The Battle For Commonwealth Ave.

Years ago, when someone said the word “rivalry” in Boston, you might immediately have thought of the Bruins and the Canadiens, the Celtics and the Lakers, and most definitely the Red Sox and the Yankees.

But as the days of the great sports rivalries in Boston begin to slowly fade thanks to pro sports expansion, one still is a guaranteed sellout no matter where it’s played: Boston College vs. Boston University.

These teams renewed one of college hockey’s greatest rivalries for the 200th time on Saturday night at Boston College’s Conte Forum, and thanks to an incredible comeback by Boston College, the clubs skated to a 4-4 tie, only the 15th deadlock in the 200 meetings. For the record, BU has won 103 of the 200, and BC has been victorious in 82.

The rivalry began all the way back in 1917 — the first season for ice hockey at both schools. For the Eagles of Boston College, it was the one of only three games on their schedule. And for the Boston University Terriers, that 3-1 loss to BC was the only game on the slate.

But over the last 83 years, this rivalry has developed into one of the greatest collegiate wars in the country. In college hockey, other rivalries such as Michigan-Michigan St. in the CCHA, Minnesota-Wisconsin in the WCHA and Clarkson-St. Lawrence in the ECAC compare in magnitude to the BC-BU rivalry, but each lacks two things that make BC-BU special.

One is Commonwealth Avenue, the famous street that runs from downtown Boston all the way to Newton, the actual home of Boston College, and is pretty much the only thing that separates these two schools geographically. The other is the Beanpot — the well-known, four-team tournament held the first two Mondays in February during which BC and BU, along with Harvard and Northeastern, battle for college hockey bragging rights in Boston.

Perhaps words can’t express the magnitude of the rivalry between these two clubs — but we can try anyway. As a longtime fan of BC hockey said Saturday, anyone who says that the BC-BU game doesn’t matter is either “lying or in denial.”

Case in point: every time BU scored Saturday night and the small but vocal visiting crowd for the Terriers cheered, the large video scoreboards flashed phrases like “So What” and “No Big Deal.” Maybe that was the thought in the minds of some BC fans. But for the other 7,000 or so, it was a big deal — a very big deal. And when BC’s Mike Lephart tied the game with 28.5 seconds remaining, the roar let out by those in attendance definitely proved it.

The Players and the Coaches

Eagle alum Mark Dennehy, who played for BC during their heyday from 1987-1991, summed up the rivalry best.

“‘Respect.’ I think that’s the one word I think about,” said Dennehy, now the head coach at Fairfield University. “There’s obviously a dislike or there wouldn’t be a rivalry, but both teams respect the other team. That’s why you want to beat that team more than any other team in the country.”

BU head coach Jack Parker believes the BC-BU rivalry to be the strongest around.

“Some people want to say that BU-Maine is a big rivalry and others say BU-UNH; years ago they thought BU-Cornell was a big rivalry and also BU-Harvard,” Parker said, “but there’s no rivalry for BU or BC as big as the BC-BU rivalry.

“Tonight’s [comeback 4-4 tie] was a typical BC-BU game,” continued Parker, who Saturday coached his 93rd game against BC, and now holds an all-time record of 51-32-10 against the Eagles. “It’s a big crowd, everyone’s excited, there are ebbs and flows.”

BC head coach Jerry York agrees.

“I think this is a great rivalry,” said York, who has a 4-11-5 record against BU as a coach, and was 3-8-0 against BU as a player from 1963-1967.

“Every school needs a rival,” York continued. “[BC’s] still looking for one in football. [We think] it’s Notre Dame, but I’m not quite sure Notre Dame knows they’re our rival.

“But BC and BU, historically, through the ups and downs, have been great for each other. We need BU and BU needs us, there’s no question about it. I think it adds a little excitement to the season, especially when we’re both playing well.”

There’s no doubt that this is the easiest game on both teams’ schedules to get up for. Players and coaches on both clubs make that abundantly clear.

“Everybody seems a little more geared up,” said Parker.” The players are more geared up, the crowd’s more excited, just because it’s BU-BC. “If we were playing Maine in our building or they were playing UNH here, it wouldn’t quite have the same sting and the same excitement.”

BU freshman goaltender Rick DiPietro, playing in his first-ever game against BC, already knows just how big this game is.

“This game’s built up as one of our biggest games of the season,” said the rookie netminder. “To play this game is what we look forward to all season. It’s what we work up to.

“The adrenaline was definitely running in the locker room before the game,” DiPietro added. “When you come out to 7,000 screaming fans like that, the atmosphere is great.”

York notes that a game like this even helps his team’s season along.

“[This rivalry] is something that helps coaching,” York said. “There are bumps on the road when you’re trying to get up for an important game, but when you have a rival like this, it takes care of itself.”

BC junior forward Mike Lephart, the hero of Saturday’s game with the tying score, didn’t know anything about the rivalry before coming to BC. He sure does now.

“I had never seen a BC-BU game until I saw one the year before I arrived here at the Beanpot,” said Lephart, who hails from Niskayuna, N.Y. “After that I had a taste of what it’s all about.

“But to experience one, it’s a lot of emotion, there’s a lot of passion involved. It’s pretty much what hockey’s all about.

Continued Lephart, “The emotion is there — you can definitely sense it in these games. We try to get pumped up as much as you can for any game, but against BU, you can sense it in the locker room.”

The Fans

Even in the toughest of times for the programs, the fans have always been there to support the rivalry. Walter Brown Arena’s 3,806-capacity stands are a guaranteed sellout when Boston College comes in. Similarly, it’s pretty hard to grab one of the 7,884 tickets available at BC’s Conte Forum.

To every fan in attendance, this is one of the games that will define the season. Even on an off year, such as BU experienced last year, winning the season series is a bragging right, something that goes a long way for many of the faithful.

“It’s certainly a rivalry,” said Terry Clarke, a Boston University alum and founder and chairman of Clarke & Company, a Boston-based public-relations firm. “They are two great programs with a tradition of great coaching.”

Clarke has been a longtime supporter of Terrier hockey, though he admits he wasn’t a fan while attending school there. Even his senior year, while roommates with Glen Eberly, for whom the Beanpot’s goaltending award is named, Clarke didn’t attend games.

“I never went to a game back then — isn’t that just awful?” said Clarke, who now, as an alumnus, is a BU season-ticket holder.

“This year, I think that there will be a test of that coaching,” Clarke added. “BU is a young, talented team while BC is an experienced team with plenty of talent.”

When asked if he remembered a great game or two between the two clubs, Clarke responded, “Every time they play!”

The Heroes

Lephart’s game-tying goal Saturday night adds his name to a long list of players whose performances in this rivalry seems to be well-remembered. And if you look around the NHL, each of the two clubs sports plenty of players in the big time, though BU holds a decided advantage thanks in no small part to a very successful decade in the 1990s.

So what about the names that made an impact on this series?

If we go all the way back to 1957, the name Joseph Celata appears as one of the first memorable heroes in the series. It was on February 5 of that year that Celata scored a goal at 2:24 of overtime to lift the Eagles to the Beanpot championship, their third in the tournament’s first five years.

Looking ahead eight seasons, a more familiar face for the Eagles did in the Terriers in the Beanpot final. Current head coach Jerry York helped lead the Eagles to a 5-4 win on February 15 for the Eagles’ second straight championship win over the Terriers.

A year later, though, BU exacted revenge, knocking off the two-time defending champions 6-4 in the first round. A week later, the Terriers trounced Harvard 9-2 to capture their second Beanpot.

In 1972, a most notable hero, John “Snooks” Kelley, for whom Saturday night’s venue, Kelley Rink, is named, captured a coaching milestone, winning his 500th career game in a 7-5 victory over the Terriers.

Six years later, on March 25, 1978, a local boy by the name of Jack O’Callahan, playing for the Terriers, made a name for himself with a stellar performance in a 5-3 win over BC in the NCAA championship game. It was BU’s third and final national championship of the 1970s, and O’Callahan would go on, two years later, to capture the gold medal as a member of the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 Olympic Team.

In 1986, it was Peter Marshall who helped BU to another title, this time a Hockey East championship, in a 9-4 win over the Eagles. BU has captured five of the 15 Hockey East titles and BU four, but ironically, this was the only time the two ever met in the finals.

As we revisit the Beanpot in the 1990s, two current NHLers come to mind in Mike Grier and Chris O’Sullivan. Their big-game performances not only helped BU capture the 1995 Beanpot, but also the victory in the final game played between these two clubs at the historic Boston Garden.

And for Saturday night, at least, we can add Mike Lephart for his hustle that helped the Eagles to complete the comeback, which — even though neither team went home winners — helped 7,000-plus go home happy.

The Beanpot

As has already been mentioned, the Beanpot has been the landmark in the rivalry between these two hockey clubs. Success in this tournament can, in some years, define success (or a lack thereof) in either team’s season.

Similar to the series between BC and BU, records don’t matter an ounce when you face off on the first Monday in February for the Beanpot. Such was the case the last time BC won the Beanpot in 1994.

BC entered the Beanpot 11-14-3 and was without a win in its last four games. But a 5-4 win over Northeastern in the first round, and a 2-1 overtime upset of Harvard in the championship gave BC its 11th Beanpot.

(Oh, and by the way, though those 11 championships are impressive, they’re still somewhat less the 22 that Boston University has captured. In addition to those 22 titles, BU has appeared in 38 of the 47 Beanpot championship games and holds a 66-28 record all-time in Beanpot competition.)

As far as head-to-head competition, the Terriers hold the decided advantage, winning 21 of the 29 Beanpot games. But in the championship games, the margin is not so broad. In the 13 times these two clubs have met to decide the title, BU has won seven to BC’s six. BC won the first four title games over BU, but the Terriers then won the next two, BC the next two after that, and BU the last five.

This year’s Beanpot hardly guarantees a BU-BC matchup as the Eagles face Northeastern and BU pairs up with Harvard. But it does, of course, leave the possibility for the two clubs to meet in the finals, where BC could even the slate and break the five-game jinx.

The 21st Century

One can only hope that the next 200 games will be as exciting as the first 200. Blowouts and brawls, comebacks and championships, upsets and unrest — rest assured there will be plenty of great hockey every time these teams get together.

[Editor’s note: As if to prove Jim Connelly right, Sunday’s game at Boston University wrote another thrilling chapter in the BC-BU rivalry, as the Terriers rallied behind netminder Rick DiPietro for a 2-1 win. Coincidence? We don’t think so.]


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