Archive for February, 2015

Beanpot Musings and Post-Mortems

February 24, 2015

Well, it was worth waiting for.

The 63rd annual Beanpot Hockey Tournament was the first ever in which both rounds underwent postponements for snow. After a two-week delay, the 2015 championship game took place on February 23. About halfway through the third period, after Northeastern had stormed back from a two-goal deficit to Boston University at 3-3, p.a. announcer John Dolan turned to me and said, “This is what it’s all about.”

And it was. The teams had been battling with reckless abandon for the entire contest, and somehow, coming down the home stretch, they dug deeper within themselves and called for more. The fans from Northeastern and Boston University were in full-throated roar, as they too had been all game long.

There’s a lot of good college hockey yet to be played at TD Garden this year – both the Hockey East championships and the Frozen Four – but I doubt they’ll come close to matching the atmosphere of Beanpot.

Nobody asked me, but here are some deep thoughts to rival those of Jack Handey.

beanpotBig Picture: I know that the result, a BU championship, is a familiar one. But the Beanpot is once again a four-team tournament. Three of the games this year went into overtime. In the one that didn’t, Northeastern scored with less than two minutes to play to defeat Boston College 3-2.

All four Beanpot teams are contenders for advance to the NCAA Tournament. They won’t all make it; only BU is certain to receive a bid. But they’re all good enough.

Northeastern’s Knocking: Yes, it’s 27 years and counting since the Huskies won a Beanpot. That was in 1988. It took them 29 years to win their first one, back in 1980. But during that initial span of 29 years, Northeastern made it past the first round to the championship game exactly three times. In olden times, they were the Beanpot doormat. Not any more.

Since 1999, NU has played in the championship game eight times, including five of the last seven years. They will be back in the winner’s circle again soon. Husky fans, don’t lose faith.

So will Harvard. The Crimson last won a Beanpot in 1993. That, also, is far too long a time. I thought that, going into this year’s tourney, Harvard was the best team. I’ve also told more than a few people that if Harvard gets another crack at BU in post-season, Harvard will win. Their go-ahead goal in the third period of this year’s first round, double-overtime loss to BU should not have been disallowed.

Harvard’s first line of Alex Kerfoot, Kyle Criscuolo, and Jimmy Vesey is as good as any in college hockey – including Jack Eichel’s line at BU. Harvard has skill and speed, and they like to hit. They’ve also gotten good goaltending from Steve Michalek. After losing the consolation game, 3-2 in overtime to BC, Harvard will likely have to win the ECAC playoff championship in order to make the NCAAs. They can do it.

Goalies: Michalek set a new Beanpot single-game record with 63 saves against BU. The old record of 52 was set by Jimmy Barton of BC in a 5-4 loss to BU in 1970. Michalek has the bigger number now, and hats off to him. But as far as I’m concerned, Barton’s performance, over 60 rather than 82+ minutes, is still the best ever.

BU outshot Harvard this year but did not outplay them by much at all. Harvard probably should have won in regulation but had that goal disallowed. But back in 1970, BU’s barrage against Barton and the Eagles was constant, overwhelming, and unrelenting.

The MVP: Matt Grzelcyk is Boston hockey’s feel-good story of the year. He’s the Townie kid whose father works on the Garden bull gang. He’s the kid who always dreamed of Beanpot heroics. His dream came true with two goals, including the overtime winner.

Everyone has been talking about the year Eichel has been having, and rightfully so. He’s several cuts above everyone else, even as a freshman. The only other freshman of comparable skill I’ve ever seen was Brian Leetch of Boston College back in 1987. Eichel does it all, and the pros are drooling, but I hope he sticks around for at least another year. Eichel and linemates notwithstanding, Boston University would not be where it is without Grzelcyk.

Matt is a defenseman, a member of the junior class. His team mates elected him captain to lead the turnaround after last year’s miserable performance. He had only played half the games last year before going down with a serious shoulder injury. But they elected him anyway.

I frequently hear sports fans and sports writers wax poetic about this coach or that coach. “He’ll get them up for the big game,” of “He won’t let them lose again,” and so on. That’s overstating things by quite a bit.

Success is all up to the players on the team, and especially to the upperclassmen who’ve been around for a while. The coach picks the players, sets the agenda, devises the strategy, teaches the game – but the players must take responsibility for their fate.

That’s what’s happened at BU. When the players came back to campus in the summer, they wore t-shirts with “Never Again” printed on the back. Grzelcyk, along with the team’s only seniors, Evan Rodrigues and Cason Hohmann, have been leading the way. I suggest that they’re the ones who are primarily responsible for BU’s fast return to the Beanpot championship.

Boston College, whose run of consecutive Beanpot crowns ended this year at five, has enjoyed a huge run of success since they made it to the NCAA Final at the Garden in 1998. Coach Jerry York is another who picks his players carefully, makes sure they buy in fully to his way of doing things, and then puts the onus on them to perform.

For the past decade and a half, BC has had at least one high-scoring line, usually two, and sometimes even three. Not so this year. The Eagles have found goals very hard to come by. Every game is a nail-biter. But they’re still in second place in Hockey East with one weekend of play remaining.

This may have been the best-coached team of Jerry’s tenure. It also follows that it’s a well-captained team. Like BU, BC has a junior defenseman, Michael Matheson, as captain. There are also two senior forwards, Quinn Smith and Michael Sit, who are alternate captains. BC has built a solid winning record on a good defense corps, strong goaltending, and four lines of grinders and muckers.

Next Year: The first-round Beanpot pairings will be the same was this year’s championship round. Harvard and Boston College will play in the early game, and Northeastern will face BU in the nightcap.

Maybe in 2016 we’ll finally, at long last, see a Beanpot final of Harvard vs. Northeastern. For me, that’s a bucket-list item.

“Jews and Words” – Book Review and Reflection

February 18, 2015

Jews and WordsDid you ever wonder why the Jewish kids always did the best in high school? Did you also ever wonder how the Jewish people have not only survived but prospered and contributed untold good to humanity, despite centuries of prejudice, ostracism, and persecution?

I always wondered, and I think I know now, after reading “Jews and Words” by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salberger. It’s a tight little 204-page essay by two people who describe themselves as “secular Jewish Israelis.” At the outset, the authors declare who they are and whence they come:

“First, we don’t believe in God. Second, Hebrew is our mother tongue. Third, our Jewish identity is not faith-powered…There is not a religious bone in our bodies.

That’s pretty strong stuff to declare in a book that is, after all, about a people who are identified by their religion. I can’t imagine a Catholic author saying anything similar in a book about his confessional faith. But their ability to utter such words is, as it turns out, a logical conclusion to one of the big differences between Judaism and Catholicism – the infallible guy in Rome.

Near the end of the book, they write, “The Jews never had a pope…Because suppose we did have one, everyone would be slapping him (or her?) on the shoulder, saying that their grandfather knew his grandmother in Plonsk or Casablanca. Two degrees of separation at most. Familiarity, intimacy, contrariness – this is the stuff our communities are made of…Someone will always dissent. Our smoke will never be white. So much for a Jewish Pontiff.”

They earlier stated, “There is a Jewish theology of chutzpah. It resides in the subtle juncture of faith, argumentativeness, and self-targeting humor. It amounts to a uniquely irreverent reverence. Nothing is too holy to deserve the occasional send-off. You can laugh at the rabbi, at Moses, and the angels, and at the Almighty too.”

No, that’s not the way it was for someone who grew up Catholic. But maybe this Jewish approach to things is one of the reasons that I enjoyed being the only goy in attendance at monthly business networking meetings at a temple a few communities distant.

There’s another thing about the Jewish people that this book confirmed for me. I think I had it essentially right, but the book explains why. Before reading it, I had come to believe that one of the greatest sources of Jews’ strength and resiliency was that they remember who they are. I believed that their rituals, their traditions, their religious learning all undergird their collective identity.

The authors seem to agree. They write “Almost all societies have cherished the imperative of intergenerational storytelling. Almost all cultures have glorified the passing of the torch from old to young…But there is a Jewish twist to this universal imperative. …No ancient civilization…can offer a parallel comparable with Judaism’s insistence upon teaching the young and inculcating in them the traditions and customs of their people….Where other cultures left boys in their mothers’ care until they were old enough to pull a plough or wave a sword, Jews started acculturating their youngsters to the ancient narrative as soon as the tots could understand words, at two years old, and read them, often at the ripe age of three. Schooling, in short, began soon after weaning.”

The vessels for all that learning were the written texts. When the Jews went into the Babylonian captivity – and even before that – families understood that they must “act as relays of national memory embedded in written texts.”

So there it is – early literacy and facility with storytelling that gave the Jewish kids a big leg up on their contemporaries once the secular schooling began. No wonder they had so many honor students. And there too is the collective memory of who we are and how we got here. No wonder that the Jewish community has staying power.

That collective memory, those cultural touchstones and common points of reference, it seems to me, are fading away in modern America. It seems like there’s a lot of insubstantial fluff being taught today, mere stuff and nonsense. The Common Core, anyone?

We need a real common core, a cultural canon that every American must experience. A return to close familiarity with the Bible and all it offers would be a giant step back towards the right path.

And spare me, please, the knee-jerk, selective quoting of Tom Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists on the “wall of separation between church and state.” If you insist that the old plantation owner and slave driver’s private writings be the supreme law of the land, then bring in what he had to say about black people in “Notes on the State of Virginia.” You might have second thoughts.

But back to Amos and Fania’s thoughts on the matter. They point out that there are “more Bible-wise atheists in Israel than anywhere else.” And that, too, is an advantage.

They go on to say “Most Western nonbelievers today have not crossed paths with the Bible as a literary text. Unlike Homer, it is not widely taught in schools. Like Twitter, it is handed down in byte-sized chunks…The paradox is clear to an Israeli eye. Today, in many secular societies, religion itself obscures this exquisite work of art from view. The Constitution of the United States helps bar it from public schools, because it is mistaken for a (wholly, solely) religious text. This is a sad cultural loss.”

Can’t agree more with that one.

I’m glad I got this book. It also has a lot of things I never knew about the women of the Bible, about the resurrection of the Hebrew language, and about the delicious brand of humor that is distinctively Jewish.

If you like to read, if you love history, if you want to know why things are as they are, and if you enjoy learning “the rest of the story,” I think you’ll like it too.

Calling Wayne Turner!

February 5, 2015

Wayne Turner holding the coveted Pot in 1980. Is there any wonder that NU hockey fans refer to the man from Kitimat, British Columbia as "Beanpot?"

Wayne Turner holding the coveted Pot in 1980. Is there any wonder that NU hockey fans refer to the man from Kitimat, British Columbia as “Beanpot?”

Where have you gone, Wayne Turner? Husky Nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

In Boston, it’s starting to feel like 1978 with all this snow on the ground and predictions of more.

On Causeway Street, though, I hope we time-travel back to 1980. We need this generation’s Wayne Turner to come through with the game-winning goal and to bring the Beanpot back to Northeastern.

After that, we need 2016-2018 to reprise 1981-1983. In those three years, BU, BC, and Harvard all won a Beanpot championship. We need this February festival to be a true, four-team event in which every squad has a strong chance to emerge the winner. The years from 1980 to 1983 were the only four-season span in which every team took the title once. I think that such balance is coming back. Let’s hope that it does.

It’s hard to believe that the Huntington Hounds haven’t been Beanpot champions since 1988. They have come up empty in their last 26 tries.

When Turner scored that magical overtime goal to beat BC 5-4 back in 1980, it gave Northeastern its first Beanpot crown ever. That took 29 years to accomplish. We had waited too long back then, and we’ve waited too long now.

It’s just as bad over at Harvard, if not worse. The Crimson have not been Beanpot champs since 1993. Moreover, Harvard has made it to the final round just once since the year 2000.

On Monday night, Northeastern will be making its seventh appearance of the current millennium in the Beanpot title game. This is the fifth time in the last seven years NU has gotten that far. By contrast, before NU won the 1980 championship on its 29th try, it had made it to the final round exactly twice.

There has never been a championship final game pitting the Huskies against Harvard. We almost got to see one this season. Boston University spoiled that possibility when they beat the Crimson 4-3 in double overtime in round one. Harvard’s Steve Michalek’s incredible 63-save goaltending show went for naught.

Northeastern got a goal from defenseman Dustin Darou and beat Boston College 3-2 in the second game of this year’s first round. It came with less than two minutes to play and just before midnight. Maybe Darou is the Huskies’ Malcolm Butler. Dustin had scored only one other goal in his college career up until that point.

That set up this year’s final, with the 11-11-4 Huskies taking on the 17-4-4 Terriers. NU’s win over BC was not a giant upset. The Eagles were favored, but only slightly. Northeastern’s record is deceiving. They started off 0-8-1, so since mid-November their record is 11-3-3. And it’s been against some pretty tough foes.

It’s unfortunate that the postponement for snow, followed by those horrendous snarls on the roadways and on public transit systems, kept the first-night crowd at the Garden well under capacity. The whole evening was college athletics at its best.

Every year we say that the teams are evenly matched and that any one of them could win. But it was true this year. Both Harvard and Boston College played terrific games, even in defeat. The Garden fans, all of them knowing that their respective teams had a real chance to win, were loud and spirited.

Even the national anthem singers, Taylor Carol of Harvard and Grace Greene of Boston College, delivered boffo performances. Grace’s sons Matt and Justin played hockey for BC a few years ago. Her “Land of the Free” flew higher than the Garden rafters, much to the delight of the cheering fans.

If you were there, I’m sure you agree that it was a wonderful night of sport. If you weren’t, you missed something special.

Next year the first-round pairings are the same as this year’s second night: BC-Harvard in the opener and BU-Northeastern in the nightcap. So maybe in 2016 we’ll see that long-awaited championship matchup between the Huskies and the Crimson.

Harvard needs a Beanpot win. They’re vastly improved, and they’ll have most of their stars back again next year. So there’s reason to be optimistic.

But Northeastern has been knocking on the Beanpot door incessantly. They’ve won it only four times. They’re way overdue. It’s time for them to win again.