Hockey. Ask me about the Islanders and I'll tell you spinetingling tales of Chico Resch saves, Bryan Trottier dekes and Mike Bossy wrist shots. Ask me about RPI and I'll recount the exploits of Dino Serra, Barry Martinelli, Steve Stoyanovich and other creative names. Ask me about the Bruins and I'll laugh.
But ask me about Harvard hockey, and there's not too much I can say. Statements like, "Well, that George Hughes is pretty good, and his brother's not bad either," or "Late season collapses are one thing, but Harvard is ridiculous," although true, won't really tell you why the team wins or loses. I can spout some Truth after seeing one contest (the 6-5 overtime loss to RPI), but it's not fair to judge anyone on the basis of what he does in decrepit Troy, N.Y., where Zamboni-watching is more exciting than the nightlife.
Instead, I'll enthrall all you spellbound readers with a few of the formative moments in my hockey background.
First, remember Pete Stemkowski? Yeah, the Kings just named him coach of the AHL Springfield Indians and he played a year for L.A., but that's not the "Stemmer" (I'll leave the Polish nicknames stuck in Bill Chadwick's "Big Whistle") we fondly remember lumbering for the Rangers when they used to wait until the semis before choking.
April 29, 1971 may well have been a dark and stormy night, but within Madison Square Garden 17,499 screaming fans and I were not very concerned about the outside world. The Chicago Black Hawks led New York three games to two and needed only one more victory to send themselves to the finals against rookie sensation Ken Dryden and the Montreal Canadiens and to dash Ranger hopes for their first Cup since 1940; the tension was so thick that a knife would not have done the trick. Chicago was up, 2-1, but with a few minutes to go Vic Hadfield poked in a loose puck to put the game into sudden-death.
Overtime one: a goaltender's duel, Ed ("ED-DEE!") Giacomin vs. Tony Esposito--no scoring. Overtime two: incredible. Chicago closes in for the kill on a three-on-one break. Giacomin skates out to cut down the angle; he is knocked cold by a vicious 15-foot slapshot. A Black Hawk reaches the rubber and bangs it off the post; the Rangers and their fans (except for Giacomin, who is still unconscious) gaze in horror as the puck rebounds to Stan Mikita, quintessential all-star, still one of the most accurate shooters in the NHL.
From no more than 20 feet away, Mikita sizes up the empty net, a gaping invitation. He slides the puck ever so gently goalwards, as his teammates prepared to celebrate and the Blueshirts prayed for a miracle to stave off elimination.
They got one. As if swayed by the concentrated mental energies of the desperate sell-out crowd, the puck hit the left post and stopped for a moment in the crease before being iced by a thankful Ranger. A few minutes later, Mikita, weary (he would soon faint and have to leave the game), worn and disappointed, sagged face down against the Ranger net during a whistle and wondered how he could have blown such a chance.
It was almost an anti-climax when, at 1:29 of the third extra session, one tick of the clock before midnight, that Stemkowski (you do remember Pete Stemkowski, right?) popped a rebound by Esposito's achilles heel off assists by Ted Irvine and Tim Horton to keep the series, and season, alive. Of course, being the New York Rangers, they lost the deciding seventh contest in Chicago. But they still had the sixth to remember.
Two years older and wiser, I became an Islanders fan. Then the worst team in NHL history, on January 18, 1973 they faced one of the best, the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, who featured a couple of unknowns named Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. While the capacity Boston Garden crowd (yes, there was a time when Bruins fans did show up for the games) laughed, the "hapless"--as every sportswriter east of the Yukon described them--Isles scored five consecutive goals, then held on for a sloppy, hilarious, transcendental, season-salvaging 9-7 win.
As we all knew they would, the I's soon developed into one of hockey's classiest, most talented teams. While the rest of the NHL watched awestruck, the Uniondale youngsters serenely survived eight must-win 1975 playoff contests, upsetting the Rangers (J.P. Parise decided the finale after 11 seconds of OT) and Penguins (coming back from a three-game deficit for only the second time in professional sports history) before bowing out to eventual Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers in seven, after winning three in a row.
Since then, it's been season after season of outstanding achievement laced with bitter disappointment. Once again, the Islanders are playing in top form, as expected; the question is whether they can keep their act together come playoff time and avoid disasters like Lanny McDonald, whose infamous overtime flick of the wrist ended New York's best season ever with a whimper.
Most of my college hockey experience comes from watching RPI during interludes at my Albanian (N.Y., not Europe) grandparents'. The names of Serra, Martinelli and other former Engineer frontliners may not ring a bell, but Harvard skaters remember Stoyanovich (who, incidentally, has been drafted by the Islanders) all too well, for it was he who blasted one of his patented slapshots past Wade Lau to defeat the Crimson last November.
It comes down to this: I've made a habit of backing teams that raise extremely high hopes (delusions of grandeur?), but fall just short when it counts. Will being a Harvard hockey fan prove yet another frustrating exercise in masochism? I look forward to finding out.