The Beanpot -- a unique hockey event and a Boston ritual

Put together hockey and Boston and usually you'll find the Bruins, high-flying leaders in the National Hockey League. This week, however, even the Bruins have to take a back seat. It's that time of year when students at Harvard , Northeastern, Boston College, and Boston University temporarily close their books: the week of the Beanpot Tournament.

This unique event has been an integral part of the college hockey scene in Boston since 1952. Though the games don't even count in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) standings, there is a special pride in playing for the Beanpot. Said Chris Delaney, who as a freshman last season scored the overtime goal that lifted B.C. into the finals, ''I'm just happy to be playing in the game, I'm just shaking, standing here.'' B.U. co-captain Jerry August added: ''It's one of the big reasons I came to B.U. After watching it (Beanpot) for so many years, you just wanted to be part of it.''

Like the Boston Marathon in spring and the Fourth of July concerts along the Charles, the Beanpot has become a yearly ritual.

When the tournament began 31 years ago in the old Boston Arena, it was known as the New England Invitational Hockey Tournament. The next year it moved to the larger Boston Garden, though this did little to help attendence: the announced opening night crowd was 711. Over the years, however, the Beanpot has gained great popularity - to the point where it is now annually one of the toughest tickets in town. The fans are loyal, too, as proved five years ago when the famed Blizzard of 1978 had radio announcers begging people to stay home. Over 11,000 hockey lovers went to the garden that night - and many spent the entire evening there, not leaving until after sunrise the next morning.

This year, though, when another major storm hit the city, officials played things differently and postponed the first round for 24 hours. The games were played Tuesday night before 14,523 frenzied fans, with B.C. edging Harvard 5-4 in overtime and Northeastern rallying from a 3-0 deficit to defeat B.U. 4-3. Now in the traditional format of this tournament, the winners will meet next Monday night for the championship while the first round losers play a consolation game for third place - also before another capacity crowd.

But size and enthusiasm are only part of the unique charm of the Beanpot crowds. ''You're never quite sure who's cheering for whom'' explains Mark Fusco, Harvard's two-time All America defensemen. ''It's not a hostile crowd. Everybody who's anybody in Boston hockey shows up at the Beanpot. It's almost like a class reuinion. Guys who played against each other 10 or 20 years ago talk over old times. And the noise, that's also a factor.'' Besides 15,000 or so fans, four full-size college bands blast through the rafters of the Boston Garden. The Beanpot is serious business for the fans - and for the teams.

''It's an athletic must,'' said John Kelley, who coached at B.C. for 36 years.

And if that old cliche about tossing the records out the window ever applied anywhere, it certainly does here in this intense rivalry among four schools separated only by the Charles River and the length and breadth of Commonwealth Avenue.

''Two years ago,'' explained Harvard coach Bill Cleary,''we had the worst record of the bunch, but Jack Parker predicted we'd win it. And we did!''

Or as Kelley put it: 'Nobody wins who's supposed to win. I've seen goalies shut you out when all year they've been human sieves.''

But you don't get upsets every year, of course, and over the long haul B.U.'s perennial hockey power has dominated the tournament, with 12 championships 23 appearances in the final round. B.C. has won it nine times, Harvard eight, and Northeastern just once.

Beanpot results, though, are frequently poor indicators of overall success. B.U. is the only team to win the ''Triple Crown'' - Beanpot, ECAC, and the NCAA titles. Also, six times in it's history teams that have lost the Beanpot have later won the ECAC championship, as Northeastern did last year.

Though the alumni, fans, and families of players feel the Beanpot is an important tournament, there are those who disagree. ''Very frankly,'' said B.U. head coach Jack Parker, ''I'd rather win the Colgate game than the Beanpot final.'' This is understandable, since Beanpot games do not help improve the records of the teams involved. Still it means a great deal to most players and coaches.

Perhaps no victory was as sweet as Northeastern's first Beanpot in 1980. The Huskies had finished last in the tournament 18 times, more than any other team. When they beat B.C. 5-4 in overtime, they silenced those who said they didn't belong in the tournament. Winning the Beanpot meant as much to coach Fern Flaman as winning another trophy had years before: the Stanley Cup when he was with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And when Harvard won it all two years back, captain Tom Murray said in the locker room afterwards: ''I don't have to do another thing as long as I live. It's all downhill. The Beanpot. It's sitting in my lap.''

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