Beanpot tourney is more than it seems
BOSTON -- Tradition. Timing. Test run.
Mention the tournament in college hockey circles and it often elicits an eye roll if you're not an alum or a fan of one of the four schools for the Garden party that takes place on the first two Mondays each February.
To Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern, the Beanpot Tournament is sacred. To the rest of the college hockey world, it's overstated.
For the record, I didn't go to a Beanpot school and I didn't grow up in New England, so my experience with this tournament is limited to my years of covering it as a member of the media.
That said, here's why the Beanpot is the most significant regular-season college hockey tournament. (Notice I didn't say "best" because that's a subjective thing.)
The Rensselaer Holiday Tournament, which began in 1951, is actually one year older than the Beanpot -- but tradition is not just about tenure. The RPI tourney gets lost a bit over Thanksgiving weekend with the rest of college hockey in action. Not to mention its rotating field can leave something to be desired. (Remember when Merrimack beat Wayne State for the 2002 title?)
The Great Lakes Invitational, another great tournament played each December in Detroit, has been around since 1965. And with an opportunity for a Michigan-Michigan State final each year at a packed Joe Louis Arena, who is going to argue about GLI's place in the college hockey tournament universe?
The Beanpot dates back to Dec. 27, 1952, when Harvard beat BU 7-4 at Boston Arena (now called Matthews Arena and Northeastern's home rink). That makes it nearly as old as the NCAA tournament (1948).
Starting in 1955, the Beanpot was moved from its original December (and then January) dates to early February. And now that it occupies the first two Mondays of the second month, there isn't any competition to speak of in college hockey.
All of which means having the stage to yourself creates extra (although some would say undeserved) exposure. In some respects, it's like "Monday Night Football." Regardless of the matchup, it's the only game in any town and because of that, it usually delivers an audience. So even the Beanpot haters end up tuning in because where else are they going to turn -- the Westminster Dog Show?
Another added benefit to the February window is the proximity of the playoffs. The postseason is still a month away, but coaches, players and fans alike already have an eye toward what the second season will bring. And everyone would agree that there's nothing like the intensity and passion of playoff hockey.
In that respect, the Beanpot helps set the stage for what lies just over the horizon. Aside from the yearlong smack talk entitled to the winners in and around the Hub, the title game also creates a real tournament tone that can't quite be replicated in regular league play.
So think of the Beanpot final as a preview of what April's Frozen Four in Washington, D.C., could deliver in terms of atmosphere.
And given the quality of Monday's matchup between No. 1 Boston University and No. 3 Northeastern (look for Northeastern to move up to No. 2 in the national polls Monday afternoon thanks to Notre Dame's loss at Ohio State on Sunday), either or both schools could realistically be playing on college hockey's final weekend.
Need another reason to watch the top two ranked teams in the country play at Boston's sold out TDBanknorth Garden? The past six Beanpot title games were one-goal affairs and four of the past five have gone to overtime.
Then there are the 13 draft picks that should be on the ice Monday night. Five of BU's six defensemen have ties to an NHL club and the sixth, captain Matt Gilroy, turned down a reported 23 offers to sign as a free agent last spring so that he could return for his senior season.
The Beanpot is often referred to as the BU Invitational because the Terriers have won 28 of the 56 tournaments, including 14 of the past 20. In that time frame, the Huskies of Huntington Avenue have won, well, zero Beanpots. Northeastern has just four titles to its credit with the last one coming in 1988.
"The drought that Northeastern has experienced over these years, it does weigh on us," Northeastern coach Greg Cronin said. "They're kids, you can't filter out the media attention."
This will mark the 11th time BU and Northeastern have met in the Beanpot final with the Terriers holding a 7-3 edge and a four-game winning streak in those games. When the Huskies last beat BU in a Beanpot final, on Feb. 8, 1988, four current Northeastern players hadn't been born.
"Colleges like BC or BU, kids go there and put on the jersey and it's kind of expected that they have it in them that they're going to win," Northeastern goalie Brad Thiessen said. "At Northeastern, what we're trying to do is instill it in our program as well so we can go out there and believe that we're going to win every night."
In their only meeting so far this season, BU blanked Northeastern 3-0 on Nov. 16. After Monday night, the two play a home-and-home series on Feb. 20-21 which should play a big role in determining the Hockey East regular-season champion, but it's a safe to say that weekend won't quite match the feel of a Beanpot final.
For Northeastern's six seniors, it's one final crack at trying to feed the Huskies' Beanpot famine. And it's a second straight week of playing in the late game, something that wasn't lost on Cronin's players.
"The energy was amazing," Northeastern's Ryan Ginand said after scoring a goal in the 6-1 win over defending champ Boston College in the first round Feb. 2. "I didn't know what it was like and now I know. It was unbelievable. Now I can't wait for [Monday] night."
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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