America first, B.U. foremost

It was an NCAA championship of surprises as Yankees outnumbered Canadians on the ice and old Frustration U. grabbed the title
March 29, 1971

If Tom Johnson feels the Boston Bruins need a little serious competition before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin, all he has to do is phone Jack Kelley at 353-2740 and schedule a scrimmage against the Boston University Terriers. Last weekend in Syracuse, N.Y. Kelley's B.U. team played perfect positional hockey for two games—something a few of the NHL's expansion clubs never have done—and easily won the NCAA championship, beating Denver 4-2 and the University of Minnesota by the same score. Maybe the Terriers would not be able to match the Bruins, but loan them Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and they would be tough against the California Seals.

B.U.'s victory, like the tournament, was a breakthrough for the American hockey player. B.U. skated nine American boys, at least three more than any NCAA champion in the last 20 years. Altogether, Americans on the ice outnumbered Canadians 53 to 29, and no one could recall the last time that happened. Minnesota had a full roster of Americans, Harvard carried 17 Americans and only two Canadians, and even Denver, usually a Canadian stronghold, had six American players.

"Murray Armstrong [the Denver coach] didn't know where Minnesota was, I don't think, until he saw how good some of our homegrown boys can play these days," says Glen Sonmor, the Minnesota coach. "I'm not crying, but Armstrong has two of last year's best Minnesota kids on his team right now."

Geography aside, what the championship really meant was an end to nine years of frustration for Jack Kelley. When he left Colby in the Maine woods to return to his alma mater as head hockey coach in 1962, Jack practically had to sneak into town. Everyone knew all the others around Commonwealth Avenue: John (Snooks) Kelley, the hockey coach up the street at Boston College; John (The Elder) Kelley and John (The Younger) Kelley, the marathon runners; and the Johnny Kelly who used to drink breakfast at the Dugout Cafe across the street from the B.U. chapel. But no one knew Jack Kelley, the new B.U. hockey coach.

Jack worked overtime trying to revive B.U.'s hockey program. He organized The Friends of B.U. Hockey—an alumni group—and the Friends started to contribute to a special fund. All perfectly legal. "We'd get a lot of contributions just about the time people were working on their income taxes," Jack says.

Two years later Kelley had the No. 1 team in the East. Rather than compete with Snooks Kelley for the best local talent, Jack recruited heavily in Canada. "That was the best way in those days," he says. Jack's top players generally have been Canadian-born, but he has produced three genuine All-Americas—that is, American-born All-Americas.

From 1965 through 1970 Kelley's B.U. teams always ranked between No. 1 and No. 4 in the final Eastern standings. However, except for 1967, those same teams never advanced past the semifinal rounds of the Eastern playoffs that determined the NCAA tournament representatives. Instead, they usually won the consolation games for third place. "We are 5-1 in those consolation games," Kelley says. "I think that really shows something about my boys. They had to have a lot of pride to win games that didn't mean much."

In 1967 B.U. did survive the semifinals but lost to Cornell in the Eastern finals. And then it faced Cornell in the finals of the national championships and lost again. "I know what the people were thinking," Kelley says.

This year, despite some unusual hardships, B.U. finished the regular season with a record of 24 wins, one loss (at Cornell) and one tie (at Harvard), and had the No. 1 ranking in the country. "If it weren't for Harvard, though," Kelley says, "we certainly wouldn't have won any 24 games."

B.U.'s own new rink was supposed to be ready last fall, but construction problems have delayed the opening until at least next fall. "Harvard made its facilities available to us," Kelley says. "Our kids would dress in the gym at B.U., then ride in an old unheated panel truck up the street to the Harvard rink. But they never complained."

Actually the B.U. players liked it. "Harvard has the best ice around," says Steve Stirling, the B.U. captain. "You don't complain when you skate on the best ice."

In the first round of the Eastern playoffs, B.U. routed Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 11-0. But in the semifinals the jinx struck again when Harvard upset the Terriers 4-2 before 15,000 in the Boston Garden. When Harvard later surprised No. 2 Clarkson in the finals, it seemed certain that B.U.—which, naturally, had won the consolation game against Cornell—would be a spectator again come NCAA time.

"I thought it was over, so did the other guys," Stirling says. "We were at our usual postgame hangout and I went around thanking everybody for playing as hard as they did and wishing the sophomores well. Then the news came."

The Eastern champion and the runner-up had been invited to the NCAA since the start of the regional playoff format in 1962, but this time the selection committee exercised an unusual option. It considered B.U.'s 24-1-1 regular-season record and sent the Terriers, instead of Clarkson, to the championships. "For once in our lives we were lucky," Jack Kelley says.

There was nothing lucky about B.U.'s victories at Syracuse. With Dan Brady, the most valuable player in the tournament, practically impenetrable in the goal, B.U. was impossible to beat. Stirling, who lives in Clarkson, Ontario, checked superbly, scored two goals and set up two others. Toot Cahoon, who is from Marblehead, Mass. (B.U. players claim it was named after him), scored three goals against Denver. Bob Brown, a defenseman who is right up there on the Montreal draft list, kept the opposition honest.

Come to think of it, where would Kelley play Orr and Esposito anyway?