Junior Goalie Tripp Tracy: It's His Time to Shine

Tripp Tracy is unorthodox.

Tripp Tracy is flamboyant.

Tripp Tracy is brutally honest.

Tripp Tracy is fiercely competitive.

Guess what? Tripp Tracy has the starting goaltending job for the Harvard men's hockey team all to himself.

And at whatever whistle-stops the Crimson road show pauses to entertain on the way to the NCAA Championship in Providence will be pretty hard not to notice.

How many other netminders, in the NHL or otherwise, have you seen that looked like he could use a leash binding him to his own crossbar?

His style? "Flip-flop, all over the place" --these are Tracy's own words of definition. For some goalies, the edge of the crease is an iron cage, never to be violated or penetrated from either direction: "Jonathan Livingston Tracy" is liberated by the white ice outside of that blue semicircle of bondage, and at times watching him can be a heart-stopping exercise.

"It sort of evolved over time," Tracy says of his methods of puck-stopping madness. "I've worked extensively with [ex-NHL goalie] Dave Tstarin, and from a very young age he taught me to attack the puck very aggressively. The goalie he always used as an example was Grant Fuhr--the shot comes in and BOOM! he attacks."

Actually, Tracy plans to tone down the excesses of such a system this year.

"This year, I feel a little more comfortable--I think I'm quick enough so that I don't need to come out as far to stop the puck," he says. "I'm still getting a feel fore letting the puck come to me and not forcing things, but with time that will come."

Such a feeling will come more quickly in the top-dog system that Coach Ronn Tomassoni will use this year for the first time; senior Steve Hermsdorf remains a step below Tracy within the goaltending hierarchy.

If Tracy's style maybe needs to be reined in, his voracious appetite for competition shall be unleashed for probably as many games as he wants--with apologies to Glenn Robinson, that's called letting the big dog eat, as it were.

"[This year is] a big challenge for me," Tracy acknowledges. "Growing up, for some reason there was always another goalie I was rotating with, so I've never been in a one-goalie situation.

"I've known a lot of youth players who got all the ice-time for themselves," he adds, "but because that's never happened for me before, I really look upon this year as a great individual opportunity."

In truth, Tracy's Harvard career to-date can only be understood through his relationship with Aaron Israel, his classmate in his freshman and sophomore years, before Israel bolted from school last May to join the Philadelphia Flyers' system.

Because the two shared the available minutes between the pipes with such monotonous regularity, Tracy is especially antsy to jump at whatever playing time there is to be had this year.

"This is the best opportunity I've ever had in my life," he says. "Last year, one of us would have a good game on Friday and we'd have a wait until the following week to see if we could continue the streak. This year, that won't happen as much, and it should help the team--especially the defense--to have just the one style to play around and not to have to change its style every other game."

Israel personifies none of Tracy's attributes on the ice save competitiveness, but the two managed to forge a valuable friendship, Tracy says, in spite of all public misperceptions to the contrary.

"Rumor spreads like wildfire," Tracy says, quoting one of the favorite sayings of former Crimson star Matt Mallgrave '93. "I can't tell you the number of people who have come up to me and said, I know you and Aaron don't get along, but that's not true at all. Ours was always a good, healthy relationship--of course, I think it will get better now that we aren't fighting for the same thing."

Tomassoni always has his netminders room together on the road, which both tightened the bond between Tracy and Israel and exacerbated an already competitive atmosphere.

"We were extremely competitive with each other, but in a positive way," he recalls.

Tracy was pushed in his freshman year to post a 2.27 goals-against average, fifth on the all-time single-season Harvard record; Israel responded with a 2.30 GAA of his own last year, as Tracy slumped early with a case of pneumonia and a three-losses-in-four-starts streak before Christmas. (Tracy has yet to lose a game in 1994.)

"I'd go so far as to say that when one of us was playing, as much as we might deny it, we were always thinking of the other in a sense, because our rotation was never set in stone," Tracy says. "We'd be thinking, well, if I play well, maybe I'll get to play another game and make this thing not an automatic rotation."

Not that Tracy's competitive nature is limited to goaltending. Aside from an being an devoted water skier and a fairly avid golfer (that he carries a 13 handicap and yet says "I stink at the game" indicates his toleration for failure), he attempts to tackle Harvard academics the same way he would a Jay Pandolfo slapshot--at full speed.

"I think I'm pretty much the same guy both on and off the ice, in that regard," he says. "I just took this midterm for the 'Shakespeare' class, and I'm the kind of guy who ran straight to the books when I got out of there to check and see if I got all the passages right."

Such a tendency was plain to see for Tracy at age seven in his home state of Michigan, having discovered goaltending to be his thing "by process of elimination--I pretty much stunk at forward and defenseman, and they threw me back in goal for lack of anywhere else to put me."

"First game ever, I used a baseball glove on my catching hand," he laughs. "I did pretty well, and I've played in goal ever since."

He had to win over the support of his parents even to get to play junior hockey at a level of any proficiency. But his effervescent enthusiasm (and the begrudging acceptance of his mother) got him around the first obstacle on the road to a hockey career.

"At first, my parents weren't really into hockey at all," he recalls. "I remember my dad didn't want me to play travel hockey--he thought it was too big of a commitment for a little kid, I guess. You ought to see him now, though: he got into sponsoring my teams, and now he's the biggest rink-rat you'll ever find."

If he stumbled on his current vocation somewhat by accident, equally haphazard is the way Tracy has acquired his netminding idols, some of whom seemingly have little in common with the Eliot House resident.

"It's weird, some of the guys I look to in the NHL," he says, pointing at a poster of Vancouver netminder Kirk McLean that hangs in his room. "I think he's awesome," this last word enunciated with all the fire of one who can fully backup such an assertion.

"But you know, his style could not be any more different than mine--he stands back in the net, he's a huge guy, yet I love him. It was so good to see him do well in the Stanley Cup playoffs last year against Mike Richter, who is really more of a 'model' of my style," the term being used loosely.

Is McLean an underrated NHL goalie? In a way, no, says Tracy, and to decipher why he thinks this is to understand why Tracy can be so brilliant in one game and so god-awful in the next.

"If you don't have the ability, and if you don't win the big game, you will never be recognized as a quality goaltender," he says. "Until last year, McLean hadn't won anything remotely resembling a big game for the Canucks, and I think that's the most important factor for any athlete: being able to rise up for the big game."

He continues "Ask people why they think Patrick Roy is the best goalie of all time, they'll tell you it's because he's won so many big games. He's good in the regular season, yeah, but he steps it up such a noticeable notch in the postseason, and that's what people remember in the history books."

Boston sports fans will probably always remember Tracy's monstrous 32-save performance against Boston University in the 1993 Beanpot Final as his signature game, a true master-piece in puck-stopping.

But with Tracy, you get the whole package, which includes those depressingly awful 7-6 losses at Colgate as well as the titanic ECAC play-off shutouts, and he knows this is his biggest psychological shortcoming between the pipes.

"No question, there's a huge disparity there, and it's perhaps the biggest personal challenge I have--I've gotta want to come to play every night," he says. "Let's be blunt: over the past two years, in the games that haven't gotten the hype or the publicity, I have a history of not coming to play.

"Look, say, at last year's game at Dartmouth [in a half-filled arena, Harvard escaped 5-4 in overtime]--I didn't play well at all. I have no doubts in my confidence as far as playing well in the big games: I've done it before, and I will continue to do it. But with the increased responsibility I get within a one-goalie system, I've gotta be up for the Colgate game and every other one like it, and I know that."

Not every athlete, much less every goalie, is willing to open his or her mouth and speak in such a vein of self-deprecation. One of Tracy's defining personality traits is this strong sense of punishing honesty he radiates, so starkly contrasting with the average. SportsCenter sound bite.

"I believe in being blunt, even though sometimes that can get you in trouble," he says "Criticizing yourself and realizing that you sometimes do things wrong is one of the keys to becoming a better player"--and a better person, he might add.

Almost unique among athletes in the glare of the media spotlight, Tracy carries this attitude around all tape recorders, microphones and reporter's notebooks.

"I personally know if I let in a bad goal--why should I keep that inside? There's just no use in denying that to yourself or to others," he says.

Talking about his professional prospects, he paints an equally candid, if rather dim, picture of what a 5-foot-10, 165-pounder can hope to accomplish with ninth-round draft status (like Israel, his rights are held by the Flyers) and a Beanpot ring as credentials. Even after his superlative freshman season. Tracy was drafted two rounds below Israel, scouts always preferring the upright model to the unorthodox one.

"I'm small-that's one strike against me," he says. "And I've got this rambunctious style, nothing at all like an Israel or the more stand-up style that's preferred in the pros--that's another strike."

"But I can't change my style--you won't see me give this a major overhaul," he promises. "I can only work with what I've got."

He'll get plenty of work this year to show the NHL what he is capable of, but because situational luck is such a dominant factor in making "the show," Tracy knows his odds remain slim.

"There are so many guys down in the IHL and AHL that could be playing in the NHL with just one break," the ongoing NHLPA strike notwithstanding, he says. "Everything has to go your way, it seems."

With that in mind, Tracy has set two final goals for himself and his Harvard career.

"I'd like to be remembered from my Harvard days as having been a good person," he says, especially citing the close, long-lasting friendships he has made on the hockey team in the last 26 months.

But almost even more than that, he craves the ultimate success that he and his teammates have narrowly failed to grasp in the last two years.

"I want to be a member of a national championship team--that's by far my loftiest goal, and it's something I think we can achieve," he says.

That seven year-old with the baseball glove has come quite a long way. For if there's any one person who can singlehandedly fulfill that Harvard championship quest, it's Tripp Tracy, and that's just the way he likes it.

Darren M. Kilfara is an Assistant Sports Editor for The Crimson.Crimson File PhotoTRIPP TRACY covers the puck in the 1993 Beanpot Final against Boston University.