The weeks after Super Bowl Sunday can be difficult on a sports fan.
Until the end of February, meaningful college basketball games are hard to come by, as so much hinges on conference tournament play at the end of the month. The NBA also hits a stretch where, due to the bloated size of the NBA playoffs, most relevant teams have already booked their seats in the postseason. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in a couple of weeks, but until March’s World Baseball Classic, there won’t be meaningful baseball played.
In short, February is a gap in the sports world between the excitement of January’s BCS and NFL playoffs, and March’s NCAA tournament and end of the NBA regular season. This is commonly known as the Super Bowl hangover period.
Fortunately, Boston has a remedy that helps bridge the gap.
The Beanpot puck drops at 5:00 on Monday. Less than 24 hours after kickoff in New Orleans, Northeastern and Boston University will be digging in on the TD Garden ice for the 61st annual iteration of the tournament.
Technically, it’s still the regular season, and while three of the four Beanpot schools play in the Hockey East conference, Beanpot games between them do not count toward the conference schedule. The two games are all but exhibitions. Technically.
In reality, there is a lot to play for in the Beanpot, with each school having a unique angle on the tournament.
There are four Beanpot schools: Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern. Three of those four have won national championships at some point in their histories. None of them have won a national title without first winning the Beanpot. As BU and BC have both won championships in the past 10 years, and as BC started the season at No. 1 in the country, this is a significant fact.
In fact, if any of those four teams won their conference, they likely won the Beanpot first.
This seemingly random fact has everything to do with where and how the Beanpot is played. The TD Garden is an NHL arena. This is not exactly a rare rink size in college hockey, but there is no rule in the NCAA dictating the size of a sheet. Some schools play on wider rinks, some as wide as Olympic arenas. So, two games on the Bruins’ ice prepares the four organizations for conference tournament games and NCAA tournament games that will typically be held in NHL arenas.
Beyond that, the Beanpot is a tournament. It may be a near-exhibition tournament, but each game must have a winner. Double overtime is not unheard of at the Beanpot, something players just do not see during the regular season.
The dynamic of the four teams amplifies matters as well.
There have been 60 tournaments thus far. Boston University has won nearly half of those. This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the last time Harvard won the tournament. Northeastern hasn’t won since 1988 and only has four titles (all in the '80s) to show for its 60 tournaments of work. So, when Harvard or Northeastern so much as make the final, it’s news. When they make it a good game, it becomes big news.
In 2005, Northeastern took Boston University to overtime in a thrilling final, only to have an early chance hit a post and to see Chris Bourque score his last and only memorable goal as a college hockey player, giving BU yet another Beanpot. (Not that this upsets any Northeastern alumni. Never.)
Fun fact: For the second time in history, all four coaches in this tournament have won the Beanpot as a member of the team they are now coaching. Northeastern’s Jim Madigan also played in the Frozen Four in the early '80s. Ted Donato of Harvard was part of the Crimson’s 1989 national champion. (And, as mentioned before, that means that Harvard won the 1989 Beanpot, because no Beanpot school can win the national title without winning the Beanpot first.)
For this year, what the casual fan needs to know is that BC and BU are both legitimate contenders for a national title. Boston University struggled early in the season, but of late it has rounded into form, as is typical with a team that often peaks in early February.
Boston College started the season at the top of the polls and has played consistently well throughout the season. However, BC is also coming off of a shocking weekend sweep at the hands of the Maine Black Bears—never a great sign coming into the Beanpot.
Reasons for underdog optimism
Northeastern has played each of the three other Beanpot schools this season, and it has beaten all three. This includes a wild win at BU’s Agganis Arena where the Huskies lost a big lead and regained their composure just in time to finish the Terriers off, and a statement win at home against Boston College very early in the season.
Also, whether or not it’s actually a good thing, coach Jim Madigan has made it very public that he knows how badly his university wants a Beanpot. They’re reaching a point where nobody in their student body was alive the last time they won the tournament.
Madigan is in his second year at Northeastern, and he has been saying phrases like “Frozen Four” in interviews, words most Huskies supporters only dream about. Northeastern’s coach is convinced that the program can not only be turned around, but steered to brand new heights.
It’s not too hard to believe, as they are still a Beanpot school and play in one of college hockey’s premier conferences.
Everything Madigan says is theoretical vapor until someone in red and black is lifting up the Beanpot trophy. Until that point, none of it seems real to Northeastern. As they preach on Huntington Avenue, education is oriented in practice and experience. Give the Huntington Hounds some winning experience, and it all looks possible.
Harvard is also trying to regain its status as a hockey powerhouse. This is a school, after all, that has national championship banners hanging over its rink. It is, at the same time, Harvard, so there are limits to how it will approach this push for greatness.
In 2008, Harvard made its most recent appearance in the Beanpot final, the longest removed from the final now of any of the four teams. The Crimson are sort of outsiders in the Beanpot. The other three schools are located south of the Charles River, in Boston (or Chestnut Hill, in BC’s case), while Harvard is over in Cambridge. The other three are members of the same Hockey East conference, which makes them all more familiar with one another.
The Crimson do not have as much of a rivalry with the other Beanpot schools as BU, BC and Northeastern all have for one another. Those schools face one another more often as members of the same conference, but there’s something more: Harvard’s rivals aren’t necessary sports rivals.
Harvard students rarely feel the need to measure themselves against students from the other three schools, though all three are also excellent institutions in their own right.
Of course, Harvard too has students at its university right now who were born after Harvard last won this tournament. Being a sharp bunch, one can expect the Harvard students and alumni to be aware of this fact. Perhaps they are not as loud about this as Northeastern alumni, whose official policy is that they want a Beanpot “bleeping yesterday,” but rest assured that Harvard is tired of not winning this thing as well.
Fun fact No. 2: Harvard and Northeastern have never played each other in a Beanpot final. Ever.
There are four teams and there have been 60 of these tournaments, and only once every three years do the two teams meet in the semifinal. (This means that they’ve had 40 opportunities to meet in the final and they haven’t yet made that happen.) Hope springs eternal, however. The two teams do not play each other in the semifinal, so it remains possible (and it also remains unlikely) that there could be a Crimson-Huskies final.
I believe that certain people refer to that scenario as “the end times.”
On television or in person, the tournament is a spectacle. College hockey student sections are loud with chants that can be a bit extreme, but usually funny. In the early semifinal game (5:00), these chants bounce off of empty seats everywhere and amplify, allowing crowd microphones to pick them up in full clarity. (Note to potential viewers with children: Northeastern and Boston University have hockey fans who are particularly nasty toward one another. What’s said may not be suitable for all audiences.)
Likewise, the school bands get to make themselves known throughout the game, replacing the more traditional hockey organ with fired-up bands. This becomes really interesting in the third period of the early game, when the bands and student sections from the schools in the later game begin to take their seats and compete with the noise from the fans of the teams still on the ice.
Fans of the teams yet to play pick a side (usually based on which team is the traditional underdog, in hopes that their school will get an easier final), creating a temporary NCAA basketball tournament atmosphere where fans show up like conventioneers and find a way to pass the time until their team is up.
The Beanpot leaves no time for a Super Bowl hangover. By the time the traditional work crowd gets home, there will already be playoff-style hockey in full swing, compete with teams trying to start a national championship bid and others desperate to win a trophy to take home and build around.
At 5:00, BU will hope to start a path to the Frozen Four. Northeastern, for its part, may as well be playing in the Frozen Four for how important this tournament has become to their program. At 8:00, BC will hope to re-establish itself as a national title favorite, while Harvard desperately tries to hit a milestone in a promising program rebuild.
After next Monday, a slow stretch will almost seem welcome.
(Author’s note: The person who wrote this column attended Northeastern University, and like most Huskies fans is beginning to feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football.)