Last Thursday night 3,000 people crammed into the lower level of the old Boston Arena—now called the Northeastern Arena—to see the only undefeated, untied Division I college-hockey team in the country, the Northeastern Huskies. Can it be that the Huntington Ave. Hounds, the Dogs of St. Botolph St. are ranked first in the East? Has the great beneath frozen over or what?
Those 3,000 fans constituted the largest crowd to see a Northeastern home game in 15 years, since before the rats moved into the arena and the balcony was condemned. The crowd didn't go away disappointed. The Huskies won their eighth straight game, 7-3 over Brown, which had just split a pair of games with Denver, a Western powerhouse. Two days later Northeastern beat RPI 4-2, running its record to 9-0. "We're going to lose sometime," says Husky Captain Jeff Hiltz, a defenseman from Ottawa, "but no team's ever going to blow us away."
That's some change, because getting blown away has been something of a Northeastern tradition in the 48 years it has had a hockey team. This would be more tolerable were it not for the three colleges that share Boston's impoverished subway system with Northeastern: Boston College, Boston University and Harvard. Each of these has a history of great teams and loyal followers. They've built a fierce and colorful three-way rivalry. The Huskies, meanwhile, have been treated and have generally played like a bunch of dogs. Northeastern's record since 1929 is 398-536-23, and it has had only two winning seasons in its last 10. "Northeastern kids are the leftovers," says Paul Filipe, a junior defenseman from Hudson. Mass. "We're the scrappers. The city kids. The workers. The Catholic kids go to BC, the smart kids to Harvard, and the ones who don't have the money to go to BU come here. The leftovers."
Leftovers with an eye for the barley, at least in the view of one policeman who broke up a snowball fight among members of the Northeastern hockey team earlier this season. Assured by one player that it was all in fun, that they were students at Northeastern, the policeman said, "Northeastern, eh? O.K. All I have to do to break up you guys is roll a beer bottle down the street and watch you chase it." Yuk, yuk.
On the other hand, the image of the Northeastern student body was positively rosy compared to that of the Boston Arena, which opened way back in 1909. Until the fall of 1979, the arena was controlled by the state of Massachusetts, which didn't do such a hot job of keeping it up. The lighting was lousy, and the few fans who dared to enter the arena were terrorized by the roving bands of rats that prowled under the seats. The hue of the arena was described by one player as being "dingy gray paint stained with Coke." Small wonder most of Coach Fernie Flaman's recruits came sight unseen from Canada—a local prospect wouldn't go near the place. "I wasn't going to bring a kid in here," says Flaman. "What would I have showed him?"
He wouldn't have showed him Bean-pot trophies, that's for sure. The Bean-pot is the second oldest and the most illustrious college-hockey tournament in the country—and that includes the NCAAs. It's held on successive Monday nights in February in the Boston Garden, and it's always a sellout. Year after year more than 14,000 people pile in to watch the four local teams do battle, BC's fans in this corner, Harvard's in that one, BU's over there and Northeastern's in whichever corner is left over. The winners the first Monday meet in the finals at 9 p.m. a week later; the losers play in the consolation game the following Monday at 6:15. The Huskies' record in the Beanpot is so dismal that Northeastern's sports information director, Jack Grinold, is called 6:15 Grinold. In the first 27 years of the tournament, up until last season, the Huskies were 2-25 in the opening games, 0-2 in the finals and 7-18 in the 6:15 consolations. BU had won the Beanpot 11 times, BC nine, Harvard seven.
Some seasons the Huskies weren't that bad, either. Three years ago they walloped Harvard 14-5 at Cambridge a few weeks before the two teams were to meet in the first round of the Beanpot. Harvard gained revenge by beating NU in the Beanpot in overtime. Another year the desperate Grinold made up HUSKY POWER buttons and sent them to all the local broadcasters. On the opening night of the Beanpot, two Boston newsmen actually wore them while on the air, stripping themselves of impartiality. If those broadcasters had worn Harvard or BU or BC buttons, they would've been drawn and quartered. But what the heck, rooting for the Huskies was like rooting for the Washington Generals against the Harlem Globetrotters, as one Boston sportswriter put it. Says Grinold, "You'd have to be the meanest man in the street to come up to a public personality and say, 'How can you root for Northeastern?' We've been an underdog that long."
But lo and behold, last year, in the midst of a dismal 7-20 season, Husky Power struck. For the first time, Northeastern won the Beanpot. In the opening round the Huskies beat BU in overtime, and afterward, Grinold said, "I felt like Charlie Brown when Lucy is holding the football for him to kick. All those years, the football has been pulled away. But this time I got to kick it."
The next week they upset Boston College, then the No. 1 team in the East, also in overtime, to win the tournament. That victory turned Northeastern's hockey program around. Recruiting money started to come in from alumni, the school committed itself to renovating the dilapidated arena, and three local high school stars who were at the game decided to accept scholarships. "Winning the Beanpot meant so much to so many people," says Flaman, a former Bruin defenseman whom Gordie Howe once called the toughest player he ever faced. "Everyone was rooting for us but the parents of the other team."
The rest of the 1979-80 season was miserable. At one point chest pains forced Flaman to check himself into the hospital, and Boston College avenged its Beanpot loss by beating the Huskies 9-1. But the wheels had started to turn. The university gave the arena, which it had purchased from the state, fresh paint and new plumbing, overhauled its compressors and redid its locker rooms. "I didn't recognize the place when I came back to school this fall," says leading scorer Sandy Beadle, a sophomore left wing who has been drafted by the Winnipeg Jets. He also didn't recognize the faces of some of his teammates. There were 10 freshmen and two transfer students among the Huskies, and only one senior. "We knew we had some good skaters, but nobody picked us in the top 15 in the East," Flaman says. Seeing as there are only 18 teams in the ECAC, clearly little was expected of Northeastern. But in their opening game, against Harvard, the Huskies showed signs of things to come by scoring six unanswered goals in the third period to win 11-5.