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Will 'Hub of Hockey' awaken to its golden age

This year it is Boston University. Another year it’s Boston College. And it was only a few years back that Harvard skated off with a national championship. Some day the utter majesty of the New England college hockey tradition and the brilliance of its warriors will be fully appreciated, albeit probably not in their own backyard. Prophets are never honored in their own time and place.

But what we have thriving in our midst — not only with surpassing skill but pride and honor too — is a golden age of sporting supremacy. No other region of the country features a level of excellence and sheer dominance in any collegiate sport comparable to what we have thriving right here in the game of hockey. Dozens of schools contribute. It was the University of Vermont that gave B.U. its second stiffest challenge en route to the title.

These are championship teams in high minded programs free of scandal starring kids who are obliged to attend classes and are expected to graduate and dress properly and mind their manners. It is something out of the past and the best kept secret in all of college sport.

What is comparable to what B.U. achieved beating Miami of Ohio; not only in snaring another national championship —their fifth— but in the astonishing way they did it? This was the best amateur hockey game you’ve seen since the epic U.S. defeat of the Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympics. My research on the question is instantaneous and quite off the top of my bean but I’d say there’s never been a more stunning finish to any national collegiate sporting championship tilt in any sport. Ever!
To score twice in the last 59 seconds of a hockey game after pulling your goalie with nearly four minutes left and then prevail in sudden death overtime with the intensity boiling over on the ice and the pulse of the building exploding is the stuff of a script Hollywood would reject as being just too outlandish. It is rather like a baseball team coming from nine behind in the ninth to win a World Series.

What collegiate moment might have been its equal, hereabouts? At Holy Cross they still wax mellow over the memory of Bob Cousy beating mighty Bowling Green with a buzzer-beater from near half court. But that was well over a half century ago. At B.C., there will forever be Doug Flutie’s ‘Hail Mary’ heave that beat Miami but the stakes were relatively ordinary. For sheer theatre I never thought the ‘68 Harvard-Yale gridiron gem, stolen by the Johns when Frankie Champi orchestrated a 16 point rally in the last minute in the gathering dusk, could ever be topped. But that was merely for the bragging rights of the leisure class. What B.U. did — you must never forget — was for all the marbles.

His third national title is a crowning triumph for Jackie Parker, B.U.’s near immortal coach. As it happens, the win over Miami was his 30th in N.C.A.A. championship competition and that’s just one more than his equally estimable blood-rival, Jerry York of B.C., has to his credit. Having Parker and York vie winter after winter is comparable to having a Lombardi and a Rockne going at it head to head every fall. In Parker and York you have twin giant laureates of college sport competing but a couple of miles apart. How does it get any better than that? No way, if hockey is your game.

In the end, though, you had to weep for poor Miami. The Ohio university — no jock factory — has never won a championship of anything. They were within 59 seconds of what would have ranked among the most stunning upsets in college history. B.U. is a hockey colossus and this edition was one of Parker’s finest. They’d lost only one of their previous 25 games and had rolled through the playoffs. On their roster, they have 13 kids who have already been drafted by the National Hockey League and doubtless a half dozen more who soon will be.

Leading B.U., 3-1, with but a minute left to play and performing with conspicuous valor, upstart Miami of Ohio was on the brink of something miraculous.

The rest, as they say, is history.

And so Boston sits on the top of the college hockey world. But the hockey season isn’t over yet. There’s a little matter of the Stanley Cup playoffs which are about to begin with the Boston Bruins, who operate across town from the collegiate champs, being reckoned as something of a contender based on their impressive regular season performance. There’s the fear, however, that all of that is something of an illusion.

The Bruins finished with the best record of the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference. Only one team in the entire league — Joe Thornton’s San Jose Sharks over in the Western Conference — had a better record and they were only better by a measly single point. That’s remarkable. But in their last 30 games the Bruins had precisely a .500 mark, losing as much as they won. That pace, projected over the entire season, would have lumped them with Ottawa and Toronto, well out of the playoffs.

So there is the simple question. Which Bruins team is the real Bruins team: the one that roared through the first 52 games with almost casual and saucy flair or the one that staggered down the stretch over the last two months?

It is the back half of the season —for obvious reasons— that is the more meaningful. So, with almost the best record in the game the Bruins are nonetheless quite suspect.

Add in the dreaded injury factor and they are even more so, although it is hard to judge that issue given the team’s obsessive secrecy about such stuff. What is clear is that several key players including defensemen Chara, Ward and Wideman and forwards Axelsson and Bergeron are nursing bruises approaching the playoffs (there may be others). As of the writing, the extent and impact are impossible to calculate.

But there are more specific concerns. The play of the exciting young kids —Krejci, Lucic, Wheeler, and even Kessel, his 36 goals not withstanding — sagged down the stretch. If the kids are not ready to come up big in the post-season, the Bruins are toast. Tim Thomas, the intrepid goalie, had best be ready to go all the way. There will be no trifling with the likes of Manny Fernandez anymore. Marc Savard, their purported “go to guy,” had better be prepared to step it up a notch. He’s been cruising lately. The same might be said, to a slightly lesser extent, of Captain Chara.

Awaiting them in round one in a marvelously ironic twist that could only amuse true lovers of the perverse are the Montreal Canadiens.

The good news is these are not your conventional and historical Habs. In their 100th anniversary season, which had been intended as a prolonged celebration of their legendary eminence, there’s been much rancor and controversy and they struggled to make the playoffs, with hard-nosed coach (and life-long, devoted Hab) Guy Carbonneau being sacrificed along the way. It’s been a bitter winter up in the Paris of the North.

The bad news is that the infernal and still unresolved “thing” that has twisted the Bruins-Canadiens relationship for more than a half century still lurks in the recesses of the subject. How charmed would all of Quebec be with having the disappointments of their 100th anniversary season redeemed by a shocking Montreal upset of those plebieans from Boston?

The Bruins have whipped the Canadiens the last five times they have met, outscoring them by the emphatic margin of 20-9. So all of that historical ragtime is merely ragtime, n’est ce pas?
Moreover, if the Bruins are to match B.U. and bring about a parlay of glorious achievement in the hockey wars of the spring of ’09, the Canadiens will prove to have been the least of their obstacles.
But hockey is king. At least for the moment. And that much is pleasing.

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