Meet the men of Harvard hockey, top-ranked in the nation and intellectually mighty—at least for a bunch of pucks. On the bus to Canton, N.Y., for a Jan. 14 showdown with St. Lawrence, which held the No. 1 ranking at the time, egg-heads were everywhere. Freshman goal-tender Allain Roy brushed up on Hellenic myths. Junior defenseman Kevan Melrose wrestled with Paradise Lost. And as senior defenseman Scott Farden discussed new marketing strategies for his on-campus business—making and delivering goody packages ordered for students by their parents—some show-off in the middle of the bus prattled on about Jungian archetypes.
For such an erudite crowd, the Crimson's preparation for a formidable foe seemed, well, a little lowbrow. On the afternoon of the game, Brian Popiel, a junior defenseman and mild-mannered sociology major, was rudely awakened from a nap by Melrose. A self-described "wing-nut kind of guy," Melrose decided that the best way to psych himself up for St. Lawrence would be to bludgeon the snoozing Popiel with a stale turkey sandwich in a plastic bag.
Not that Harvard's players have a monopoly on strange pregame rituals. Take the obligatory cough-drop exchange between coach Bill Cleary and associate coach Ronn Tomassoni. A few minutes before each game, they meet at the middle of the bench and have the following conversation:
Cleary: "Want a cough drop, coach?"
January 30, 1989
Tomassoni: "Thanks, coach. You want one?"
Each takes a cough drop. Then, and only then, are they ready for the game to begin. They have different-colored cough drops for home and away games, of course.
Guess what, friends, this stuff works. The Crimson, which at week's end was 15-0, cruised past the Saints 5-1 as Harvard's other freshman goaltender, Charlie Brown look-alike Chuckie Hughes, turned away 27 of 28 shots. Hughes and Roy form what is likely the country's best freshman tandem of net minders.
"Harvard has the best college team I've seen since 1985 [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute won the NCAA title that year]," said St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh, whose Saints lost in overtime to Lake Superior State University in the finals of last season's NCAA tournament. "And Lane MacDonald has got my vote for the Hobey Baker [college hockey's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy]."
Indeed, stunning length-of-the-ice rushes by MacDonald, a senior left wing, made the outlook grim for St. Lawrence, even while the game was a scoreless tie. Four minutes into the first period he gathered in a loose puck in his own end and, with a burst of world-class speed, took off up the left side. Within three seconds he was all alone on St. Lawrence goalie Les Kuntar, who made a terrific kick save.
Rather than cheer the save, the crowd—never mind the Saints—seemed demoralized. Could MacDonald do that every time? To make matters worse, the Harvard Hares, a small contingent of Crimson undergrads outfitted in fuzzy masks and rabbit ears, outshouted the nearly 4,000 Saints fans.
St. Lawrence's defenders began overplaying MacDonald to the outside, but he simply put the puck between their legs and got by them. In the second period, with the Crimson leading 2-0, defenseman Nick Carone and center Allen Bourbeau neatly set up MacDonald, who fired a laser over Kuntar's glove. The goal induced the Hares to chant, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"
The cheer was an acknowledgment of the roles Bourbeau and MacDonald played as line mates on the U.S. Olympic team last year. They accounted for three goals in the U.S.'s exciting 7-5 loss to the Soviet Union. Their partner this season on what Harvard publicists have dubbed the Line of Fire is the dapper C.J. Young, who, among other feats, on Dec. 12 scored five goals against Dartmouth, three of them shorthanded in 49 seconds. The trio has combined for 34 goals and 51 assists. If there is a better college line in the country, no one has found it.
Cleary, 54, is from the never-grow-up school of chronic practical jokers. He pops his dentures out just as the team picture is being snapped; leaves messages for his players and staff from Bobby Orr, Roger Clemens, Wayne Gretzky and the like; and generally gets the bends whenever he goes more than a minute without amusement—except, that is, during the Star Spangled Banner. Cleary takes his anthem seriously, and players who so much as budge before the last note of "home of the brave" know they will have to answer to one angry patriot. Cleary's gaze remains fixed on Old Glory, and he sings along, just as he did during the medal ceremony at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960. With seven goals and seven assists in seven games, he was the leading scorer for the U.S. team, which he helped lead to the gold medal.
After the Olympics, Cleary refereed Division I college hockey for eight years, served as Ryan O'Neal's "skate-in" for the hockey scenes in Love Story, started a family and lost his hair. He has coached Harvard for 18 years, guiding the Crimson to the Final Four six times, but his Olympic experience is ever present. Harvard relies on the nifty skating style that he learned while playing for Team U.S.A. Cleary's prototypical player is about 5'10" and 170 pounds, which is ideal for college and international play, if not for the NHL. "American or Canadian, I believe your first goal should be to play in an Olympics," he says. "Getting guys into the NHL is not a big priority with us."
A few years ago Cleary was buttonholed at a luncheon by a booster from another school, who asked him, "How many of your kids actually graduate?"
"All of them," said Cleary, a bit taken aback. "What else are they there for?"
While most potential NHL men spent last year's warm months playing hockey in summer leagues, MacDonald worked in the mortgage department of a Milwaukee bank. He hopes to play in the NHL or possibly in Europe next fall, but he will insist on going through interviews with various banks this spring. "I want that experience," he says.
Like MacDonald, Bourbeau could have gone to the pros this season, but he returned to Harvard for a final year. When he discusses his academic career in Cambridge. Bourbeau sounds like someone who will soon become eligible for parole. "School has been tough for me," he says. "I mean tough. I've lasted three years, and I only have one to go. If I hadn't come back this year, I don't think I would have finished."
The Crimson's immediate reward for whipping St. Lawrence was an all-night bus ride through snow and sleet. The team arrived in Cambridge at 6:35 a.m. "If I hurry," said the ever-cheerful Cleary, "I can make the seven o'clock mass at St. Anthony's."
Everyone else was predictably "salty," which is the players' hip synonym for cranky, as in, "Taucher, you are the saltiest man on earth." No one slept well on the bus, and everyone had exams coming up. Craig Taucher had strong competition from all sides.
Only Melrose seemed refreshed at the end of the trip. "I'm just glad to be here," he is fond of saying. A native of Red Deer, Alberta, he transferred to Harvard two years ago from North Dakota.
Melrose recently got a D-plus on an English paper, with an option to rewrite it. He took the essay to Harvard's Writing Center, where he got advice on research, organization and grammar. Twelve hours of work later, he resubmitted the paper, and his professor bumped his grade up to a C.
But Melrose is not discouraged. "Actually," he says, "my writing is really coming along." As Cleary might say, "What else is he there for?"