Harvard reaches hockey heights with bona fide student-athletes
Cambridge, Mass. — Three trips in the last five years to the NCAA finals. A perennial Top 10 ranking. Three players on the Olympic team. Ten graduates in the pros, and more on the way. This r'esum'e would make any college athletic program proud, but who would have thought it belongs to one at Harvard University?
``There's a myth that you can't be a student and an athlete at the same time. I think you can do both,'' insists coach Bill Cleary, whose hockey squad is making a run at Harvard's first NCAA title in any sport since 1903.
Harvard athletics have not exactly languished in recent years. The squash team has won over 60 straight matches. The crews consistently leave opponents in their wakes. The football team reigns as Ivy League champion.
But the hockey team takes on athletic heavyweights like Boston College, Michigan State, and the University of Minnesota - and with considerable success.
Last year the Crimson made it to the NCAA final four only to lose to eventual champion North Dakota. Harvard came even closer in 1986, losing to Michigan State by a 6-5 score in the championship game. And this year's team is top-seeded going into the Eastern College Athletic Conference playoffs Friday after completing its regular season 18-4 in the league and 18-8 overall.
Furthermore, Harvard hockey has reached these heights while offering no athletic scholarships and imposing lofty academic standards on all of its players. Such a combination seems an unlikely one indeed in today's world of big-time college sports, but the Crimson regularly manages to assemble a blue-chip lineup. Nine members of the current team have already been drafted by the National Hockey League.
Harvard has made its mark on more than collegiate ranks, too. Juniors Lane MacDonald and Allen Bourbeau recently joined alumnus Scott Fusco on the US Olympic team, and this trio accounted for 13 goals goals during the Calgary Games.
Geographical location has helped Harvard's hockey fortunes rise. The Boston area is a hotbed of high school talent and has yielded nearly half of the present team.
``As a local kid, you can have one of the world's great universities, a nationally ranked program, and a situation where you can stay in touch with your family'' explains Harvard's admissions director Bill Fitzsimmons. ``You put all that together, and it becomes an irresistible package.''
Harvard has done more than cultivate its own back yard, though, and since abandoning its policy against recruiting eight years ago, has sought hockey players nationwide. From an original list of 600 every year, the coaching staff winnows the most academically and athletically attractive prospects and pursues them with the same determination - and success - usually found at more athletically-minded colleges.
The latest harvest includes four freshmen who not only were lured by the NHL, but were all offered full athletic scholarships by Harvard's hockey rivals. ``We surprised a lot of people by getting those four,'' chuckles Cleary.
Peter Ciavaglia, one of the prize recruits, turned down free rides elsewhere to foot Harvard's annual $17,000 bill. ``You realize you can't have everyone pay your way,'' says Ciavaglia. ``Here they said you've got to do things yourself. They don't even guarantee you a spot on the team.''
Harvard also conducts its hockey season along unusual lines. How many other major college teams grind to a mid-season halt for two weeks so players can take exams uninterrupted?
With few exceptions, all games occur on weekends to minimize lost class time. And players can miss practice if they need to study for tests or complete papers.
``If you're going to play professionally, fine. But you're still a student,'' observes government major and team captain Steve Armstrong.
Cleary adds that his boys hold their own among Harvard's renowned student body. ``The kids we get we know can handle the work. They resent being called athletes or jocks,'' he says, emphasizing that only one of his players in the last 20 years has flunked out.
``I suspect that fewer of them make magna cum laude,'' notes Fred Jewett, the dean of Harvard College, ``but that's true of other people who make commitments to major extracurricular activities here.''
Cleary, a former Harvard and Olympic star himself, leads by example, spending the first five hours each work day at the insurance office he runs with his brother and then donning skates and a stick to work out with his team. Despite the influx of high-powered players, he still holds the school's single season scoring record, although he acknowledges that times have changed since he captained the Crimson in 1955 and subsequently led the 1960 Olympic team to its historic victory over the Soviets and the gold medal.
``It wasn't that long ago that the pros didn't even look at colleges. Now we're a major breeding ground,'' he points out. ``If a boy here wants to play pro hockey, he'll get the training.''
For some that can mean the NHL, but in today's hockey world there are other opportunities as well. Cleary notes that half of the Harvard graduates who have gone on to the pros play in European leagues, where the play more closely resembles the Crimson's fast-skating, less-physical style.
Cleary prefers his players to set their sights on the Olympics, however, and was recently burned when sophomore star Chris Biotti left school for the NHL. While such defections are commonplace at big-time athletic universities, Biotti's departure was a first at Harvard.
There are other indications that Harvard's hockey program may have become too good. If the team fails to achieve its goal of an NCAA championship this year, the cause may be the loss of high scorers MacDonald and Bourbeau to the Olympic team. And earlier this season Harvard lost games while several of its present squad were playing with the junior national team.
Neither has Harvard's ascendancy over its Ivy League neighbors gone unnoticed. A 10-0 record against Ivy competition this year and seven straight titles have put Harvard in a league by itself.
Concedes dean Jewett, ``Other deans are frustrated, but there are not enough first-rate players who are strong students to go around. We've been able to get more than our average share.''