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Seniority Rules for Resurgent Harvard Hockey Team

Harvard's senior class, shown receiving the Beanpot trophy back in February, heads to Chicago two wins away from the program's first national championship since 1989.
Harvard's senior class, shown receiving the Beanpot trophy back in February, heads to Chicago two wins away from the program's first national championship since 1989. By Thomas W. Franck
By Jake Meagher, Crimson Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Across Division I men’s hockey, no senior class has come close to matching the production of Harvard’s most grizzled veterans.

In 35 games this season, the Crimson’s seven seniors have combined for 191 points—39 more than the nation’s next best collection of fourth-years, and 78 more than the same Harvard septuplet just a year ago.

The numbers don’t lie. For the 2016-17 edition of the Harvard Crimson, seniority rules. Netminder Merrick Madsen, left-winger Ryan Donato, and blue-liner Adam Fox have done well to champion their respective class years, but it is Harvard’s seniors who provide this team with its pulse.

But co-captain Alexander Kerfoot remembers a time in January when Harvard’s heart skipped a beat, only to be replaced with a buzz.

Each Crimson senior felt the vibration—not the good kind. The coaching staff had sent a text to each member of its eldest class. No one else.

“Obviously when you get a text from the coaches saying, ‘Can you guys all meet before practice?,’ it’s never usually a good thing,” Kerfoot said.

Everyone knew what was coming. At one time Harvard was 11-2-1, but the tires had fallen off for the third consecutive January. Only this time, the losses were stunners.

Days after rising to a program-record No. 2 in the national polls, the Crimson suffered an astonishing 4-0 defeat to a 3-19-1 RPI team that had not beaten an opponent with a winning record—besides Harvard—since January 2016. The next night, Union shut out the Crimson for all but 10 seconds of game time, and the following Tuesday, Dartmouth lit up the Cambridge icemen for eight goals.

Harvard did manage to rebound with three points the following weekend. But a home win over Brown hardly counts. And a 1-1 tie with Yale just doesn’t cut it. Thus, the private meeting was held.

Senior defenseman Clay Anderson remembers what the staff had to say: “‘Guys, do you want to just go away in the night? Or do you want to actually do something with the season?’”

“At that point, we very well could’ve just gone .500 the rest of the year and lost the second round of the ECAC playoffs or whatever,” Anderson acknowledged. “But we sat down, looked in the mirror, and actually realized that we had something special. And if we wanted to do something with it, it had to be now.”

***

Co-captain Devin Tringale hoists Harvard's first Beanpot trophy since 1993.
Co-captain Devin Tringale hoists Harvard's first Beanpot trophy since 1993. By Thomas W. Franck

Fast forward two months.

Standing before senior Devin Tringale in a now-barren Herb Brooks Arena, a reporter begins rattling off Harvard’s accomplishments in front of the co-captain: “Just five losses on the year, Ivy League, ECAC, Beanpot, I mean how special has this year been?”

The fourth-line forward was already beaming. “Just hearing you say that brings a smile to my face,” he said.

It’s a good thing Tringale selected hockey as his sport of choice, not poker, because the Medford, Mass., native wears his team on his sleeve. And if somehow you can’t tell, don’t worry. Because he’ll literally let you know.

“He’s very vocal,” Kerfoot said. “Not just in the locker room, but on the ice, in between periods, on the bench. He’s just very positive at all times on the bench. I think that’s something that you really need. It can get deflating at times if things aren’t going your way, and [it’s important] to have that calming presence on the bench who’s always positive and always upbeat.”

That’s Tringale in a nutshell. He’s only got three goals, and he’s only got three assists, but he’s just as much a part of Harvard’s current 18-game unbeaten streak as anyone else in the locker room.

Devin Tringale embraces his teammates in Providence after Harvard's 3-2 win in the East Regional final.
Devin Tringale embraces his teammates in Providence after Harvard's 3-2 win in the East Regional final. By Thomas W. Franck

Tringale arrived on campus amidst an era of Harvard Hockey not far removed from turmoil, as the Crimson had posted just one winning season in the five years prior to the arrival of the Class of 2017. But persuaded by the program’s rich history and the caliber of the guys coming in around him, Tringale saw an opportunity to compete.

“We all came to this program knowing we could be national contenders,” Tringale said.

Well, he was right. Since a disappointing 10-17-4 freshman campaign, Harvard’s most veteran class has now advanced to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments and is set to compete in the Frozen Four for the first time since 1994.

These are the rest of the ’17ers who made it happen.

***

Co-captain Alexander Kerfoot celebrates with a stand-in replica for the Cleary Cup, given to the ECAC's regular season champion.
Co-captain Alexander Kerfoot celebrates with a stand-in replica for the Cleary Cup, given to the ECAC's regular season champion. By Thomas W. Franck

For the third season in a row, the Harvard captainship is shared by two members of the Crimson. There’s Tringale. And then there’s that skinny kid from Matthews.

About to take a practice conditioning test prior to the 2013-14 season, Tringale and a handful of teammates had cut through the Yard on their walk to the Bright. And along the way, Tringale caught his first real glimpse of now co-captain Alexander Kerfoot right outside Matthews—one that still gets a laugh out of Tringale to this day.

“I guess I hadn’t met them until now,” Kerfoot recalled. “I was kind of a smaller kid, wasn’t super built up…. But they were all dressed up in their gear heading down to the rink.”

“And I was just playing spikeball.”

These days, Kerfoot probably spends a little less time around the trampoline. And now three-plus years removed from their interesting first encounter, Kerfoot and Tringale are now both co-captains and roommates.

Alexander Kerfoot makes his way through the handshake line after Harvard's 3-2 win over Air Force in the East Regional.
Alexander Kerfoot makes his way through the handshake line after Harvard's 3-2 win over Air Force in the East Regional. By Thomas W. Franck

Therefore, it’s not considerably surprising that the two share several things in common. For instance, with the pieces Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 had begun to put in place prior to the duo’s arrival, Kerfoot also believed that he’d have an opportunity to contend for championships donning Crimson.

That belief stemmed from Donato making the trek to Vancouver—Kerfoot’s hometown—to watch the promising center play an exhibition game in the British Columbia Hockey League. The skipper arrived bearing blueprints detailing prospective renovations to the Bright, but those hardly mattered to Kerfoot. An opportunity to play right away paired with an opportunity to contend was already more than enough.

But here’s where Kerfoot and Tringale differ. Throughout the year, Tringale has spoken at length about moving on without a guy by the last name Vesey. Kerfoot, on the other hand, knows such a guy that hasn’t gone anywhere.

In fact you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of Kerfoot than Jake Vesey, one of Jimmy’s youngest cousins. Despite Jimmy jumping to the pro ranks, Jake—according to Kerfoot—has been a spectator for just about every Harvard game this year, including the East Regional final in Providence, R.I., and the ECAC championship game in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“He’s been awesome, he’s a big fan of the team,” Kerfoot said. “There were a couple times last year when he sent Jimmy a text. It would be videos that his dad would actually send, and he would say, ‘Hey Kerf, good luck this weekend. Going to be rooting for you. And then at the end of it, he’d say, ‘Oh yeah, Jimmy good luck too!’”

Unfortunately, Jake will not be in Chicago for the Frozen Four, as he’ll be spending the weekend in Florida. But that didn’t stop the youngster from trying to sneak his way into the Windy City.

“He was actually pretty bummed,” Kerfoot said. “He was asking if I could put him in my hockey bag for him to come.”

***

Senior blu-liner Clay Anderson gets his turn with the Cleary Cup stand-in.
Senior blu-liner Clay Anderson gets his turn with the Cleary Cup stand-in. By Thomas W. Franck

If Jake managed to sneak his way into Kerfoot’s bag, senior defenseman Clay Anderson would have probably been the first to know. Because if there’s anything Anderson does as consistently as he mans the blue line, it’s that on every road trip, he packs all of Harvard’s hockey bags onto the bus.

“I just get frustrated when other people try and do it because they’re not good at it,” Anderson says with a laugh. “Just trying to keep things efficient.”

In a way, Anderson’s role with the equipment mirrors his actual role on the hockey team. As he himself has admitted, “you kind of fly under the radar.”

Senior Clay Anderson scored one of the biggest goals of his career in the Beanpot semis to give Harvard a 2-1 lead over Northeastern in the third period.
Senior Clay Anderson scored one of the biggest goals of his career in the Beanpot semis to give Harvard a 2-1 lead over Northeastern in the third period. By Timothy R. O'Meara

One season after earning a career-high +9 rating over 34 games from the blue line, Anderson has blown that mark out of the water. In large part due to his puck-moving presence on Harvard’s second power-play unit, the senior d-man is +21 on the year—putting him in a tie with teammate John Marino for the seventh-best mark in the country among defensemen.

Not too shabby for a guy on a third pairing. But even as a member of Harvard’s headline-grabbing senior class, Anderson continues to repel the spotlight. However, as a defenseman—the only one remaining in his class no less—the Omaha, Neb., native understands the nature of the media beast.

“You just come in and do your job,” Anderson said. “Do your own thing, and you let the forwards get all the glory.”

These kind of comments illustrate how Anderson presents himself as a realist. Perhaps that’s why his recollection of the recruitment process sounds a little different from that of his classmates.

For starters, Anderson doesn’t claim to remember every last detail from his first meeting with Coach Donato. “I think he took me on a car ride,” the d-man guesses.

As for his early aspirations, Anderson wasn’t thinking about national championships or Frozen Fours for long.

“I definitely thought we could do something, but after that freshman year I kind of realized, no matter how much talent you have, it’s going to take much more to win games,” Anderson said. “So I don’t think a national title was on our thoughts. I think it was ‘what are we going to do,’ how are we going to start winning games?”

“Not until this year was there really any forethought about going to the Frozen Four or doing the things that we have,” he added.

The latter statement is a bit more surprising than the first given Harvard’s three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, but it hardly dilutes the notion that Anderson’s take is refreshing. There’s no denying that this class has been at the heart of the resurgence of Harvard Hockey; but there’s also no denying that there were legitimate kinks along the road to revival.

When this season finally comes to an end, one can only wonder if Harvard will be able to replace its star bag-packer. Anderson does hope to continue playing hockey at the professional level, but perhaps he can be had back for the right price.

“They might have to hire me on the staff.”

***

Having played in Harvard's last 14 games, senior Phil Zielonka has won trophy after trophy without losing a contest.
Having played in Harvard's last 14 games, senior Phil Zielonka has won trophy after trophy without losing a contest. By Thomas W. Franck


If it were up to Brock Malone, Harvard’s Assistant Director of Athletic Communications, Anderson would certainly get the job. But alas, he probably doesn’t have the power to extend such an offer.

One offer Malone did extend, however, was one to senior forward Phil Zielonka: an opportunity to be in a television spot with ESPN’s John Buccigross and also devour chicken parm.

“It was actually very, very good, I’ve gotta say,” said Zielonka, incapable of refusing such a proposition.

At season’s outset, Zielonka stood no chance of having his dinner nationally televised. The 5’11” lefty was not listed among Harvard’s top 12 forwards, and the Montreal native hadn’t played in a game since Feb. 8, 2016.

Yet, players continued to rave about the forward’s specific skill set—primarily his lightning-quick shot. Zielonka wasn’t ready to confirm a rumor that he’s scored more goals in practice over four years than any of his teammates, but he did quip, “hopefully, I’m definitely up there.”

Phil Zielonka gets involved in a scrum in the regular season finale against St. Lawrence.
Phil Zielonka gets involved in a scrum in the regular season finale against St. Lawrence. By Thomas W. Franck

At the beginning of February, Zielonka’s golden opportunity arose. After half a season of Coach Donato telling the senior to stay ready, in-practice injuries to junior Seb Lloyd and freshman Frederic Gregoire opened the door for Zielonka to make his return to the lineup for good. He hasn’t left the third line since, and subsequently, he hasn’t been on the ice for a Harvard loss (15-0-0).

“We honestly kind of forgot what it feels like to lose,” Zielonka said. “And that can be a really good thing because we’re playing with a ton of confidence. But at the end of the day, we know that the next game we lose, our season’s over.”

***

Senior Luke Esposito celebrates with the stand-in Cleary Cup.
Senior Luke Esposito celebrates with the stand-in Cleary Cup. By Thomas W. Franck

Zielonka and Buccigross didn’t eat their parm alone. Also present to join in on the fun was Luke Esposito, a representative of Harvard’s final key group of seniors—the Crimson second line.

This second line has a plethora of names. Coach Donato often uses the term “Line 1B.” This publication has once referred to the trio as “The Three Amigos.” A few fans have even concocted “The Kirkland Line” as a descriptor.

The latter two labels stem from the fact that Esposito and his classmates Sean Malone and Tyler Moy are more than just linemates. They’re roommates.

At the outset of the season, all three amigos repeatedly pointed to their chemistry as a potential predictor of success. And considering they’ve logged 122 points this year, they might’ve been onto something.

Looking back, however, it’s somewhat difficult to fathom how three skaters from such divergent backgrounds wound up on the ice together in a place like Cambridge.

Senior Tyler Moy is tied for the Crimson lead with 21 goals on the season. He also has 23 assists.
Senior Tyler Moy is tied for the Crimson lead with 21 goals on the season. He also has 23 assists. By Thomas W. Franck

For starters, Moy never played for a school prior to Harvard. He grew up in San Diego, a place where ice wasn’t exactly the city’s most accessible commodity. To some degree, Esposito can relate. Living in South Carolina until he was 10, the forward stuck to roller skates until leaving the Palmetto state.

Later on, once he had established himself as an ice skater, Esposito was just about ready to commit to Princeton. He hadn’t heard much from Harvard, but before making a final decision, he decided to call Coach Donato on a whim. Sure enough, Donato answered the bell. The coach flew out to watch Esposito play, determined he’d be a fit, and the rest is history.

Senior Sean Malone is all smiles after winning the Beanpot.
Senior Sean Malone is all smiles after winning the Beanpot. By Thomas W. Franck

Meanwhile, as a native of a hockey city in Buffalo, N.Y., Malone had a much more straightforward path to collegiate hockey. And in 2013, another potential path emerged for the senior—one to professional hockey. Because Malone’s hometown Sabres selected him in the NHL Draft.

After bouncing around from team to team, program to program, and then playing two seasons with Harvard, Moy joined Malone’s company in 2015 when the Nashville Predators spent a sixth-round pick on the budding forward.

Of course, that leaves Esposito.

“Getting drafted for a lot of guys, myself included, was a dream,” said Esposito, who acknowledged that his progression was a little slower than for other guys. “You always envision yourself going first round with the jersey and everything.”

“There certainly is a chip on your shoulder when you’re playing other guys who are drafted, and you believe you can prove yourself over them,” he added. “But I’ve never taken it personally. Obviously you just want to look forward and look to prove yourself.”

***

Phil Zielonka holds the Beanpot trophy, Sean Malone holds the Ivy League championship trophy, and Tyler Moy holds a stand-in for the ECAC regular-season championship trophy.
Phil Zielonka holds the Beanpot trophy, Sean Malone holds the Ivy League championship trophy, and Tyler Moy holds a stand-in for the ECAC regular-season championship trophy. By Thomas W. Franck

“Guys, do you want to just go away in the night, or do you want to actually do something with the season?"

Esposito isn’t the only member of the Crimson who’s played with a chip on his shoulder. Just about every member of Harvard’s senior class has played with something to prove this year. And now that they’ve arrived on college hockey’s grandest stage, it appears they’ve made their point.

“People thought this would be a little bit of a down year, and we wanted to prevent that,” Tringale said. “A bunch of guys stepped up and allowed for that to happen.”

Now, just three seasons removed from the current seniors’ 10-win campaign, Harvard stands two wins away from hitting 30 victories—and of course, bringing home a national championship.

“There’s definitely a big sense of pride in our senior class, especially to be part of this transformation,” Tringale said. “To bring Harvard Hockey back to where it was back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it’s a special feeling and something that we’re very proud of.”

“These guys are my brothers for life,” Moy said. “To have this kind of experience is something we’ve dreamed about for a long time now, and I think to have that manifest itself into a national championship would be one of the greatest experiences of our lives.”

—Staff writer Jake Meagher can be reached at jake.meagher @thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MeagherTHC.

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