Center Ice and Center Stage

After waiting in line behind Brett Nowak and Dominic Moore for two years, Tom Cavanagh gets his opportunity to lead the Crimson’s scoring attack.

After two years of playing in every Harvard game, it’s finally time for Tom Cavanagh to take his place front—and center.

Coaches and teammates have only words of praise to offer regarding the junior centerman with a penchant for the goal, but until this year, Dom Moore ’03 and Brett Nowak ’03 overshadowed the younger scorer.

“On any other team, he would’ve had a point total that was higher than what it is,” Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni says. “Now he’s older, more experienced and he’s going to be given opportunities to play more key situations for us.”

“We graduated two centermen this past year, and they took a lot of ice last year,” Cavanagh says. “Other guys are going to have to step up more and I think I’m one of the guys who will have to do that. I might get a little more ice.”

Playing second fiddle to hockey’s top-liners is not an unfamiliar story to the Crimson faithful—just look back to the route Oliver Jonas ’01 took to starting goaltender.

Before Jonas registered one of the best single seasons in school history, he spent three years on the bench behind J.R. Prestifilippo ’00, who holds second place on Harvard’s all-time saves list.

However, even as a freshman, Cavanagh found ways to be a key component of Harvard’s offense. He was the team’s top scoring rookie, fifth on the team overall and ranked second among ECAC freshmen.

Cavanagh also needed no time to adjust to pressure situations, as he was Harvard’s leading scorer in the ECAC playoffs. The centerman netted the game-winner against Clarkson in the conference semifinals, and later scored the game-tying goal in the third period against Maine in NCAAs.

“He rises in the important moments,” says Tim Burke, director of amateur scouting for the San Jose Sharks. “He’s a very clutch player—always seems to make big plays when it counts.”

Cavanagh’s success only continued last season, and he tacked scoring consistency onto clutch play, racking up scoring streaks of 10 and nine games.

And this is supposed to be his breakout year?

“I think he’s starting to finally come into his own about knowing he can score and feeling comfortable about shooting the puck from anywhere,” senior forward Tim Pettit says. “He’s always been kind of in the shadows and I think this is going to be a breakout year for him. He’s going to really be the catalyst for every special situation we have this year.”

“A lot of people might look at the statistics and not know that Cavanagh is this good of a player, but you have to keep in mind that he has yet to play on our top power play unit,” Mazzoleni says. “Now he’s going to be playing those really key minutes for us. And he’s our best defensive centerman.”

As a center responsible for both sides of the game, Cavanagh has certainly proven himself capable on offense and distinguishes himself defensively.

“Tom has an uncanny sense of positioning in both the defensive and offensive zones,” junior goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris says. “And he’s able to successfully shut down players before they get into scoring position.”

Team Cavanagh

You have to wonder whether the Cavanagh family can play basketball, too. Because, if so, the NBA may have a slew of prospects in Warwick, Rhode Island.

As one of nine children in his Irish-Catholic family, Tom Cavanagh seemed destined to play hockey given his roots on the ice.

His father, Joe Cavanagh ’71 earned All-America honors on the Harvard hockey team in 1969, 1970 and 1971 and his uncle Dave ’72 also excelled in Bright. Another uncle, Rich ’85, rounded out the trio playing JV hockey. It is no wonder that Crimson suits Tom so well.

“It was just one of those things I always saw in myself—playing in a Harvard uniform because it is in my blood,” Tom Cavanagh says.

But there is more to Team Cavanagh, as Tom’s older brothers Joe and Paul both lettered as Holy Cross icemen and graduated in 1999 and 2000, respectively. More brothers may also be on the way, as Dave is a junior at Tom’s alma mater Toll Gate High School, and Jimmy, at 13 years of age, plays in the pee wee league.

If that’s not enough, you can find Bobby Cavanagh, a cousin, on the forward line at Bowdoin and Mark, another cousin, is a sophomore forward at Wentworth.

“I was a freshman in high school the year after my older brother Paul graduated, so I actually never got a chance to play with him, which is too bad—I would have liked to,” Tom says. “I got to play with my cousins, though. We have a pretty big family and everyone plays hockey.”

Fast Times at Toll Gate High

The Cavanaghs attended Toll Gate High School, where Tom led the Rhode Island High School League and was a Rhode Island All-State First Team selection in both 1999 and 2000.

“At Toll Gate, we had a really great coach who did a lot with the hockey program and I think my brothers, myself and my younger brother all improved a lot over our four years there because of how good the coach is,” Cavanagh said. “Rhode Island high school hockey is very serious, so the four years I was there were great and very competitive.”

Cavanagh was also the captain of the golf team, though his continued play has been halted by time at Bright since.

“Golf’s the type of sport you have to stick with if you want to be good at it,” Cavanagh says. “Maybe it’s something I’ll do later on in life when I’m too old to play hockey.”

Cavanagh took a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy, a common step for Division I hockey players, looking to improve in the classroom and on the ice.

“Exeter, hockey-wise, was a step up from the school I was playing at, so I knew that my hockey game would be better and it’s also a great school,” Cavanagh says. “My [oldest] brother Joe went to Andover. My parents thought it would be a good idea. My father did a post-grad year after high school and he thought it would help me transition academically and athletically.”

Cavanagh’s decision to take another year of school was beneficial for both sides, Dana Barbin, Exeter’s hockey coach of 11 years, explains.

“I don’t know if he’s the best player I ever coached, but he’s certainly the most determined and certainly one of the best,” Barbin says. “When I think of Tommy Cavanagh, I say that’s the perfect player I ever coached because he was very good, extremely good and so hungry.”

As one of eight post-grads, Cavanagh still stood out, setting the school single-season scoring record with 42 goals.

“The most determined kid I’ve ever coached,” Barbin says. “He was just a joy in every way. He played the game with every ounce of energy, he put his heart and soul into it and he did it in a humble manner.

“As I said, he’s the perfect player. I miss him and I’ll probably never coach another quite like him.”

On Cavanagh’s end, a year in New Hampshire provided a nice transition to college life, perhaps aided by his lifestyle at home.

“It’s an adjustment at first for everyone, but I found it pretty easy actually,” Cavanagh says. “It probably helps coming from a big family. You get kind of get used to doing things on your own.”

Among other boons of his extra year, Cavanagh may also have tacked on a future career.

“I also got exposure because there were good kids on the team, so NHL scouts would come and look at them and they’d see me,” Cavanagh says, humbly.

They must have liked what they saw, because Cavanagh was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the sixth round (182nd overall) of the 2001 NHL draft.

“We think he’s got a pretty good chance,” Burke says. “We’re happy with what he’s done so far. He has a great awareness of the game and great play-making ability. You can use him in all situations.”

Of Jokesters and Feeders

One role Cavanagh has successfully fallen into is that of a feeder. He and Pettit formed a dangerous duo in the offensive zone with a chemistry that became painfully apparent to opponents towards the end of last season.

“Between him and Timmy Pettit, they’re the most threatening pair in the ECAC, and one of the most in college hockey,” says junior Andrew Lederman, one of Cavanagh’s roommates in Eliot house.

“I’ve pretty much played with Tom for the majority of two seasons now and I don’t think there’s another person who can see the ice as well as he can,” Pettit says. “With Tommy Cavanagh, it’s really a lot of fun to play with him because he can get you the puck no matter where you are and he’s always open, too.”

The sentiment was echoed on Cavanagh’s end.

“I love playing with him,” Cavanagh says. “He’s such a smart player, he can score goals, he knows where to be, so for me, it’s really fun to play with him. I’ve played with him so much I kind of know where he likes to be, where he likes to get the puck. He’s kind of used to me looking for him too.”

Cavanagh has also taken his place among the upperclassmen on the team, in spite of noted quietness.

“He’s kind of a reserved kid especially around people he doesn’t know that well,” captain Kenny Smith says. “In the locker room, when he speaks up, people listen because, one, they know he knows what he’s talking about and two, he’s always working so hard people want to hear what he has to say.”

However reserved Cavanagh may be to outside observers, or Crimson reporters, his teammates immediately point to his dry sense of humor as pervasive within the team.

“Someone will be telling a story and he’ll just tack on a line and have everyone in stitches,” Smith says.

“Tommy’s far from quiet—he’s one of the most hysterical kids,” Pettit says. “We came up a long time ago with the nickname “The Jokester” because he always has a smart remark about pretty much everything.”

“I think I called a couple kids “Jokesters” and it came back on me,” Cavanagh recalls.

However, Lederman remembers the somewhat appropriate origin.

“He got that nickname from Dom Moore freshman year and he is quiet, but he’s really funny when he says something,” Lederman says. “It’s that novelty because he’s actually really a funny guy when he comes up with a joke.”

Whether adding a line for laughter or speaking up about hockey, Cavanagh’s growing comfort with the team has translated into jokes in the locker room and goals on the ice.

“Everyone on the team just loves being around him,” Pettit says. “He definitely came in as the quiet kid, but once he was comfortable, he was far from quiet.”

Back to Bright

When asked what he’s most looking forward to right now, Cavanagh pauses, momentarily thrown, but then the answer is clear.

“Friday night, getting started,” he replies.

Friday night brings Bears into Bright Hockey Center, a trip to Vermont next week and a very long bus ride to upstate New York a few weeks later.

Getting started means that Cavanagh may miss the occasional Catholic mass on Sunday due to travel or games, an omission he regrets.

“I’m a pretty religious person,” Cavanagh says. “Yeah, occasionally, I miss it—I probably shouldn’t.”

But Friday night also brings his sister Carol, a sophomore at Harvard, out from the Quad, and maybe into Bright, where she could join her parents. Tom’s uncle Dave will likely be there too, as his current assignment as a Catholic priest brings him back to Cambridge.

Getting started brings Tom Cavanagh into the limelight of Bright Hockey Center and Harvard expectations.

—Staff writer Jessica T. Lee can be reached at