For the first time in its 31-year history, the NCAA hockey tournament was reduced from a national championship to a battle for the bragging rights of, not a state, not a city, but an avenue. Boston University and Boston College, which share Commonwealth Avenue with a familiarity that has bred its share of contempt over the years, met for the NCAA championship last Saturday night in the Providence Civic Center—the first all-East final in six years. In fact, it also was the first time in six years that there hadn't been an all-West final.
The bragging rights were won by BU with a 5-3 victory that left no doubts about which was the best team on the ice—or on Commonwealth Avenue. It was the third NCAA championship for the Terriers, who also won it in 1971 and 1972, and it served as vindication for their unexpected loss of the Eastern College Athletic Conference title, which they had won the previous five years. It was also tonic for a BU team scarred by the death—to cancer—of the wife of its young coach. Jack Parker, in the midst of the ECAC playoffs two weeks earlier.
Despite a 25-1 regular-season record, BU almost failed to gain a berth in the NCAAs. Ranked second nationally, the Terriers were beaten 5-1 by Providence College in the ECAC semifinals. When BC upset Providence for the ECAC title, the NCAA selectors opted for an unprecedented playoff between Providence and BU to determine which Eastern team would join BC in the nationals. BU regrouped and won the rematch, 5-3.
Meanwhile, the West was setting its own precedent. Bowling Green, champion of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, qualified as the West's second-seeded team—the first CCHA school to do so—by beating Colorado College in a one-game playoff, also by a 5-3 score. The West's top-seeded team (and the tournament favorite) was defending NCAA champion Wisconsin. With the Badgers came 3,000 Badgerites who invaded Providence by the busload, all decked out in scarlet cowboy hats and T shirts, and buttons that said Wisconsin was No. 1. For the benefit of non-readers, well-oiled voices sang that message out, day and night, on every street corner and in every hallway.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin's best hockey was played in the halls of the Holiday Inn. In the opening game BU so thoroughly dominated play in a 5-2 victory that it appeared Wisconsin's skaters had worn themselves out singing.
Bowling Green, whose hockey program is only nine years old, took an 11-game winning streak into the BC game, and believed in something its PR people called a "Rocky Dream" of winning the school's first NCAA title in any sport. But it wasn't the week for Rocky Dreams. A thoroughbred by that name collapsed and died in the winner's circle at Florida Downs on Thursday, and on Friday night the Bowling Green hockey team did the same in the face-off circle. Boston College All-America Joe Mullen scored at 28 seconds of the first period, and the Eagles coasted to a 6-2 win.
That set up the head-butting between the schools that sit three miles apart on Commonwealth Avenue. The young (seven freshmen) BC team had lost three games to BU during the regular season, but with Mullen and Goaltender Paul Skidmore, juniors who hail from the unlikely hockey hotbed of the New York Metropolitan Junior League, at the peak of their games, the Eagles could not be counted out.
Mullen, who scored 33 goals in 33 games this season, was recently named winner of the Walter A. Brown Award as the best American-born college hockey player in the East, a remarkable achievement for someone who grew up on Manhattan's West 49th Street and learned his hockey on roller skates with the West Side Rockets. "It's not quite the same as ice skating," Mullen said. "You push off with your toes."
Mullen's interest in hockey stemmed from his father's job as the Zamboni driver at Ranger games at Madison Square Garden. His high school, Power Memorial Academy, had no hockey team, being preoccupied with turning out very tall basketball players such as Lew Alcindor. So Mullen joined the West Siders of the N.Y.M.J.H.L., playing on the Sky Rink 16 stories above West 33rd Street.
It was there that Mullen met Skidmore, who grew up in Smithtown, about 35 miles out on Long Island. Skidmore is considered by many to be the best college goalie since Ken Dryden played for Cornell in the late '60s, and is so respected that few doubted he could carry BC to the national title all by himself.