"If a few pucks had bounced a little differently..."
Crimson hockey coach Billy Cleary doesn't like alibis ("Excuses are for losers") but he couldn't discuss the past season without slipping in a line or two about the breaks of the game.
A few bad breaks this season prevented Harvard from going to the NCAA finals and kept the Crimson from possessing the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference crown.
But while the fans might dwell on that bouncing puck that slipped between the goaltender's legs, the muffed shot or the errant clearing pass, Cleary and his kids can look back and remember a good season. As Cleary is fond of saying, "We accomplished an awful lot of things that other Harvard teams haven't done."
Those accomplishments include back-to-back wins at Clarkson and St. Lawrence, a Beanpot win during exams, the Beanpot trophy, a big victory at Cornell, the Ivy League title, the number-two seed in the ECAC tournament after a rough season start and a trip to the NCAAs.
The record, 17-11-1, doesn't look as impressive as last season's 17-4-1 mark, but last year's squad could not boast any of the above except the same ECAC seed. A lot of good the 1973 seed did. The icemen choked in the opener of the tourney against Clarkson and ended the season a lot earlier than this year's team did.
The players of a year ago started out strong as expected, winning everything in sight (except the Cornell game) and frequently finding themselves at the top of the national polls. That was before exams--after exams was a different story. The squad lost only three, but the ones it chose to drop were the important ones like the Beanpot opener against B.U., the Cornell rematch in Ithaca which cost a share of the Ivy crown, and the ECAC quarterfinals.
This past season, Cleary's kids did it all in reverse. The team managed to lose seven games before the dreaded exam break, then came storming back to take ten of 14 over the second half. Only the loss to Yale (1-6 in New Haven) was humiliating, the other games could have gone either way. This year's squad did not resemble last year's.
The difference? Cleary was quick to respond. When one fan said that this year he had a hell of a team, the coach commented, "You hit it right on the head, it's a Team."
With the exception maybe of Randy Roth, there were no real stars on the 1973-74 squad and no top line to rely upon. Last year there was a "Local Line" to carry the offense. This past year Cleary could throw out four lines and get production from all of them.
Roth was the top point-getter on the team and clearly the slickest stick handler of the group, but he alone, or even with his linemates Bob Goodenow and Danny Bolduc, could not carry the team. Steve Dagdigian, Jim McMahon and Kevin Carr took up the slack when Roth's line was having an off night, as did the line of Jim Thomas, Leigh Hogan and Ted Thorndike.
The fourth line consisted mainly of Kevin Burke, Phelps Swift and Paul Haley but Wiz Wyatt and Dave Gauthier also had a few turns on the ice. There is no question in anybody's mind that the fourth line was one of the key factors to the team's success.
Cleary's philosophy is skating and more skating, long and hard. His style has proved to be the best strategy for the crop of forwards that he has had to work with, none of whom is that big or suited to the checking game that teams such as Brown have employed. The philosophy works. Harvard can outskate any team in the east and perhaps the nation.
The fourth line was necessary to give everybody the needed rest. Three lines would collapse from exhaustion after the first two periods of a game. With four lines, Harvard could wear down the opposition with a continuous wave of fresh troops coming over the boards.
Behind the explosive offense, one of the most improved defenses in the East was a deciding factor in the Crimson surge to the top. Levy Byrd is a good example of this.
Here is a guy who saw limited varsity experience his junior year, filling in when Doug Eliot was injured and taking a shift here and there. He was barely noticed by the fans, and when his name was brought up it was usually as an afterthought. Some questioned his ability to become a varsity starter.
Well, Byrd was thrust into the starting position this season after graduation had claimed Eliot, Kevin Hampe and Bob Muse. Only Mark Noonan returned with varsity experience. To the surprise of many, Byrd fit in well. After overcoming the mistakes that come with lack of experience, he has become a very solid defenseman.
Byrd is not flashy. He's no Bobby Orr by any means, but his steady play the second half of the year has earned him honors as an All-Ivy first team defenseman.
The rest of the defense, Steve Janicek, Ed Rossi and Dave Hands, has also shown marked improvement this season. Again, they had to overcome the mistakes that come when you're suddenly playing varsity hockey after a season of J.V. The Crimson icemen dropped several of the early games because of bad clearing passes, defensemen getting caught up ice or being bothered around the net by opposing forecheckers.
Before the Beanpot Finals, writers who were not familiar with Harvard this season were warned a head of time about a defense that was somewhat suspect. But after Harvard won that game not one of them could see anything to complain about. The defense improved tremendously after that tourney, as the players were making smarter clearing passes along the boards and weren't getting caught out of position (as often).
The team had to pull together in front of a pair of sophomore goaltenders, John Aiken and Jim Murray. Cleary rotated the varsity newcomers in the first half of the season, but increasingly went with Murray in the nets down the stretch.
Murray played a good season overall, but had his hot and cold moments. He was hot up at Cornell, for instance, and cold in New Haven. But good games and bad games happen to everybody. Murray's problem was that he could be hot and cold in the same contest. After making some great saves, his concentration could lapse and a garbage shot would sneak past him.
But nobody is going to hang goat horns on the netminder's head for any of the losses this season, especially Cleary. Murray will be back next season with some experience behind him and should develop into one of the better goaltenders in the East.
So with all that going for Harvard, you ask, how come the squad finished only second in the East and fourth in the nation?
That, perhaps, is an unfair question. Considering most people were counting Harvard out of contention at the start of the season, it might be more appropriate to ask how come the team went as far as it did. Without experienced defense or goaltending and lacking a "Local Line," the 1973-74 squad was expected to finish no better than third in the East and not even go to the NCAAs.
So the season should be looked at as a rally that didn't quite make it all the way. Cleary expresses it perhaps as well as anybody who is groping for a way to sum up a wild season. "We just fell a little short. It just wasn't to be."