The Weight Of Expectations

Northeastern head coach Greg Cronin can remember the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008, like it was yesterday.

He describes walking from his Commonwealth Avenue apartment in Boston to his office, the rain pounding down as he headed to St. Botolph Street and historic Matthews Arena.

He remembers turning on his computer and looking in his email box. The sight alone might have been enough to turn his stomach.

For it was Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008, that Cronin felt would be different from the previous mornings on the first Tuesday in February. This was supposed to be Cronin’s year.

Greg Cronin and Northeastern are in the spotlight as the Beanpot opens Monday (photo: Melissa Wade).

Greg Cronin and Northeastern are in the spotlight as the Beanpot opens Monday (photo: Melissa Wade).

For it was less than a week prior that the masses of media and college hockey fans alike were extolling the virtues of a Northeastern men’s ice hockey team that was having one of its best starts in memory. A first-round matchup with Harvard in the opening round of the annual Beanpot seemed like a pre-punched ticket to the tournament’s championship game, for this was a Harvard team that had lost 10 of its previous 11 games.

For once, Northeastern found itself as the Goliath in Boston’s college hockey championship. It was time that this giant, which anyone could tell you had slept through many a Beanpot prior, would be awakened.

Cronin had visions of walking into his office that Tuesday morning to a bevy of congratulatory emails.

But as the rain dripped down, that short walk from Comm. Ave. to St. Botolph grew longer. There would be no emails of pleasantries awaiting Cronin. For the 20th straight year, the Huskies and their third-year head coach would walk away from February without Beanpot bragging rights, possibly the most important gift Cronin could ever give his Husky alumni.

A night earlier Beanpot dreams became a nightmare. A tentative beginning by the upstart Huskies allowed Harvard to grab a 3-0 lead before most of the 17,565 who made their way to the Gahden that night had even “pahked their cahs.” Though somewhere around the 10-minute mark of the first period Northeastern awakened, it was far too late and the Crimson went on to the title game; Northeastern was headed back to the consolation game for the 44th time in 56 tries.

“That was the first time I actually realized, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of pressure to win this tournament,'” said Cronin of the morning after last year’s Beanpot opener. “I’m 45 years old and I can handle it. Our athletic director came down to talk to the team after that game because the weight of that tournament finally sank in after that loss.”

To think that Cronin would suggest that it took three years behind the bench to realize the magnitude of the Beanpot on his school’s campus seems ludicrous. He’s the son of a former NU Husky who played in the Beanpot three times in the late 1950s.

But when you think about the fact that in his first year his club entered the tournament with but a single win and in year two, Northeastern was a severe underdog to Boston University in the tournament’s opener, it seems possible.

In neither of these circumstances were there any expectations on Cronin or his players.

Last year, though, was different.

“Last year we had pretty high expectations as well,” said Cronin, contrasting his team’s bid a year ago with what it will face this Monday night at 8 p.m. when the Huskies, ranked No. 3 in the USCHO.com/CBS College Sports poll, take on Boston College in the semifinals of the 57th Beanpot. “But last year we were in the middle of that adversity we hit during the year.

“This year, there’s been a little more consistency to what we’ve done during the year. Nevertheless, this tournament takes on its own personality. It doesn’t matter what happens in October, November, December and January.”

Indeed, when teams take to the ice for Boston’s version of the winter classic, you can throw all records out. While that was a motto of the tournament’s early days, it never was stronger than when, ironically, Northeastern won its first Beanpot title in 1980. That year, the Huskies entered the tournament with a dismal 3-11-0 record but knocked off Boston University in the opening game of the Beanpot and then upset Boston College, 5-4 in overtime, to capture the title. It was the first of four titles that Northeastern won in the 1980s; the school has not won one since 1988.

It’s difficult to imagine what that win did for the Northeastern hockey program, but the results on paper speak truth. Two years later, the Huskies, who had posted just two winning seasons in the previous 15 years, reached the Frozen Four in the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance.

“The Beanpot is like its own little animal and it’s a psychological animal,” said Cronin. “Look at Harvard last year. They [had one win] in 11 games and then came in a decisively beat us and took BC to overtime [in the Beanpot title game]. After that they went on a run and almost made the NCAA tournament.

“That to me reflects how unique the tournament is. It’s a jumpstart for teams that are struggling and it can be tricky to manage a team that’s doing really well.”

Which brings us to this year’s Northeastern team. Rarely in the past decade or so have the Huskies clashed with Boston College and been considered a favorite. But as February rolls around, Northeastern sits atop Hockey East while the Eagles have struggled for position in the league standings, bouncing anywhere from third to sixth over the past months. The Huskies entered this weekend No. 3 in the national poll; BC is well behind at 11th.

And thus the pressure may once again rest on the shoulders of Northeastern come Monday night. This is the team, if any, that can win a championship, right?

Though never actually using the word, it is the pressure, says Cronin, which is difficult to manage.

“It becomes managing the games that is the key to winning the tournament,” said Cronin. “We’re kind of like the new kids on the block in terms of having that credibility going into it. I wish our guys would handle the [Beanpot] games the way they’ve handled all the other games they’ve played.”

That, though, is easier said than done. The venue of the TD Banknorth Garden, the bright lights of television (and possibly the added pressure this year as the tournament will be broadcast back to Canada), the raucous capacity crowds. Whatever it may be, this isn’t anything like any other game played in the course of the season.

What may help Northeastern navigate the waters this year is the team’s experience. The six members of the Huskies’ senior class have stuck together through thick and thin with the program — from a three-win freshman campaign to a rafters-full home barn for much of this season as a result of the program’s continued improvement.

“The one thing I have faith in is the seniors we have,” said Cronin. “They’ve all got a lot of battle scars. They’ve all learned a lot of lessons.

“But that’s the good thing … that we have six seniors who have all gone through their own adversity. They now have to harness that maturity they’ve achieved throughout and play a real smart game on Monday.”

Undoubtedly, perspective is something that he wants his team to maintain both into and past Monday. Winning the Beanpot may be the be-all and end-all for the Huskies’ alumni base, but it’s hardly the pinnacle of the season for Cronin.

“You take a few steps back and … I don’t want to minimize the tournament, but we’re in a league race here. We’re trying to win a league championship. We’re trying to make the NCAA tournament.

“The Beanpot, as large as it is in Boston for alumni, is just a step along that process. Whether we win or not, the players will decide that. I’m more concerned about how they play the game.

“If we lose the game and we play well, you chalk it up to the other team won the game. But we’ve got to play well. We haven’t played well [in my three years]. The best game we played was a consolation game against Harvard two years ago. We’ve got to forget about the Beanpot and we’ve got to play well against BC on Monday night.”

Doing so could be a steppingstone to a paramount year in Northeastern hockey.

And it could also make that walk to work on Tuesday morning a much brighter one for Greg Cronin.

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