By Andrew Merritt
When Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern got together for the inaugural New England Invitation Hockey Tournament in 1952, it meant a little extra revenue for the Boston Garden — a combined 8,487 people walked through the turnstiles for the new two-night college hockey tournament.
Sixty years and a name change later, the Beanpot has come to mean a great deal more. As it enters its 60th iteration on Feb. 6 and 13, the Beanpot is one of the most beloved traditions in college sports, bringing even the most casual of college hockey fans to a near-boil in anticipation and excitement.
Unlike nearly every other college hockey tournament, the lineup never changes. While most tournaments come around the holidays to break up the year, the Beanpot pops up just as its teams are jostling for playoff position in their respective leagues with only a month left in the regular season. And at the end, the winner doesn’t get an enormous trophy, but a humble pot that looks a little out of place during the post-championship victory lap around the ice.
So why is a hyper-regional tournament, always with the same four teams, still a success after 60 years? In short: What does the Beanpot mean?
“I think it’s part of the historical sports fabric of city of Boston, like Opening Day for the Red Sox or the Boston Marathon, and a lot of non-college hockey fans are just as interested in coming to the Beanpot,” said BU coach Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.), who will stand behind the Terriers bench for his 39th Beanpot this month. “I think that being seen at the Beanpot is just as important as seeing the Beanpot. It’s certainly become an icon of the college hockey world, that’s for sure.”
Parker’s Terriers have gone two years without a Beanpot title. For a program lovingly (and not so lovingly) referred to as “Beanpot U” thanks to its 29 titles — 13 more than the next-highest total, belonging to BC — that’s simply not acceptable. Two years without a Beanpot hasn’t happened at BU since 1994, and the Terriers last went three years without a title from 1983 to 1985.
No one has to tell the Terriers about all that, of course. The Beanpot is as much a part of BU lore as Parker himself, and the veteran coach said he doesn’t usually need to remind his players when Beanpot time is approaching — if anything, he does the opposite.
“I don’t tell them anything about it, except that the night before, we’re going to play the Beanpot,” he said. “They know all about it; sometimes you have to keep them from getting too jacked up.”
Jim Madigan’s troops also are well aware of the Beanpot, but in a very different way. Northeastern hasn’t won the tournament since 1988, so on Huntington Avenue, the Beanpot means the kind of electric anxiety only a long-suffering team can understand. And the first-year coach certainly doesn’t need to be reminded of the history — he was an assistant with the 1988 team, and earned two Beanpot titles as a Northeastern player in the early 1980s.
“I’m sure the players carry some of that burden, because they want to be the team that wins it for themselves, but also for the institution, to break a long history of unsuccessful attempts,” said Madigan (Milton, Mass.) “We’ve lost the tournament in some good games in overtime, in the championship game. This team knows just like they knew last year, when it was 22 years that they hadn’t won. I think we just have to focus on, ‘Let’s just go play a good game.’”
The Huskies came about as close as they could to ending the drought last year, taking Boston College to overtime in the championship game before falling, 7-6. For the 19 returning players from last year, no history lessons are needed.
“The kids know it,” Madigan said in January. “Once we get closer to the Beanpot, I’m not going to have to motivate or rev them up. They know we haven’t won in 23 years, and the last thing I need to do is tell this team it needs to carry the torch.”
Chris Kreider also doesn’t need much reminding of last year’s title game — he authored the pass that set up Jimmy Hayes’ Beanpot-winning goal six minutes into overtime, punctuating the then-sophomore’s three-point game.
“It’s bragging rights, it’s bragging rights for the city of Boston, it’s teams we battle with all season long, and it’s an opportunity to kind of come out on top regardless of where the season series is at,” Kreider said. “You can sweep BU or sweep Northeastern in the regular season, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot if they get the best of you in the Beanpot.”
Some of Kreider’s finest moments at BC have come in the Beanpot. He also had two goals in last year’s title game, and scored a goal in both rounds as a freshman in 2010. For the native of Boxford, Mass., who grew up watching the Beanpot and dreaming of playing in it, it hasn’t been hard to find his game for the big Monday nights on the TD Garden ice.
“Hockey’s fun to begin with, but in that environment, when you grew up watching the Bruins play, and obviously watching the Beanpot, it’s hard not to feel a little extra excitement, a little extra energy in the building,” he said.
In fact, the chance to play for that humble silver pot was one of the reasons Kreider chose to come to BC.
“Huge factor, definitely wanted to play in a Beanpot, to get that opportunity, and it’s kind of hard to say no to a school that can offer that opportunity,” he said.
Colin Blackwell’s Beanpot memories, for now, come from the stands or the TV screen. But the Harvard freshman from North Andover, Mass., picked his school, like Kreider, in part because it would afford him the opportunity to play for a Beanpot title.
“It means a lot. I’ve been watching ever since I was a little kid, got a chance to go watch it,” he said. “Playing in it is a dream come true.”
Blackwell and his Crimson teammates also are playing to break a drought, although Harvard last raised the Beanpot in 1993, five years after Northeastern’s last Garden victory parade.
Still, Blackwell was 48 days away from being born when Harvard beat BU, 4-2, on Feb. 8, 1993, for the Crimson’s last title. Stop him if you’ve heard this before, but he thinks there’s a pretty good chance that this year is the year for the men of Harvard.
“I think it’s one of those things, you’ve got to kind of cancel everything out around you,” he said. “We know for a fact that we have the players in the locker room that can do it. We had a big game against BU (in a 4-3 overtime loss), and we showed we can play against anyone in the country.”
The Crimson open this year’s tournament against BU in the first game Feb. 6, and then BC and Northeastern meet in a rematch of last year’s championship in the nightcap. One week later, the winning teams will meet to decide who gets the bragging rights, who gets to carry around the Garden ice a very small trophy that means a very great deal to New England.