The 'V' Spot: Ceremony for Cleary Is a Much Needed Step for Harvard Hockey
On Friday night, Harvard honored a legend.
After playing a full period, senior defenseman Tim Stay did not return to the locker room. He stayed in the tunnel until the appointed moment, skated out and removed his No. 4 jersey ala Ray Bourque to reveal a No. 3 uniform underneath and he handed the old garment to retiring Athletic Director Bill Cleary '56.
Stay was merely returning the No. 4 shirt to its rightful owner. The greatest figure in Harvard athletics history was getting his uniform back. The Crimson, for the first time in its 150-year old history, retired a number.
Nobody will wear No. 4 again for Harvard. That number forever belongs to the man who served Harvard for over seven decades, first as a seller of programs outside of Harvard Stadium.
Cleary still holds numerous scoring records, including most points in a single season--89 points in 21 games, set in 1954-55. As a coach, he guided Harvard to its only major NCAA championship in 1989. And now Cleary retires as Athletic Director, effective in June.
On hand to honor their old coach were Mark Fusco '83, Scott Fusco '85-86, and Lane MacDonald '89--Harvard's three Hobey Baker Award winners.
It was one of those rare events in sports whose pure class inspires even the opposition members of the sold out Bright Hockey Center crowd to stand and cheer.
"It was a real emotional moment," Yale Coach Tim Taylor '63 said. "Billy has helped my career out so much and what he has meant to Harvard and this sport is just tremendous. I could not begin to convey that to my team."
"What he did as a player here was just unbelievable, even Lane MacDonald, for as good a career as he had, didn't have Cleary's numbers," Harvard Coach Mark Mazzoleni said. "But in typical Billy fashion, he came back to the locker room after the game and told the kids the best thing about the night was that they beat Yale."
Harvard University finally paid appropriate tribute to Cleary on Friday night. Even the game was played in a style that he would approve--a wide-open, end to end scoring affair. After the evening was over, the only question remaining was, what took Harvard so long?
Cleary was the Crimson's Gordie Howe, Scotty Bowman and Gary Bettman wrapped up in one package. Harvard should not have waited decades to pay him this honor. It should not have taken a man of such immense stature to break the 150-year-old policy of not honoring individual achievement.
There should be a similar ceremony for the gentlement on the ice with Cleary. The Fuscos and MacDonald have and continually remained an integral part of the program. With all due respect to a player who is having a fine season, MacDonald scored 111 goals and had 114 assists and captained the Crimson to a national championship, why is junior Jared Cantanucci wearing his No. 19?
The Athletic Department prides itself on an "old school" amateurism-in-athletics philosophy that places the ultimate and final focus on the team. While that idea is admirable, the school does a really poor job of tapping into the breadth of its athletic tradition.
Gaze up to the rafters at Bright Hockey Center and you'll see a couple big banners, including the men's and women's national championship banner. But then look around and all there are are fading white sheets with years that the school has won Ivy championships, Beanpots, ECAC titles. It gives the place the feel of a high school gymnasium, not a major Division I program.
Imagine if each title Harvard has ever won had its own banner. Bright already is one of the ugliest arenas in the conference; seeing the sea of championships the Crimson has won would only add to the dungeon-like quality of the place.
"We've already started to try and do more with our history," Mazzoleni said. "We've redone the team photos and plaques around the arena. It's a start."
Mazzoleni is not at fault here. He's tried to put some more life back into Harvard home games. The best contribution he's made by far is the exciting team that he puts on the ice every game. But there are little things too, like buying a CD of familiar organ music and cheers to rile up the crowd and keep the game interesting during stoppages in play. When the band is not there, Bright can resemble a mortuary.
Harvard hockey is in need of a facelift. The most pressing need was a winning team, but if it is going to consistently draw fans it needs to modernize its presentation of the contest as well.
As much as it's nice to hear the band rile up the crowd with Harvard's magnificent fight songs, the sport itself is one of rock music and rowdy fans. A group of students has recently shown the school some of the essence of college hockey by printing up shirts that say, "A Pucking Good Time. Win or Lose, We Booze," on the back.
Now there is no need to show up to a game hammered, but the university has not given much thought to the total package presented at the arena.
Cleary, incidentally was part of the problem as well. He preached the fast skating, end-to-end style of hockey that distinguishes the college game from the pros. Somewhere he lost the complete ethos that can enthrall an arena when students, alumni and local fans rally together to boisterously and viscously support the home team
This attitude makes it pure torture to travel to Cornell's Lynah Rink, Clarkson's Cheel Arena, or Appleton at St. Lawrence. Sure, these are among the best programs in the conference, but they also have some of the best fans as well.
Harvard will be hosting Yale again this weekend for the first round of the ECAC playoffs. The team earned home ice advantage with consistent enough play through the year. The little things, like retiring numbers, could help make it as large a home ice advantage as possible.