'88's Eight: Hockey Freshmen
Harvard Coach Bill Cleary likes his teams to skate.
Hockey, as Cleary, likes to say, is too good a game to be played any other way.
Freshman Steve Armstrong, however, does not consider himself an especially nimble skater.
"I just can't take the puck and dance around people."
But while Armstrong will never win any ice-dancing competitions and will never approach some of his Crimson teammates in raw speed and quickness, he has a quality that Cleary values more than agility.
"He's a tough kid," Cleary says. "He'll do anything, he's always blocking shots and he's a pretty good center iceman."
Steve's toughness is not unique in the Armstrong family by any means In fact, he comes from an Ithaca. N.Y., family that has been giving and taking knocks on the ice for years.
All four of Steve's older brothers played college hockey with the same intensity that the youngest son exhibits and one parlayed his attitude and skills into a season with the 1982-83 U.S. National team and a short minor league career.
Clarkson, which stresses a tight checking game that seems more suitable for the Armstrong attitude, lured brothers Jim and Bob. Bob earned All-American honors at the the school, but even Bob was known for his hard work, not his precise skating skills.
"The best skater in my family is probably my little sister," Steve says.
And the best skaters in the East play for Harvard. But even the Crimson needs players like Armstrong to play equally vital, though less glamorous roles.
"A lot of people shied away from Steve because they didn't think he was fast enough," Clearly says. "He's no speed merchant, but we're not all roadrunners here, either."
Armstrong may not be a roadrunner but Steve and linemates Rick Haney and Peter Follows have been some busy coyotes.
"That line has played extremely well," Cleary says of a unit that has become more than just a trio that kills time while the top two lines rest.
"I like playing on that line," Armstrong adds. "We don't have any incredible talent, we just work our hardest every time we're on the ice."
This aggressiveness has shown results as left wing Armstrong has tallied six goals and five assists, right wing Follows has seven goals and six assists, and center Haney has one goal and six assists (going into this weekend's action).
"When we got separated we didn't play as well," Follows says. "When we're together we have that intangible quality, we think along the same wavelengths."
Armstrong's style of play has also garnered Cleary's respect. "We put him out in crucial situations because he can take the face-offs if they get tossed out," Cleary says. "Face-offs are determination and concentration, and he's mentally tough."
Armstrong has become a penalty killer for the Crimson, a thankless task that is perfectly suited to his dogged determination.
"He kills penalties," Cleary says. "And when you kill penalties that's a compliment."
Armstrong is mentally focused as well as tough on the ice. He has no aspirations to personal glory as his goals are more team oriented. "The greatest satisfaction would be winning a national championship, he says. "It wouldn't really matter who is a standout."
That is not to say that Armstrong does not appreciate greatness. He says of Scott Fusco, "He is amazing, he simply has the knack."
The Fuscos of the world, however, also appreciate the Armstrongs, who dig the puck out of the corner, penalty kill and stand ready to step in on the late face-offs.
As an Ithaca native, Armstrong is often asked why he did not attend Cornell, but he says he simply "...liked Harvard more." It is ironic that Cornell's hockey establishment told Armstrong that it wasn't sure if he could skate well enough to play for the lumbering, board-rattling Big Red, and Armstrong is now a solid performer for the fleet Crimson.
Having to adjust to Cleary's wide-open style was just another hurdle for Armstrong to overcome with his gritty attitude.
No one was surprised to see him step in and contribute to the Crimson's success in his first year.
As Cleary says, no matter what the odds, "You can never count an Armstrong out.