To understand all the commotion, you have to understand that Harvard used to turn out some pretty good hockey teams.
How good? Three times in the 1970's the Crimson qualified for the NCAA Championships as one of the top four teams in the country.
From 1962, the first year of the ECAC Tournament, until 1977, the beginning of the current dry spell. Harvard missed the playoffs only twice.
And when Jack Riley, coach of the 1960 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, realized two weeks before the Opening Ceremonies that his Western-led squad needed help, he called Cambridge and asked for Billy and Bobby Cleary.
So hockey madness at Harvard is nothing new. If you've been around here long enough, you know that Harvard hockey is traditionally one of the few real sports the school has to offer, one team your high-school varsity couldn't beat. Harvard used to be the Boston school with the hockey tradition.
But it's been a long time since the Crimson's last playoff game. Six years, and if you think about that in hockey terms, about 150 games. Most of them have been losses, so it seems even longer.
Tonight, the Harvard hockey team has a chance to earn itself a spot in the playoffs with a single win. If you still don't understand why Bright Center has gone bonkers, you obviously don't remember or didn't hear about The Lean Years:
1977: With two games left in the season, the icemen held sixth place. On March 1, they lost, 3-2, to Dartmouth when goalie Brian Petrovek accidentally kicked the puck into his own net. Five days later, they ended the season with a 5-3 loss to Yale and a ninth-place finish, out of the playoffs for the first time in eleven years. Everybody though that would be only temporary.
In 1978: The Beanpot used to count in the ECAC standings, and in '78 the Great Blizzard delayed it until March. The Crimson capitalized on that unique opportunity by losing the Beanpot final and any chance at the playoffs in one, glorious, 7-1 tragedy at the hands of B.U. To celebrate, the teams staged a beach-clearing brawl late in the third period, George and Jackie Hughes and Murray Dea against Jack O'Callahan, Daryl McLeod and Dave Silk in the tag-team feature. Harvard lost that, too.
1979: The Vegabond Team that played out of B.U.'s Walter Brown Arena during the renovation of Watson Rink lost more games (18) than any other in Harvard history. That memorable squad was bumped from the playoff race soon after a January 31 loss to Providence dropped its record to 3-9. The season closed with a bang: one-goal losses to Dartmouth and Yale.
1980: The New Era began, with a new home and more freshmen than Billy Cleary had ever seen. A February 21 loss to Cornell following a three-hour bus breakdown dumped the innocents into ninth place. A week later, senior goalie John Huynes dropped a save over his own goal line in a 3-2 loss to Colgate. A 6-5, overtime loss at Dartmouth and it was all over. The final record was 7-11-3.
1981: The Crimson tried to recover from a horrible January with a late-season streak, and made it as far as seven in a row unbeaten before Cornell halted the proceedings with a 7-3 TKO on February 28. Harvard finished the season with three straight losses, and after the last one, 5-2, at Dartmouth, goalie Steve Better's roommates smashed up his car in a turnpike accident on the way home.
"It's not a pretty story, but that's what makes tonight so special. A win tonight can end all the frustration and start a real New Era of playoff glory. Why in a few years we'll look at all those losses and missed opportunities and laugh.
Just as easily, however, a loss tonight can make 1982 one more soldier in that long, grey line of Lean Years, and send seniors Mike Watson, Wade Lau, Alan Litchfield and Scott Powers into the Harvard hockey Hall of Shame, joining the class of '81 as the only two never to play in the ECAC Championship since there have been ECAC Championships.
And now you know why tickets ran out last Tuesday and why the largest crowd in Bright Center history is expected tonight, depending on how many standees they allow. And now you understand what the commotion and the noise is all about, and why it is all happening at a place like Harvard.
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