weiland entered a Harvard hockey practice 21 seasons ago. "When I arrived, everyone on the ice had a puck. Well, the first thing I said was that we'd only use one puck in a game. It's too confusing, and, besides that, it's illegal."
Weiland stepped down as head coach of the Crimson after the NCAA championships in Syracuse. At that tournament, Weiland experienced what will be a recurring phenomenon in the coming weeks: an awards ceremony in his honor.
In this instance it was the American Hockey Coaches Association presenting him with its "Coach of the Year" Award. Leaving the game after such a long and outstanding record, Weiland has given Harvard much in exchange for these awards.
"When I came, there wasn't any rink," he recalled. "Families used to have to drive their boys over to the Arena around six or seven in the morning."
Asking an awful lot of the players? "We were glad to accept what the Arena offered. They say all those great artists had to suffer a hit to do their work. Well, we had to work hard. too."
The free-for-all in pucks on the ice was symbolic of the philosophy of the team. "Everyone was puck conscious," Weiland said. "They took whatever they could get. and there wasn't much of a system. All they could think about was getting the puck from behind their own net and ending up at the other end with the little red light glowing."
Weiland, himself a former NHL forward, didn't want to underestimate the importance of the line. "The center is the conductor of the play. He has to direct traffic, move the puck, and keep a lookout of each corner of his eye to see if the wings are making a faux pas. It's his center ice work that decides whether you score."
"He's an unusual little guy, the center," Weiland said. Then he stopped and gave a big grin. "I, of course, was a center forward."
But Weiland went on to say that the continual emphasis on offense and attack with the puck is the major downfall of American hockey. "Throwing caution to the wind is the style here, but you can't shoot the puck until you know how to take it away from someone. And the puck doesn't do you any good until you know how to skate up the ice."
Weiland went beyond calling defense the key to winning hockey games. "Defense is the noble thing. That's the hard work, the challenge of stopping a faster skater with the puck."
Defense has changed the most since 1950. he said. "When I started, defensemen were the big guys who couldn't skate. They'd just look for a floater when they got the puck."
"Now you put your most agile player at defense so that he can get the play down the ice. There may come a day when they put the biggest guys on the line and the fastest guys on defense."
Weiland also spoke of the importance of using the puck once you have it, much like soccer players speak of making a finesse with the ball before passing. "Some defensemen are trained to get rid of the puck the second they touch it. If they have to keep it, they don't know what it looks like let alone how to control it."
"You have to learn to get a hold of a puck, learn how it feels and what you can do with it. These 75 foot passes from behind the net are shooting for the impossible."
Weiland saw that his role as coach had changed quite a bit during his career. "When we practiced on the first open rink here, it was a lot just to get the boys to brave mother nature. With the wind coming off Soldiers' Field, it was great going in one direction," he said.
Now Weiland sees himself as a warning voice but not a threat to lackadaisical players. "You can't be a tutor to a team. You know the saying, 'He who can, but doesn't know that he can needs help.' Well, he who can, and knows that he can, and still doesn't, he's asleep."
In looking at trends in hockey today, Weiland said that the major change in the future of hockey must be a curtailment of violence. They took out body-checking, and that was a good move. Now they have to make players keep their stick on the ice, that's where the game is played. If you've got your stick up, you're playing lacrosse."
But Weiland said that adding another referee. wasn't the solution. "Keep it from being a war out there, but you can't have divided authority. A referee is a fellow with a gift. It takes years to make a whistle-blower an authority."
Where do you go after 50 years in hockey? "Oh, I'm not through," Weiland said. "I'll keep oar [Orr?] in the game. I've been thinking of writing a book, about all the different people that I've known and a lot of funny little incidents." Then he leaned back and smiled. "Oh, they're all doing it these days," he said. "but I know at least I'd like to read it."