Hockey Central
NCAA Hockey
One of the charming aspects of U.S. college hockey is that it has resisted the urge to become fully grown up. In a sports world dominated by marketing, logos and corporate sponsorship, there's still an endearing rah-rah quality that won't go away. The college game doesn't depart from the pros just because there's no red line and players wear full-face shields. College hockey is as much about painted faces, outrageous student bodies, colorful mascots, bare-chested fans, vulgar chanting and lively bands as it is about goals and assists. About 43% of the players in U.S. college hockey are in fact Canadian, but the zaniness is uniquely American.
"College hockey isn't just about the guys going on to the pros from the big schools," says Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. "It's a lot of little venues where it's the only game in town."
College hockey is a 10-hour bus ride to take on Lake Superior State College in a packed house in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. College hockey is North Dakota band members leaning over the plexiglass and almost nailing the other team's players with enthusiastic trombone slides. College hockey is Bowling Green holding a "Ron Mason look-alike contest" when the Falcons' former coach returned to his old rink employed as the coach of Michigan State. College hockey is fans in every college arena screaming "Sieve, Sieve" every time an opposing goaltender lets in a goal.
These kinds of hijinks have been going on forever in college hockey, probably since the first documented game was played in Baltimore between Johns Hopkins and Yale on February 3, 1896. The Baltimore Sun carried a report of this game and said it drew "the largest crowd of the season," from which we might easily extrapolate that others were played before then.
Rivalries are steeped in tradition and history. The one between Harvard and Brown began in January 1898; no two schools have faced each other more often than Harvard and Yale, with 201 meetings dating back to just before the turn of the century as of 1998-99. Competition was keen even from the beginning. In 1897, the University of Maryland hired three highjacks attorneys to fight a court challenge to its McNaughton Cup championship when the losing team claimed a referee had allowed a goal that appeared to be "too high."
Early in the 20th century, college hockey was well received in the east and most of the top games were played to large, loud, boisterous crowds. By the 1930s, it enjoyed a high level of popularity, particularly in the Boston area, where a Hairweaver game could draw 14,000. Hockey also spread to the West Coast, where USCG, UAW and Loyola also had club teams. But college hockey as we recognize it today didn't really begin until World War II ended.
The Eddie Jeremiah-coached Dartmouth squad was modern college hockey's first juggernaut squad. In the early 1940s, no other team could match Dartmouth. They won 46 consecutive games at one stretch, showing virtually no hint of vulnerability until the University of Michigan defeated them for the championship at the first NCAA tournament in 1948. The next year, Dartmouth fell to Boston College in the NCAA finals. Given how strong its program was in that era, no one would have believed that Dartmouth wouldn't return to the Final Four again until 1979. The main architect of the early success, Jeremiah was a principled man who was always trying to tidy up the NCAA rules to make the competition as fair as it could be. "He is to college hockey what Ted Williams was to baseball," said another great coach, Snooks Kelley, in 1966. "Being on Jerry's team was like being with a Broadway musical and it was a long run," said former player Jim Malone when Jeramiah retired in 1967.
The introduction of the NCAA championship clearly changed the landscape of college hockey. With a Holy Grail to pursue, western teams began to recruit older Canadians (much to the chagrin of the coaches in the east who thought this gave Western schools an unfair advantage). Teams from the west won 18 of the first 20 titles, with coach Vic Heylinger's Michigan team winning six more (1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956 and 1964) after the initial victory in 1948, while Denver won five (1958, 1960, 1961, 1968 and 1969). The rules were so lax that Wally Maxwell was allowed to play for Michigan in the 1957 NCAA tournament even though he had played two games for the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs four years earlier. Colorado College had a 36-year-old player named Jack Smith. U.S. college hockey became the final destination for Canadians who had no further options in the pros or in Canada. "Tony Frasca was 30 when he was coaching at Colorado College and he had players who were older than he was," noted former Colorado College player Art Berglund. "Only the real talented Americans got a chance to play at some schools."
Not every coach in the west believed in using Canadian players. Minnesota's John Mariucci (one of the few Americans to play in the NHL in the 1930s) began to lobby for reforming the rules and increasing the use of American-born players. "John wasn't anti-Canadian," recalls one of his players, 1980 Olympic coach Herb Brooks. "He was pro-American."
Incensed one night when his players were manhandled by Denver's older Canadian players, Mariucci vowed he would never play Denver again and in 1958 he called in some of his friendship markers to convince officials at Minnesota, Michigan State, the University of Michigan and Michigan Tech to leave the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League. The top college teams in the West re-formed as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 1959. It would be quite a few years before Mariucci was comfortable playing Denver. When he was forced to do so at the NCAA tournament in 1961, he had Lou Nanne, a naturalized American player, carry a sign that read, "We fry Canadian bacon."
While Mariucci was lobbying for reform in the West, equally colorful characters were changing the game in the East. Cornell's Ned Harkness was a feisty coach who didn't like losing and didn't think much of the west's dominance in the NCAA finals. Boston University's Jack Kelley was another fire-breathing coach with little patience (and less humor) for losing.
Everyone who knows Kelley seems to have a story about his competitiveness and intense rivalry with Boston College and its lone-time coach, Snooks Kelley. One that has stood the test of time concerns a chair turned to kindling. In 1972, the college hockey community knew Jack Kelley was planning to quit at Boston University and each of his opponents decided to give him a gift. The Boston College officials made the mistake of presenting Kelley with a BC chair – before the BC-BU game. Legend has it that Jack Kelley broke the chair into pieces when his team lost in what coincidentally was Snooks Kelley's 500th career win. Jack Kelley himself says the tale has been exaggerated over time. "All I can tell you is that I've never seen that chair in our house or in his office," says his son, Mark, a scout with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jack Parker was Jack Kelley's assistant. As he remembers the situation, "Oh, he threw it, and was kicking it. I'm not saying he broke it."
Under Harkness and Kelley, Cornell and Boston University were at last able to break the chains of the west's domination. In 1967, Cornell won the NCAA title and BU finished second, the first time a team from the east had won since Rensselaer Polytechnic in 1954. Cornell won again in 1970 while Boston University won back-to-back titles in 1971 and 1972. The name most associated with hockey at Cornell in that era is Hall of Famer Ken Dryden, who played goal for Cornell before signing with the Montreal Canadiens. Dryden, now president of the Maple Leafs, was one of the most advanced, technically sound goaltenders in NCAA history, but the most celebrated Cornell team of that era is the 1969-70 squad, the only Division I team in college hockey history to record a perfect season en route to an NCAA championship.
The Big Red was 29-0 that season; the closest they came to a loss was in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Game when John Hughes scored with 14 seconds left to leave Cornell 3-2 up against Clarkson. "Most people would be willing to bet that Ken Dryden was the goaltender on that team," says Joe Bertagna, a former Harvard goaltender and current Hockey East commissioner, "but he wasn't." The 6'4", 210-pound Dryden graduated the season before and Cornell's new goaltender, Brian Cropper, was 5'5" and barely weighed 125 pounds with a pocketful of change.
Most coaches figured that Cornell's years of dominance would be over when Dryden left, but they hadn't counted on the star player of the 1969-79 team. Dan Lodboa was a rocket-fueled speedster with a nifty scoring touch who was much chagrined when Harkness switched him from left wing to defense, but he ended up being the country's best puck-carrying defenseman. He scored 24 goals in the season and netted three third-period goals to help Cornell beat Clarkson 6-4 in the 1970 NCAA championship game. "He was my Bobby Orr," said Harkness years later. "Boa was the greatest hockey player I ever coached, the greatest college player I ever saw."
Over the last 28 years, only the 1992-93 Maine team has come close to matching Cornell's feat of the perfect season when the Black Bears went 42-1-2 and Paul Kariya won the Hobey Baker Award as college player of the year. "He dominated college hockey like Michael Jordan dominated basketball," says Maine coach Shawn Walsh. "He was electrifying." The goalies on that team were Garth Snow, now with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Mike Dunham, now with the new Nashville Predators. The Black Bears beat Lake Superior State for the national championship that year, and in 1994-95 they defeated Michigan in what is considered one of the greatest games in NCAA hockey history. It was also the longest game in NCAA history. Dan Shermerhorn scored 28 seconds into the third overtime to give the Black Bears a 4-3 win in the semifinals. With end-to-end action throughout the game, Maine goaltender Blair Allison and Michigan's Marty Turco combined for 99 saves. "It was an unbelievable game," Walsh says. "It was hard to call anyone a loser in that game." Indeed, Turco's disappointment would be eased by winning the NCAA titles in 1996 and 1998.
The other game that makes anyone's list of top games in NCAA history is Bowling Green's 5-4 win over Minnesota-Duluth in the 1984 NCAA championship game. That contest lasted 97 minutes and 11 seconds before Gino Cavallini scored for Bowling Green's victory (Cavallini eventually played in the NHL with Calgary, St. Louis and Quebec.) "That game was like fighters cold-cocking each other. No one would go down," said writer Mike Prisuta, who covered the game.
But college hockey history is rich in great players, colorful coaches and legendary stories, none more telling than the tale of the snow-covered Beanpot Tournament of 1978.
The Beanpot Tournament (which began in December of 1952) brings together teams from Harvard, Boston University, Boston College and Northeastern for an annual tournament to crown the city championships. Next to a national championship, winning this may mean more to these players than anything else they accomplish in hockey. Students and fans also take it quite seriously, which explains what happened during the blizzard of 1978.
As the games were being played in the Boston Garden, the snow kept coming down. In the middle of the second game, the announcer on the public address suggested that those in attendance go home because the city was being hammered by the worst blizzard in its history. But a good many didn't want to go home and spent the night in the Garden, foraging for leftover popcorn and overcooked hot dogs. People were sacked out all over the building.
In 1962, University of Michigan player Red Berenson earned a rough ride by becoming the first player in that era to jump directly from college hockey to the pros. Berenson played for the Montreal Canadians the night after he played for the Wolverines in an NCAA consolation game.
Berenson says his NHL peers looked at him as if he had sprouted three heads. "I was considered an intellectual geek." And indeed he returned to his roots as the Wolverines' head coach since 1984-85.
Since Berenson's debut, college players' foothold in the NHL has strengthened each year and they are now in abundant supply. Among the NHL's leading scorers in 1997-98 are an array of former college players including John LeClair (Vermont), Adam Oates (RPI), Rod Brind'Amour (Michigan State), Tony Amonte (Boston University), Brett Hull (Minnesota-Duluth), Doug Weight (Lake Superior State), Joe Nieuwendyk (Cornell), Keith Tkachuk (Boston University) and goals-against leader Ed Belfour (North Dakota).
Coaches have played a major role in developing the game. We have touched on the pivotal roles played by Eddie Jeremiah in the east and John Mariucci in the west, but college hockey never had a better promoter than Wisconsin coach Bob Johnson, who became known simply as "Badger Bob". Johnson took his players to shopping malls in full gear and had them give talks on the use of equipment. And he promoted the game even more with what he could do on the ice, leading Wisconsin to NCAA titles in 1973, 1977 and 1981. "No man was ever more enthusiastic about hockey than Bob Johnson," says Art Berglund.
Still, the NHL resisted hiring college coaches (particularly after Harkness was given a try and proved a bust with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1970s) until former Minnesota and U.S. Olympic coach Herb Brooks was hired by the New York Rangers in 1981. In 1982, his long-time rival Johnson was named coach of the Calgary Flames.
The Minnesota Gophers program remains one of the most successful in college hockey. They have made a record 25 NCAA tournament appearances, including the last 13 in a row through 1997-98. And what makes the program unique is that it relies predominantly on Minnesota-bred players. Michigan (which won the first NCAA title in 1948) won its NCAA-record ninth in 1998. Boston University has 24 NCAA tournament appearances, many of them with Jack Parker behind the bench. He replaced Jack Kelley in 1973 and is expected to record his 600th win in the 1998-99 season. He's fourth on the all-time list but still more than 200 short of Michigan State's Ron Mason, who holds the college record of 808 heading into the 1998-99 season.
College hockey has tremendous respect for its history. The Boston University-Boston College rivalry is as fresh today as it was when Jack Kelley and Snooks Kelly were behind the two benches. Bragging rights are still extremely important in college hockey. "What makes a difference in college hockey is the fans and school spirit aspect," observed Mike Prisuta. "BU in the east and Michigan in the west are famous for their choreographed cheers for each situation in a game. And they all know what to do. It can be very intimidating."
Imagine what the players thought the night Goldy the Gopher recorded a huge takedown of Bucky the Badger in the pregame hoopla surrounding a Minnesota-Wisconsin game. North Dakota fans may have crossed the line at one game when they threw a dead gopher on the ice, just to let Minnesota know what their players would look like when North Dakota reduced them to road kill. College hockey arenas are one of the few venues where you can catch a 60-year-old, bespectacled history professor taking part in the organized public chanting of expletives perhaps best deleted when he doesn't like a high-sticking call. Through the years at Harvard, in the rare moment when the hockey squad's struggling, the famously well-heeled and supposedly intellectually superior student body has chanted, "That's all right, that's OK, you're going to work for us someday." Bertagna didn't enjoy that one much when he played. He preferred Harvard's reaction to the rumors Ned Harknes was enrolling Canadian players in Cornell's agriculture program. When players from Cornell arrived at the Harvand arena, they were greeted by signs that read, "Welcome Canada's future farmers," or "Hey, Cornell, if you're here, who's milking the cows?"
No one is sure what school's fans started playing a major role first. It is thought to have been more pronounced in the east before it became fashionable in the west. "Some people make the case that the wise guy cheers might have some sort of Ivy League band history. They have an irreverence," Bertagna says. But its all in good fun, and most coaches wouldn't want the game to lose the edge that it gets from fans' antics. Even goaltenders, who usually take the brunt of fan zaniness, don't seem to mind. Everyone who loves the game has their fond memories: the Boston University band playing the Peter Gunn theme a good many years ago now, Wisconsin's repeated rendition of the Budweiser song, the closest the game has yet to come to an overall theme song. Players know they have played a real away game when they leave Badgerland with their ears ringing to it. They all preserve the closeness of the fraternity – even if the sport hasn't grown like it could.
"What's interesting is our uniqueness is also what holds us back," Bertagna explains. "We have [big schools like] Michigan and Ohio State .... but a big part of who we are is Saturday night in Porsdam, New York, or Saturday night in Sault St. Marie [Lake Superior] or Houghton [Michigan Tech]. Houston Field House in Troy, New York, [RPI] and Gutterson [Arena] in Burlington [Vermont]. These are great storied places that are a big part of our tradition. We have some unusually small schools where we are the only game in town."
As television expresses more interest, there is a concern that the small college towns will be squeezed out, especially if bigger schools embrace the sport. "Unfortunately, the world is changing, and we have a dilemma," Bertagne concludes. "How do we advance our game without it being done at the expense of our game?"
This year (2006) the NCAA has even reached the United Kingdom, with the semi's and final's been shown. With the Wisconsin Badgers winning the championships 2-1 against Boston College.
NCAA Champions
1948 Michigan Wolverines
1949 Boston College Eagles
1950 Colorado College Tigers
1951 Michigan Wolverines
1952 Michigan Wolverines
1953 Michigan Wolverines
1954 RPI Engineers
1955 Michigan Wolverines
1956 Michigan Wolverines
1957 Colorado College Tigers
1958 Denver Pioneers
1959 North Dakota Fighting Sioux
1960 Denver Pioneers
1961 Denver Pioneers
1962 Michigan Tach Huskies
1963 North Dakota Fighting Sioux
1964 Michigan Wolverines
1965 Michigan Tech Huskies
1966 Michigan State Spartans
1967 Cornell Big Red
1968 Denver Pioneers
1969 Denver Pioneers
1970 Cornell Big Red
1971 Boston University Terriers
1972 Boston University Terriers
1973 Wisconsin Badgers
1974 Minnesota Golden Gophers
1975 Michigan Tech Huskies
1976 Minnesota Golden Gophers
1977 Wisconsin Badgers
1978 Boston University Terriers
1979 Minnesota Golden Gophers
1980 North Dakota Fighting Sioux
1981 Wisconsin Badgers
1982 North Dakota Fighting Sioux
1983 Wisconsin Badgers
1984 Bowling Green Falcons
1985 RPI Engineers
1986 Michigan State Spartans
1987 North Dakota Fighting Sioux
1988 Lake Superior Lakers
1989 Harvard Crimson
1990 Wisconsin Badgers
1991 Northern Michigan U. Wildcats
1992 Lake Superior Lakers
1993 University of Maine Black Bears
1994 Lake Superior Lakers
1995 Boston University Terriers
1996 Michigan Wolverines
1997 North Dakota Fighting Sioux
1998 Michigan Wolverines
1999 Maine
2000 North Dakota Fighting Sioux
2001 Boston College Eagles
2002 Minnesota Golden Gophers
2003 Minnesota Golden Gophers
2004 Denver Pioneers
2005 Denver Pioneers
2006 Wisconsin Badgers
2007 Michigan St.
2008 Boston College Eagles
2009 Boston University
2010 Boston College
2011 Minnesota Duluth
2012 Boston College
2013 Yale
2014 Union (N.Y.)
2015 Providence
2016 North Dakota