ANN ARBOR, Mich.-If you'd like to hear a couple words on Harvard's 3-3 tie against Michigan here on Saturday night, I've got the perfect answer for you.
Pride and respect.
The Crimson (5-4-3, 5-2-2 ECAC) played with as much pride against the Wolverines (10-5-3, 8-3-2 CCHA) as it has all year, and the few Harvard fans in attendance at the always-hostile Yost Ice Arena left with their heads high because their team played even-up against the hottest team in college hockey.
But as proud as Harvard's coaches, players and fans might've been as they stepped out into the cool Michigan night, it's the respect they've been after.
Now in his third year at Harvard, Coach Mark Mazzoleni wants his team to be nationally competitive. He has worked very hard-along with his staff and the players-to put them on that level.
But that sort of thing doesn't happen overnight. That's what Mazzoleni's getting at when he calls his team a "work in progress."
It's a step-by-step process. It's a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and it's not always fun.
Losing to cross-town rival Boston University 8-4 at home isn't fun. Picking up a newspaper after Thanksgiving and seeing that you're Vermont's only win isn't, either.
You can ask the Harvard coaching staff or players about those kinds of games, and they'll remember them because they happened last month.
But as the Harvard hockey program grows, the nightmares I just mentioned become sparse and the solid games like the Crimson played in front of a packed house of 6,719 at Yost become more frequent.
Saturday night-even though it wasn't a win-was a huge step. To be a top team, you have to show that you can beat top teams.
"We felt we could play with them," Mazzoleni said of Michigan.
That's why Michigan was on the schedule this year. That's why the Harvard coaches and players will say goodbye to their families and hop on a plane out to Denver right after Christmas to go up against the likes of No. 3 Denver and No. 5 UMass-Lowell.
It simply has to be done, and as good a sign as any is that the players themselves thrive on playing against the Michigans and Denvers of the world.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for us to prove ourselves on a national stage," said junior center Dominic Moore of games against top competition. "These are games we have to win."
Freshman goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris, who played magnificently and stopped 35 Michigan shots, excelled in the intense atmosphere.
"That's one of the best teams in the country," he said of the Wolverines. "It's a great crowd and one of the best places to play."
Moore-with a goal and an assist to go along with his stellar two-way play-and Grumet-Morris certainly weren't the only players to step up against the Maize and Blue. Dave McCulloch and Blair Barlow-Harvard's sophomore defensive duo-played arguably their best game together in Crimson sweaters, both offensively and defensively.
The Wolverines presented Harvard with a challenge, both because of who they are and because of how dominating they were in the early going.
It was a challenge that Harvard met in every way as the game progressed. It was almost as if you could see the team's attitude move from uncertainty to confidence to an overwhelming, "C'MON! WE CAN BEAT THESE GUYS!"
And even though Harvard couldn't quite slam the door shut on their hosts, playing opponents like Michigan is a win-win scenario for the Crimson. It means exposure. Now, Mazzoleni can tell a potential recruit that if you come to Harvard you'll enjoy some of the best academics in the country as well as the best competition the nation has to offer on the ice. After Saturday night, he can now say that you'll be in a position to beat those teams, as well.
Such games also give Harvard the opportunity to learn how to play and adjust against teams from other leagues and regions. That might come in handy as the Crimson looks at a potential NCAA tournament run in the coming years.
One also can't ignore the immense importance that Harvard's performance will have to the ECAC overall. Save upsets of No. 6 New Hampshire by Clarkson and Rensselaer and the early-season success of No. 8 Cornell, fans around the league haven't had much to cheer about this year.
Now, Harvard has tied Michigan, a team that made the Frozen Four last season and has a streak of eleven consecutive NCAA appearances. I half expect the Big Red faithful to don tweed jackets and argyle socks before singing a rousing chorus of "Fair Harvard" in between bites of "chowdah."
Hey, when your league's combined record against the CCHA (of which Michigan is a member), WCHA, and Hockey East is a 9-39-3-an anemic .206 winning percentage-you take wins-and ties-when you can get them.
It certainly takes time to reach a level where you can play with the best teams in the country week in and week out. Is Harvard there yet? Nope. Not quite, but they're getting there, and they're very, very close now.
And if the Crimson can sustain the type of play that had the mighty University of Michigan reeling in its own barn on Saturday night, I have two more words for you.