Harvard-BU: A Cross-town Rivalry On and Off the Ice

Jack Parker says it was just “something to write about.” Mark Mazzoleni thinks it “meant nothing.”

If you listen to them, the “Sandwichgate” mini-controversy involving Parker, the Boston University coaching legend, eating his lunch in the stands during a Harvard practice before last spring’s NCAA tournament—much to Mazzoleni’s publicly-aired chagrin—is a dead issue.

“That’s all water down the stream,” Harvard coach Mazzoleni said, no “bridge” reference needed. “Jack Parker is as competitive an individual as there is in college hockey…I have the utmost respect for him.”

Parker said last week that the two have “talked it out.”

“I thought people made a little more out of that than they had to,” Parker said. “Gave them something to write about, I guess.”

Truthfully, it was never that much of an issue in the first place. It happened the day before the NCAA tournament and saw some play in the next day’s Globe and Herald (we at The Crimson were on spring break), but any buzz it created at the Worcester Centrum died that weekend, along with the national title hopes of both teams.

But tonight at Bright Hockey Center, when the Crimson hosts the Terriers in their first meeting since BU ended Harvard’s season with a 6-4 win that spring day in Worcester, you’ll probably hear about it again.

Everyone knows the best rivalries on the ice have a little bit of a rivalry behind the bench, too. And this rivalry is as natural as they come.

Not only do the two men coach schools that are a short bike ride away from one another, they are also known as two of college hockey’s most competitive figures.

“What makes it interesting is the intensity they both have,” said Harvard captain Kenny Smith, a Stoneham, Mass., native who took an official visit to BU. “They’re both extremely passionate coaches. That’s what connects those two.”

Harvard sophomore Tom Walsh, another Massachusetts native (Arlington) who was recruited by Parker and his staff, called Mazzoleni and Parker “two of the most intense coaches around.”

“They’re both great coaches,” Walsh said. “They do everything they can to help their teams win, but when the game’s over, everyone shakes hands and that’s it. They definitely respect one another.

“It’s just two competitive guys who want to win.”

Parker is the more accomplished of the two, with nearly 700 wins, 19 NCAA tournament appearances and two national titles in 31 seasons (all at BU) as a Division I head coach. Mazzoleni is in his 10th season as a D-I head coach, has 151 wins, three NCAA appearances and zero titles.

And then there’s the local factor. Parker, in case you haven’t noticed, is college hockey in these parts, and it’s safe to say the Somerville native is among Boston’s greatest hockey figures—pro, amateur or otherwise.

Parker’s 58, but Walsh said it seems like he’s “been around for a 100 years in Boston.”

“He knows everybody,” Smith said. “He has a million stories. He can tell you about everything.”

Parker is Boston. Always has been. He grew up here, went to high school here (Catholic Memorial), college here (BU) and joined the coaching staff at his alma mater one year after graduating.

His deep voice grumbles with the local accent and he’ll drop an ‘r’ every now and then—two distinct features that contribute to his famed press conference quips.

Mazzoleni, meanwhile, is from Green Bay, Wis., and…well…sounds like he’s from Green Bay, Wis. (He doesn’t coach college hockey. He coaches callege hackey.)

He’s animated yet maintains strict focus. He likes to reference Vince Lombardi. And sometimes he works so late that he’ll sleep in his office rather than complete the 45-minute drive home.

Mazzoleni is now past Boston’s college hockey learning curve, but that wasn’t the case during his first season, when his coaching rivalry with Parker began with a 2-1 loss in November 1999 and, on a different level, at the 2000 Beanpot luncheon.

Mazzoleni was absent at the luncheon because of bad weather he encountered trying to get back from Ohio, where he was visiting his wife and children, who had yet to move to Boston with him.

That allowed the Beanpot lifers in attendance to poke a little fun at the No-Show New Guy. After then-Harvard assistant Ron Rolston, Mazzoleni’s roommate at the time, explained the situation, Parker—sovereign king of one-liners—couldn’t resist.

As reported by USCHO.com, he said:

“Ronnie mentioned that it’s hard for Mazz’s six-year-old son to understand what’s going on. You know, his dad is living with a man in Boston....It’s hard for me to figure, too.”

Hmm. Not much to add there, so we’ll fast-forward last spring.

During the buildup to the NCAAs, Parker told Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan that Harvard was “playing as well as anyone in the country.” Mazzoleni then jokingly referred to the media-savvy Parker as a “sandbagger.” (Parker later expressed his displeasure with the comment.)

Then the “sandbagger,” somewhat ironically, ate a sandwich as he sat in the stands during Harvard’s practice before their first round game.

When reporters told Mazzoleni that Parker was present at his practice, Mazzoleni told the Herald, “I wouldn’t do that. We were running a couple of new things. That surprises me.”

Parker played it cool.

“It’s an open practice,” he told the Herald. “I just needed a place to eat my lunch and write out our practice plan. It was a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, onion and honey mustard. Very healthy.”

Thus, the rivalry stewpot was stirred with an itty-bitty ladle and another chapter was added to the short but eventful history of Mazzoleni and Parker.

Now, though, it seems they’re brushing off Sandwichgate like breadcrumbs off their laps.

They’ll say tonight’s game isn’t about cold cuts, that it’s instead about whose team will gain the upper hand in one of college hockey’s greatest—and closest—non-conference rivalries.

And they’re probably right. Maybe what happened in March was exactly what Parker said it was—something for the media to have fun with on an off day before the tournament started.

Still, no one can question that it’s fun to have some intrigue on top of everything else that goes along with a Harvard-BU game.

After all, every good rivalry can stand to have a little more spice…or honey mustard, depending on what you’re having for lunch.

Bear Market

Harvard’s season-opening clunker against Brown is looking more like a loss to a high-quality opponent than a bad loss.

The Bears have won three of four games since and are in first place in the ECAC with a 4-1 mark, following last weekend’s sweep of Princeton and Yale by a combined score of 11-1.

With those two victories, Brown improved to an eye-popping 19-2-5 in its last 26 home games. In other words, it has lost twice at home since Jan. 11, 2002.

This is worth repeating: Brown has lost twice at home in about two years.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize that,” Brown coach Roger Grillo said. “The guys take a lot of pride in what they do in our building. There’s really a positive feeling there.”

Yann Danis (0.80 GAA, .970 save percentage) has been predictably dominant, but the key for the Bears thus far has been balanced scoring. While only five players averaged a half-point per game or more last season, they have eight such scorers this season, including junior Les Haggett, who has five points in his first two games back from injury.

Another boon for Brown has been the emergence of freshman forward Brian Ihnacak, who chose the Bears over traditional hockey powers BU and Colorado College and leads the team with seven points, including four in the Princeton win alone.

But despite Brown’s early success, it remains one of the nation’s most underrated teams. The Bears snuck into last week’s USCHO.com poll at No. 15, but that was two slots behind Harvard—a team they beat convincingly, and one that has a worse record than they do. It seems the underdog role—theirs for much of Grillo’s increasingly successful tenure—may stick with them this season, no matter how successful they become.

“We’ve been the underdog ever since I got here, and we’ll always be the underdog in our minds,” said assistant captain Brent Robinson. “We’re out to prove everyone wrong, every single game.”

Difficult Docket

Harvard players will admit their record isn’t what they expected it would be at this point of the season. Now the Crimson will have to prove its mettle under historically unfriendly circumstances.

After the upcoming home series with Clarkson and St. Lawrence, Harvard plays at Colgate and No. 13 Cornell – two teams it hasn’t swept in a road weekend since 1993.

A short trip to No. 2 Boston College and home date with No. 7 Massachusetts follow, and Harvard hasn’t had a two-game winning streak against Hockey East since the 2000 season.

How impressive would it be for Harvard to beat BC and UMass in succession? In nine attempts, including once in each of the last six seasons, the Crimson has never played and defeated Hockey East schools in back-to-back games since the league’s inception in 1984.

—Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reached at morosi@fas.harvard.edu.

Tags