Here's a switch: People were being condescending to Harvard last week. On a visit to Minnesota, the Crimson hockey team learned that 1) the state's lakes are outnumbered only by its hockey snobs and 2) winning the NCAA championship before 16,000 of one's most vociferous critics is an excellent way to shut them up.
Minnesotans have long looked down their noses at eastern hockey, which is alleged to be an effete, watered-down version of the game. Eastern schedules are shorter; eastern players are smaller and, well, softer. When Harvard defenseman Josh Caplan took a slap shot to the left shin and crumpled to the ice during the NCAA final last Saturday, he was booed. Suck it up, pansy!
For us, goes the thinking in Gopher-land, hockey is a way of life. For them, it is an extracurricular activity.
This year's NCAA Final Four On Tee was held in St. Paul, which was being billed as Hockeytown, U.S.A. And for the fourth time in as many years, coach Doug Woog's Golden Gophers were in the Final Four. Here was another chance to win his first title. The Gophers last won the NCAAs in 1979, under Herb Brooks.
The Harvardians, for their part, were seeking their first NCAA team title ever—the NCAA does not hold a squash championship. While they were at it, they would debunk a few myths about eastern hockey.
Chief among the debunkers was junior left wing Ed Krayer. Emboldened by his two goals in Thursday night's 6-3 semifinal win over Michigan State, Krayer indulged in a bit of postgame woofing. Yes, Maine would be an easier opponent in the finals, but Krayer would rather face the Gophers, he said. Why? "Beating Minnesota would be sweeter," he said. The Gophers routed Maine the next night 7-4, and Krayer had his wish.
A close, clean match was predicted for the finals. Woog and Harvard coach Bill Cleary are hockey purists, both favoring speed and skill over clutching and grabbing. Indeed, Saturday's game was mainly a montage of dazzling rushes, playmaking and goaltending. After 60 minutes, the score was tied 3-3.
At 4:16 into overtime, Krayer pounced on a rebound and kicked it across the slot, drawing Gopher goalie Robb Stauber out of his crease. Seizing his moment, Krayer backhanded an anemic shot that meandered past Stauber's skates—"It took 15 minutes to go in," Krayer said later—and over the line, ending the game.
The victory was, as Krayer foresaw, sweet. Especially for Cleary, who in his 18 seasons at Harvard has won everything but a national title. It may have been sweetest of all for Krayer himself. All season, as the Crimson skated to a 24-2-0 regular-season record, Krayer's was one of the team's few unhappy stories. After playing two solid seasons for the Crimson, he had taken 1988 off, leaving school to sell real estate and "do some growing up," he said. Upon his return to Harvard, Krayer could not shake the rust: At the end of the regular season, he had just 14 points and little confidence.
But as the playoffs approached, his teammates noticed a change. In practice, everything he touched went into the net. And in Harvard's two-game sweep of Lake Superior State in the NCAA quarterfinals, Krayer scored two goals.
The Crimson made it a clean sweep of the weekend's awards when, on Sunday, captain and left wing Lane MacDonald was named the winner of the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey's Heisman Trophy. Ironically, MacDonald, fellow 1988 U.S. Olympic teammate Allen Bourbeau and C.J. Young—Harvard's vaunted Line of Fire—were actually the Crimson's third-best forward line in St. Paul. Besides Krayer's timely awakening, sophomore center Peter Ciavaglia had a goal and three assists against Michigan State, and third-line left wing Ted Donato scored three goals and two assists in St. Paul.
It was Donato's shovel job past goalie Jason Muzzatti that put the Michigan State game out of reach. Donato then stayed near the crease and treated the Hockey-town U.S.A. crowd to an arm-pumping victory celebration. Brash? Unquestionably.
Crimson goalie Chuckie Hughes made Donato look downright modest. Hughes and fellow freshman Allain Roy had split netminding duties all season. But when Hughes came down with the flu last month, Cleary asked him if he would mind sitting out a start. Calculating rapidly, Hughes determined that if he did miss a start, and if Harvard swept its opponent in the NCAA quarterfinals—which, indeed, is what happened—he would be in net for the championship game. "I guess it's O.K., Coach," he said.
As the Gophers took the ice on Saturday, a thunderous ovation rose from the overwhelmingly hometown crowd at the Civic Center. Still, Hughes, in net, could be seen grinning hugely. "I just loved it," he said.
And how did he feel after yielding the first goal of the game? "Confident, as usual."
Donato's second goal against the Gophers gave Harvard a 3-2 lead with just seven minutes to play. Instead of erupting in celebration, he was uncharacteristically stoic. "This one's not over," Donato yelled as his teammates mobbed him. He was correct: 3:41 later Gopher right wing Peter Hankinson scored on a power play, and the game went into overtime.
The Gophers blasted two quick shots at Hughes to open the extra session, one of which clanked off the right pipe. "I wasn't worried," deadpanned Hughes afterward.
Sure enough, minutes later the Harvard players were throwing their equipment rafterward, while the Minnesota players were seemingly paralyzed with grief. For four years running, Woog and his Gophers have left the Final Four empty-handed. "Just don't call me Bud Grant," said Woog afterward. "He's taller and richer than I am."
As the Gophers accepted their runner-up trophies, a scattering of Minnesota faithful remained in the stands to applaud them. The majority, however, couldn't bear to watch. Almost immediately after the winning goal, the fans streamed silently out of the arena, disappointed, yes, but perhaps with a grudging respect for eastern hockey.