The 1985-86 Harvard men's hockey team is the most highly touted Crimson squad in history. The pre-season poll tabbed the icemen as the fourth best squad in the nation and three weeks later, the Crimson has moved up a notch to third, without even playing a game.
Traditionally, Harvard teams have had to joust with rabid opponents for whom the Harvard game is The Game. And Harvard, for the most part, doesn't care.
"They all want a piece of the Johnnies," Harvard Coach Bill Cleary says.
Hating Harvard is old hat.
Giving Harvard such a healthy dose of pre-season respect is something new.
"I don't think people payed that much attention to us in the past," Cleary says.
They payed attention, coach, but only after your team popped up where no one thought it would. In 1983, in the ECAC Championship game and two weeks later at the National Final Four in Fargo, N.D. Last spring, back in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) title game and back in the NCAA Tournament, this time in a quarterfinal matchup at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
In 1985, the Crimson is feeling the spotlight a little earlier.
Harvard faces a 25-game regular season schedule centered on a 21-game grind against the 11 other teams in the ECAC. Eight of 12 conference teams advance to the ECAC Tournament which is held on two weekends in early March, first at home sites for the quarterfinals and then in the Boston Garden for the semis and finals.
A first or second place finish in the tournament essentially--but not necessarily--guarantees a bid to NCAA Tournament, which starts the following weekend and utilizes the same format: quarterfinals at campuses the first weekend, followed by the Final Four.
After being eliminated in the NCAA quarters in Duluth last season, the Crimson will concentrate this year on earning a ticket to Providence, R.I., where the Civic Center will play host to the 1986 NCAA Division I Final Four.
The Crimson has been tabbed as the team to beat in the ECAC, although Harvard fans should expect Cornell, RPI (the defending national champion) and Yale to make a strong run at the icemen (See ECAC preview, page six).
Nationally, too, the Crimson is all of a sudden the object of a great deal of attention. In the 1983 Final Four, western hockey fans were surprised to learn that Harvard played hockey, much less that it was capable of beating the vaunted Golden Gophers of Minnesota as it did in the semifinals. This year, there'll be no such surprises.
Captain Scott Fusco thinks all the attention is good for Harvard. "It's good for the program," the fifth-year senior says. "Harvard's thought of as one of the elite schools in college hockey. Before, it took 'till February to break the rankings."
Whether the Crimson deserves all the preseason hoopla and headlines is unclear. What is clear is that this men's hockey team may be one the very best every to don the Crimson, Black and White.
All but four players are back from the team that last year sailed to a 21-9-2 mark, finished second in the ECAC with a 15-5-1 league slate and a second place showing in the March tournament, earned its fourth striaght Ivy title with a 7-2-1 mark, and advanced to the national playoffs, where it fell to Minnesota-Duluth in a pair of tight 4-2 contests.
And the four players who aren't returning--Brian Busconi, Greg Chalmers, Bill Cleary, Jr. and Brad Kwong--contributed just 12 of the 147 goals Harvard tallied in '84-'85. The team they left behind is still a force to be reckoned with.
Up front, Fusco is mounting a final assault on the Crimson record book. With 172 career points (73 goals, 99 assists), the senior is new ranked third on the all-time Harvard career scoring list.
He needs just 24 points to pass Joe Cavanaugh '71 (187 points) and Bobby Cleary '58 (195 points) to become the lifetime Harvard scoring leader. Shortly thereafter, he'll become the first Crimson skater to break the 200-point barrier.
Fusco, the ECAC Player of the Year in '84-'85, does more than just key the Crimson first line and power play. His consistency (he had 29 straight games with at least a point last year) and his willingness to take command at crucial junctures set him apart from the rest of the skaters on the Harvard team and perhaps the rest of the players in college hockey.
"Some guys take charge," Fuso says. "Some guys never do. I see myself in that role. My whole career I've been like that.
"That's my job and that's why I've been out there in crucial situations. My line is there when we need a goal in a tough game. We have confidence we're gonna score and I think everybody else does too."
Fusco gave the Crimson crucial goals all year long last season. His biggest may have been against Clarkson in the ECAC semifinals in the Boston Garden.
A bad back had plagued the Burlington native all night and prevented him from playing his usual game. But with less than a minute left in regulation, Fusco took the puck and beat Golden Knight goalie Jamie Falle to send Harvard into the finals the following night and secure the Crimson's berth in the NCAA Tournament.
It was the kind of play that makes him the favorite to capture the Hobey Baker Award--hockey's Heisman Trophy--this year, after being a finalist for the honor a year ago.
Fusco's linemates Tim Smith and Lane MacDonald each tallied over 50 points last year and Smith set a new ECAC record, scoring goals in 13 consecutive games. They round out a potent first line.
"We've got some good freshmen," goalie Grant Blair says, "but the biggest thing is we've got to get a little more scoring punch up front."
A freshman and a sophomore back after a year off the ice will be the center of the effort to revive the offensive spark in the Crimson's second line.
Center Allen Bourbeau was the Crimson's most highly touted recruit ever when he chose to come to Harvard three years ago. The Teaticket native broke the single-season and career Massachusetts high school scoring records at Acton-Boxborough.
Bourbeau played in only a single game his freshman year and was ineligible last year.
This fall, he is back and has been sparking an offense that last year relied almost solely on its first line. All three first liners (Fusco, Smith and MacDonald) are back, but Harvard needs to get more scoring from the rest of the team.
"He's a goal scorer," Fusco says of Bourbeau. "That's something we need. He should help make a strong second line."
Left wing Ed Krayer of St. Paul's was another recruiting coup for the Crimson. The 6-ft., 170-lb., freshman was taken 150th overall in the NHL draft, going to the New Jersey Devils in the eighth round.
Right now, Bourbeau and Krayer are the heart of the preseason second line. The first unit chipped in 86 of the Crimson's 147 tallies last year, and more balance up front may be a large key to the team's success.
If the first line, which converted over 32 percent of its power play opportunities last year, struggles in man-up situations, then Krayer and Bourbeau will be given a chance to show their stuff. Expect a different formation from the second power play unit as Cleary tries to show a different look.
For that the Crimson will look to Bourbeau and Krayer as well as the rest of the returning Crimson forwards: seniors Rob Ohno and Peter Follows, juniors Tim Barakett, Rick Haney and Peter Chiarelli and sophomores Steve Armstrong, Andy Janfaza and Nick Carone.
Junior Butch Cutone, Ivy League Rookie of the Year as a defenseman two seasons ago, also returns to the forward line. Cutone sat out '84-'85 after an aneurismic bone cyst in his left leg was discovered.
The Arlington native has only been back on skates since late August--after a year and a half absence--and has been moved up front as he regains the strength in his legs.
"I'm back into it," Cutone says, "only my leg isn't."
The Crimson defense shapes up to be perhaps the best in the East. The two blue-liners who helped the first line to its astonishing power play success are back. Junior Randy Taylor and senior Mark Benning form perhaps the most solid tandem in the ECAC.
And it is on defense that Harvard has its biggest freshman. Chris Biotti is a big drink of water at 6-ft., 3-in., 180-lb., but his credentials are much more impressive than his size. Biotti, who played at Belmont Hill School, was the 17th player selected in June's NHL draft, going to Calgary in the first round. The Newton native was the also the first American high school player selected.
"He's gonna be a force," Cleary says. "I'll be surprised if he isn't."
Biotti, whose size will add a great deal of presence to the Crimson defensive corps, will probably be paired with Harvard's hardest hitter, sophomore Jerry Pawloski. Pawloski, who played very well in his rookie campaign, is reviving the lost art of the open-ice body check at Bright Center.
"Now, we're more of a cohesive unit," Benning says.
The blue-line contingent will be rounded out by sophomore Don Sweeney, who possesses excellent tools, big sophomore Scott Farden and the final freshman who should see considerable time.
Josh Caplan, who shared defensive chores with Biotti at Belmont Hill, doesn't have Biotti's size (at 5-ft., 10-in., 160-lb.) or reputation, but the swingman has the skating ability to help the fleet Crimson.
Both Biotti and Caplan come from the same institution that produced Coach Cleary, his brother Bobby '58, the Crimson's all-time leading scorer, Fusco and his older brother Mark '83, who claimed the Hobey Baker Award in his senior season.
Three-year starting goalie Grant Blair may be the key to the whole season.
Blair is 49-27-4 in his three years in the Crimson nets with a goals-against average of 2.90 and a save percentage over 90 percent.
Most important, Blair has saved his best play for the post season each year. He pushed the Crimson to the Final Four his freshman year and claimed the team's MVP award the following season.
Last year, he was selected to the All-ECAC Second Team and sparkled in the playoffs.
Blair is backed up by sophomore John Devin and senior Dickie McEvoy, back after a year off. Neither should play much.
All the elements are there.
"We have the talent," Fusco says, "and that's the first ingredient.
"The one problem is that I don't think a lot of guys realize what it takes to win. We started so well last year, I don't think they realized what happened."
If the Crimson can figure that out and deal with the pressure of being at the top, then that's where it might end up.TIM SMITH