Billy Cleary's Winning Ways
Billy Cleary's entire body turns red when his team wins. The top of his head glows like a radioactive eggshell, emitting happiness beams in all directions. Innocent backs must beware the jolt of a cheerful slap.
When his team loses, Billy Cleary calmly talks to reporters and friends outside the locker-room door. No yelling, no loss of temper, just cool, contained, quietly boiling frustration.
When Billy Cleary talks about Harvard, it is with pride. On his desk sit a half-dozen or so vulcanized-rubber hockey pucks, each stamped in vibrant crimson with the Harvard seal.
When Billy Cleary talks about hockey, he is opinionated. Not Archie Bunker opinionated, but the intelligent kind of opinionated that comes from years of experience in every facet of the game and an understanding of most every subtlety and intricacy it can offer. When Billy Cleary talks about hockey, everyone listens. People respect him. His players respect Billy Cleary, too. They respect him as a hockey mind, yes, but also as their teacher. Not just the teacher of power plays, but of life. The Harvard hockey club likes Cleary. One freshman even used the word "love."
And Billy Cleary respects his players. He admires them for their hockey skill, but all coaches do that. He also respects them for being complete, well-rounded people who don't just think hockey all day but have a wide variety of interests--not too many coaches do that.
And not too many coaches say, "I want the kids to know that hockey is just a fleeting part of their career," or "I try to make it fun out there for the kids, not a drudge."
But still, Billy Cleary turns red when he wins.
In an amateur career that has spanned four decades, Cleary has put his cherry-colored act in some big places. Like the 1955 Beanpot finals, when he scored the winning goal in overtime that gave Harvard a 5-4 win over B.C. Or the 1960 Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, California, when he and brother Bob led the U.S. to upset victories over Canada, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia on the way to a gold medal.
Or the 1957 World Championships in Prague, or as the coach of three NCAA-tournament teams, an ECAC champion and two Beanpot champions. Or just the other day at Walter Brown arena, when his team stunned highly-favored B.U. in a 4-3 overtime thriller. Billy Cleary has done a lot of winning.
Despite his love for athletics, Cleary disdains professional sports, calling them boring and meaningless. "I had a chance to play in the NHL, I was on Montreal's protect list for three years, and they offered me some dough--not much for today, but it was something back then--but we never got together," he says. "Everyone said I would regret, not playing pro, but I don't regret it at all, not at all.
"And, you know something," he adds, "I could win 100 Stanley Cups and it wouldn't even be close to the feeling I had marching in those Olympics."
Cleary likes his players to think of him as someone beyond the x's and o's. "You want to be successful," he says, pumping the air with a clenched fist, "but hopefully you're a little more than just a coach to the kids, you're not just judged by your wins and losses."
Cleary talks about the program at Harvard, and he stresses participation. "I don't think there's another school in the country with a program as good as ours, and I mean that," he says forcefully. "Our JV has given a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people. We have 42 lockers in there, and every one is filled. You know, one year we had a team that went to the NCAA's and 11 of the players had played JV hockey. They'd be gone at B.U."
Other coaches, says Cleary, "want just twenty hockey players but no more," but to him victory alone is not the purpose of athletics. "Jeez," he says, shaking his head, "this is intercollegiate athletics."
But still, Billy Cleary turns red when he wins.
Not that he thinks of it as red. To Cleary, every shade from maroon to magenta has one name, and that's crimson.
Billy Cleary loves Harvard. He loved it as an undergraduate, loved it so much he came back to finish his education after he left after junior year for two international experiences, the Olympics and the army. Other coaches sell their schools when they recruit. Not Cleary. He asks them: "Would you be happy at Harvard if you never played a game of hockey?" If the answer is no, Cleary says, he doesn't want them no matter how many goals they scored at Belmont Hill. "You've got to have a love for the place."
But what he really loves is taking a bunch of these kids who are "well-rounded, not just jocks," and challenging the big boys.
"That's the fun of it here," he says with a tenacious grin, mentally leaping into the fray, "these kids can do other things, but we go in there and play the best. We're competing with these guys and we don't take a back seat--we play them all.
"Hey, we're not gonna run away from anyone either. You have to play the best to find out how good you are."
Finding out how good you are is almost an obsession with Billy Cleary. On or off the ice, the closest he has to a credo is this: go all out.
"No matter what you do in life you should try to be the best. I don't care if it's hockey or Ec 10," he continued, "always try to be the best. That doesn't mean you always have to be the best, but you should strive for it.'
And if he can combine that striving with education, Cleary is positively ecstatic. Like his idea for more international competition on the college level. "Wouldn't it be great for the kids to go to Europe for Christmas or something?" he asks. "And they wouldn't go out to some bar every night and drink beer. We'd make it an educational experience."
He tells a-story about the Czech army team that visited the U.S. in January, 1973. Although a game with Cornell, a perennial Division One powerhouse, was scheduled for Wednesday, Cleary let his team play the touring Czechs two days earlier, the only available date. The Crimson tied the squad, 4-4, in a rough, physical contest, and then--you gussed it--lost to Cornell two days later, 5-2.
"And I'm sure it was the fatigue, too," Cleary says. "But, I wouldn't trade the tie with Czechoslovakia for anything--the kids'11 remember that their whole lives."
As a player and a coach, Cleary has compiled a list of many memories, like most people involved with hockey. But unlike many, he claims not to live vicariously through his players. "My day is over--I don't get any satisfaction myself from the wins and losses." he says. "I just see these kids work so hard that when they don't win, it kills me for their sake."
But when they do win, Billy Cleary turns red