Harvard’s humble hockey abode—the Bright-Landry Hockey Center—holds only 3,095 people. That’s less than half the capacity of the buildings that Boston College and Boston University call home, and 1,000 seats fewer than what's housed by Northeastern’s Matthews Arena.
Yet, by the time late March rolled around, all the commotion in the Commonwealth was for once confined to the smallest of the four core collegiate rinks in the Greater Boston Area. Cameras and microphones were flocking to Cambridge, not Boston. Because for the first time in almost three decades, the Crimson represented the area’s last men’s hockey team still standing.
Widespread attention is the reward you reap for winning. And over the course of the 2016-2017 campaign, Harvard did a whole lot of that. A 28-6-2 season kept members of the Crimson in uniform until April 6, the latest the program has ever marched.
Trophies continuously made their way into Harvard’s cabinet. The month of February saw the Crimson win its first Beanpot title since 1993, its first ECAC regular season championship since 1994, and its first outright claim to the Ivy League crown since 2006. Harvard showed no signs of slowing down in March, either, capping an undefeated run at home and tacking on its second ECAC tournament title in three seasons.
Nonetheless, in spite of all the drought-snapping that the Crimson accomplished, yet another hump separated Harvard from becoming the focus of attention in the Greater Boston Area. After seven straight first-round exits at the Big Dance, the Crimson desperately sought to seize its first NCAA Tournament win since 1994.
That it did. On Mar. 24, Harvard blanked Providence just a couple miles from the Friars’ campus to move to the East Regional final. And there, the Crimson won a program-record 16th consecutive game, gliding past Air Force to reach the Frozen Four for the first time in 23 seasons.
“Thinking back to freshman year and how different this year has been, it’s amazing to see how far the program has come,” said co-captain Devin Tringale, who won just 10 games with the Crimson as a rookie. “It’s something we really have pushed for. We thought we could have this kind of success—we always believed in it—but for it to [come] true, it’s amazing.”
Tringale may have thought Harvard was capable of this kind of success, but hardly anyone outside the Crimson locker room shared the same belief heading into the season. Despite the fact that Harvard had reached back-to-back NCAA tournaments at the end of the previous two campaigns, two major departures fueled the thinking that the Crimson’s window for a national championship had expired.
A year ago, a second consecutive loss in round one of the NCAA Tournament—this one to Boston College—had marked the end of the illustrious career of Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey ’16, who netted a nation-leading 56 goals over his final two collegiate seasons. Furthermore, it halted the career of two-time captain Kyle Criscuolo ’16, who logged 80 points over those same two seasons, primarily opposite Vesey on Harvard’s top line.
With the senior duo having accounted for 37 percent of Harvard’s goals a year ago, Vesey and Criscuolo’s departures led many to question whether the new-look Crimson could generate enough offense to compete for a title. Harvard still returned one of the ECAC’s more talented rosters—one that could get it back to the Big Dance—but if the Crimson could not get over its NCAA tournament hump with two of the top forwards in college hockey, then how was it supposed to fare without them?
Prior to beginning his 13th season behind the bench, Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 admitted that the Crimson’s style of play was going to have to change. However, he never appeared all that concerned.
“It’s not hard for us as a coaching staff to convince our team that no one guy is going to try to replace what we had go out the door,” Donato said in October. “As far as who steps in, I think we have to do it a little bit more across the board. We’re going to have to not really look to a player or a line, but more of a team game. And I think that we’re capable of doing it.”
Donato was right. One year after Vesey was the only member of the Crimson to eclipse 35 points, six different skaters accomplished the feat.
Co-captain Alexander Kerfoot tied for the team lead with 45 points, quadrupling his goal total from a year ago. Skating on an all-senior line with Sean Malone and Luke Esposito—two forwards who also had stellar offensive years—Tyler Moy logged 45 points of his own after recording just 19 a season ago.
Meanwhile, sophomore Ryan Donato scored 21 goals en route to Ivy League Player of the Year honors, and freshman Adam Fox led the nation in both points and assists among defensemen, becoming a First Team All-American in the process.
With this caliber of production in the attacking zone, the Crimson finished second in the country in scoring at 4.06 goals per game—just 0.04 behind Penn State, which plays in the Big Ten, a weaker defensive conference.
“We kind of knew that people would have their doubts about how good we could be next year after losing [Vesey and Criscuolo],” Tringale said. “We used that as a little bit of motivation. People thought this would be a little bit of a down year, and we wanted to prevent that.”
“[Vesey] deserved all the spotlight he got, but I think a lot of the talent on this team might have flown under the radar during the summer,” Moy said. “People may not have expected [the success]. But I think in the locker room, we didn’t really have a shred of doubt that we [had] the firepower to be able to make it very far. People doubting us and saying that we’re not supposed to be as good anymore...I think we’ve kind of taken that personally, and we came back to prove a statement.”
The verdict remained out on what kind of team Harvard was going to be early in the campaign. The Crimson thumped Division I newcomer Arizona State in its first two games, but a 1-1 draw against a weak Colgate team in its home opener and a subsequent one-goal victory over a short-staffed Cornell club left plenty of room for improvement.
It was not until an 11-day stretch before Thanksgiving that the Crimson provided a glimpse of what it was truly capable of. The Crimson dominated play on the road against a Quinnipiac team that swept the season series with Harvard just a season earlier, became the first team in more than a month to knock off third-ranked Boston College, and threw its best punch at Boston University inside Agganis Arena.
Granted, the Crimson dropped two of those games. A defensive zone miscue and a separate misplay in net enabled the Bobcats to steal a victory in Hamden, Conn. And the Terriers eventually surged past Harvard in the third period of their Boston battle. But the Crimson was playing quality hockey. Opponents were taking notice.
“That’s a team that could win a national title,” said Boston University coach David Quinn on Nov. 22, 2016. “You talk about teams that have a chance to win it—Harvard’s one of them."
Following the BU game, the Crimson rattled off six wins in a row, highlighted by a dominant road sweep of St. Lawrence and Clarkson in North Country—Harvard’s first since 2002—and a redemptive home win over Quinnipiac. As a result, the Crimson assumed its highest ranking in the major polls in program history. By Jan. 9, the Harvard’s 11-2-1 mark had propelled the team to No. 2 in the country.
Then came the collapse. In perhaps the most stunning upset of the college hockey season, ECAC cellar-dwellar Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute blanked the Crimson, 4-0, on Jan. 13. One night later, Union came 10 seconds from shutting out Harvard again in what amounted to a 2-1 win, and the following Tuesday, a below-average Dartmouth squad lit up the Crimson for eight goals in Hanover, N.H.
History was repeating itself. Harvard has been notorious for stumbling out of the gate following the annual winter layoff, now having fallen victim to a three-game winless stretch early in the second half of the season in 11 consecutive campaigns.
Thus, the players on this year’s roster were no stranger to slumps. In 2015, after at one point reaching the top spot in the PairWise rankings, the Crimson dropped seven of nine games between January and early February. Last year, Harvard dropped three games in January, then three out of its first four February contests. And in the early part of 2017, the Crimson was staring again at three consecutive L’s.
Things improved only marginally at home the following weekend, as Harvard eclipsed Brown—the new last-place team in the ECAC—and barely salvaged a tie with Yale. So the coaching staff took action.
A few days after the Yale game, each senior on the team received a text from the coaches asking them to arrive early to practice for a private meeting. Defenseman Clay Anderson recalled the coaches providing a wake-up call: “‘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.”
In the following weekend, the coaching staff spared no line or defensive pairing, even subjecting its top two lines—which had not been touched all season—to temporary upheaval. And the message appeared to be well-received. Harvard scored four times in the third period at a rowdy Lynah Rink to knock off Cornell, setting into motion a winning streak that seemingly knew no bounds.
A string of three straight wins carried the Crimson into its Beanpot opener—a game that Harvard had not won since 2008. But behind four goals scored exclusively by seniors, the Crimson staved off Northeastern by a 4-3 margin to set up a championship bout with Boston University—a 30-time Beanpot champion that had rattled off 13 titles since Harvard last won the tournament in 1993.
After the Crimson’s November bout with BU, Donato had said that he hoped to see the Terriers again. However, this time, freshman phenom Clayton Keller—who missed the teams’ first clash with an injury—would be suiting up for BU.
That addition proved to make a difference, as Keller—the eventual winner of the Tim Taylor Award given to the nation’s top rookie—scored twice in the Beanpot finale. But Harvard was not to be denied. Putting together one of its most complete performances of the year against the PairWise’s third-ranked team, the Crimson outshot BU 46-17 en route to a 6-3 victory that cemented Harvard’s status as the Commonwealth’s college hockey king.
“I think it was something [our seniors] really wanted,” said Donato following the win. “They wanted to leave this kind of legacy that they were a group that was going to break the curse.”
Donato’s seniors went on to finish the season with the most points of any graduating class in the country (193) and seemingly helped to break a new curse once every week or two until Harvard had steamrolled its way to the Frozen Four at the United Center in Chicago.
By that point, the Crimson’s winning streak had hit 16 and the unbeaten streak had hit 18—both program bests, eclipsing the marks set by Harvard’s 1989 national championship team.
It’s reasonable, then, to argue that the 2017 edition of the Crimson will go down as one of the greatest men’s hockey teams Harvard has ever fielded. The 1989 team, which finished a remarkable 31-3-0, possessed unparalleled offensive firepower, but this Crimson team has at least fought its way into the conversation.
Heading into the Frozen Four, onlookers inevitably drew comparisons between the 1989 team and the 2017 one. The comparison was especially pertinent considering the coach who now patrols the Harvard bench.
In 1989, Donato was a sophomore forward for Harvard. At the Frozen Four, he earned the Most Outstanding Player award.
“Watching this team this year, I feel like they play their best in some of the biggest moments,” said Lane MacDonald ’89, captain of the 1989 team. “And that I think is a really important thing. In these big moments, this team has seemed to be able to elevate their game.”
MacDonald highlighted Harvard’s Beanpot victory over BU, calling the performance as good a game as he’s seen in a very long time. The former captain also said that senior leadership—which he saw as the most evident similarity between the two teams—is what allows teams to rise to big occasions.
In the national semifinal, Harvard elevated its game yet again, playing second-ranked Minnesota Duluth tight for 60 minutes. But a breakthrough for the Bulldogs with 27 ticks remaining, paired with two Harvard shots in the final seconds being blocked by the pipe, spelled the end of the Crimson’s remarkable run.
MacDonald’s former teammate, Ed Krayer ’89-90, admitted that in 1986, there may have been a bit of a sentiment that Harvard was just happy to be at the Frozen Four. But by the time the team got another chance at the crown three years later, Krayer said there was almost an “expectation”—at least around the team—that the Crimson was going to win it all.
“There were four or five of us who had played in that national championship in ’86,” Krayer said. “We knew what it felt like to be 20 minutes away from the national championship. And then having it slip away off your fingertips, we were pretty determined to not have that happen again.”
Perhaps 2017 will serve as Harvard’s next 1986 moment. Both before and after the Frozen Four, Coach Donato and many players said that they traveled to Chicago expecting to win. But that attitude doesn’t change the fact that 2017 marked Harvard’s first trip to the Frozen Four in decades, not to mention that the Crimson was not the favorite.
Harvard will have plenty of offensive production to replace next season with the nation’s most prolific group of seniors walking out the door. But that’s the dilemma many expected the Crimson to face this year minus Vesey and Criscuolo. And things turned out just fine.
The odds may be stacked against Harvard replicating the same degree of success it had this year, but the Crimson retains stars all over the ice who are capable of leading Harvard on another impressive run. Fresh off a string of superb postseason performances, goaltender Merrick Madsen will be back between the pipes with two above-average back-ups waiting in the wings. The younger Donato will be a menace yet again in the attacking zone. And Fox and classmate John Marino should remain forces on the blue line.
While this edition of the Harvard men’s hockey team is well deserving of The Crimson’s Team of the Year designation, it’s also worth repeating what Vesey said on his way out in 2016: “Harvard Hockey isn’t going anywhere.”
“It’s incredible to be a part of this group,” added Kerfoot after the loss to Minnesota Duluth. “And I mean, with [whom] the team’s got right now and the direction the program’s going, everything’s looking up.”
—Staff writer Jake Meagher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.