College Hockey In The Cradle Of The American Revolution

All cell phone photos courtesy of Martha Mae

First things first.

It’s called the Beanpawt, and it’s held every February at The Gahden. As in “Oh my Gawd, I’m goin’ ovah to The Gahden for the Beanpawt!”

The alert reader will of course recognize that the sporting event du jour takes place in Boston, home of the hypnotic, syrupy sweet accent popularized by postman extraordinaire Cliff Clavin.

I had not been to the Gahden since it was the Boston Garden, i.e. before it became headlined by a series of financial services companies. To get there back in those days, you simply took either the Green or Orange line to North Station and then followed the rats.

If you were attending a game at that time, it was tremendously helpful if you were a “people person”, since you and your fellow fans were all going to be squeezing into seats that conformed to the size of the average Bostonian – the 1928 version. And of course you hoped like hell that it wasn’t an overly warm day, because there was no air conditioning in the building.

People loved this place. No, really – they did.

But progress eventually came to the Boston Garden, and by “progress” of course I mean gobs and gobs of corporate dollars. The rats had to go. In 1995, a gleaming new arena opened next door, and the original Garden was torn down two years later to create room for a…parking lot. The indignity of it all.

It was to this new TD Garden that my dear friend Martha (“Maah-ther” in the local parlance) and I made a recent pilgrimage – and discovered that things had changed in between visits. Not a rodent in sight. Brightly lit concourses. Personal space. Employees that smiled and said “Enjoy the game” instead of merely grunting. I’m not going to lie to you. It was weird.

We were there to take in the 59th annual Beanpot. In Boston, that single word is sufficient to fully describe the occasion. Each man, woman and child even remotely attuned to the sports scene knows that The Beanpot means college hockey, played amongst four pre-eminent local institutions:  Harvard, Northeastern University, Boston University and Boston College.

People outside of The Commonwealth might be loath to even call this a “tournament”. It consists of two doubleheaders, spaced apart by one week, smack-dab in the middle of the regular collegiate season. Three of these teams already play each other as members of the Hockey East Conference. In fact, this evening would be the fourth time that Boston College and Boston University would meet this season. I have relatives that I don’t see as often.

But don’t try telling that to a fan of any of these teams. It’s The Beanpot, and the winner gets bragging rights for an entire year, no matter what else may transpire. It’s a tradition, and nobody does tradition in quite the same way as Boston. People there have china that’s older than most states west of the Mississippi – and they’re happy to let you know it.

Consider this:  As Martha and I walked from her home to the Garden, we crossed through a pleasant city park called the Training Field. I stopped to read the bronze plaque that adorned a dignified monument, and in doing so learned that it was there to memorialize the American soldiers that had been killed in battle back in ’75.

That’s, ahem…seventeen ’75, at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

So the folks there are a little proud of that which has come before them. Like 58 Beanpots, for example.

When Martha and I arrived, Northeastern was wrapping up a 4-0 win over Harvard in front of the literally tens of people who had come out to see the early (5:00 PM) game. The attendance would spike quickly though, especially in the upper deck, where the BC and BU student bodies were streaming in to take up residence at opposite ends of the arena. Much like the commercials during a Super Bowl telecast, the taunts that these folks hurled at each other were far more interesting than the player warm-ups taking place. And later on, often more compelling than the game itself.

My favorite? The Jesuit Boston College students, after one of their players had been called for a penalty, made up for his transgression with a sing-song chant of “Jeee-Sus Loves Us”. If you’re a much more secular BU Terrier, how do you counter that?

When my Beanpot ticket had arrived in the mail, I noticed that it specifically stated on its face “No Cameras. No Audio.” It made no mention of a Flip Video, however. And so I took that as an implicit invitation to capture the action for “It’s Game Time Somewhere” posterity.

Like this one of warm-ups, for example.

Or this one, of the BC Eagles being introduced.

By the way, at the end of that clip they’re not saying “Boo”, they’re saying “Muse”, as in John Muse. Known to some as “The Mad Goalie”, the decorated BC senior is one of just seven collegiate goaltenders to have played in and won two NCAA championship games.

Having recently witnessed professional hockey at the elite (NHL) and not-so-elite (ECHL) levels, I was anxious to see how hockey at the top end of the collegiate level would stack up against minor league hockey. Now, based on an exhaustive study of one (1) full game, I am prepared to make a bold statement:  The two games are different.

First of all, the skating seems to be a lot more controlled (and therefore slower) in college. And that deliberate manner seems to extend to a more conservative, defensive game strategy. The passing was crisp, and execution was surgical. Instances of offside or icing were rare. The college game also struck me as a polite, almost gentlemanly game. Penalties were few and far between in this game – and even good old-fashioned body-checking was at a minimum. In fact, when one resounding check against the boards occurred in the third period, Martha astutely pointed out it had been the first of its kind in the game.

In contrast, minor league hockey is much more physical and risk-oriented. There’s a lot more frenetic flurry to the activity. And to borrow a phrase from SEC football, “if you ain’t cheatin’, you’re not tryin’”. Penalties come in bunches, which leads to more power plays, which leads to more shots on goal. I know this isn’t the appropriate purist response, but which would you rather watch?

All in all, the Beanpot action – aside from that within the student sections – was a bit slow at first. And at second…and third. With a little more than 7 minutes left in the first period, I was surprised when I noticed that the scoreboard listed 14 combined shots on goal as having been taken. I was hard-pressed to recall more than three or four.

Things picked up shortly thereafter though, as BC scored on a redirected shot. Then, before the Eagles fans had even finished serenading the BU goalie with taunts of “It’s all your fault”, the Terriers muzzled them (sorry, I can never resist a dog joke) with a game-tying goal of their own.

In the second period the activity level was ratcheted up, as play in the middle of the ice became more freewheeling. The puck changed hands far more often…but serious scoring opportunities were scarce.

Thankfully, that would change.

With the score tied at 2-2, a more or less sleepy atmosphere came to life with 9 minutes left in the game. None of the game’s previous four goals had been the result of sustained offensive pressure, but all of a sudden both teams went into Intensity Mode. Scoring bids were turned away on a regular basis by both goalies – including one-on-one breakaways by each team. Muse was particularly masterful, as two BC penalties in the final five minutes of the game placed the Mad Goalie straight in the firing line as time ticked away.

By the time regulation play had ended, the game could not have been more evenly played. In addition to two goals apiece, the shots on goal stood at 35-34, BC. We settled in for the duration of the overtime period…and perhaps beyond.

Then, in a game marked by few penalties, BU drew one for cross-checking just three minutes into overtime. Which led to this…

Junior defenseman Tommy Cross became the Beanpot’s newest hero, setting off a frenzy that went on and on, spilling out into the freezing drizzle of Causeway Street. And keep in mind – this was just the semi-final game!

Did I not tell you that Bostonians love their traditions?

Next Up:  More College Hockey – The Ladies Have A Beanpot Of Their Own

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