Words of comfort for Northeastern fans amid a struggle

Prior to the announcement of Northeastern coach Greg Cronin’s suspension (along with assistant Albie O’Connell), I was going to offer the following words to Huskies fans still in shock over how close they came to ending their Beanpot drought. The words still apply, albeit with an asterisk.

Red Sox fans prior to 2004 heard a lot about how exciting their most agonizing moments were. Arguably, the 1967 World Series was the most compelling of its decade. Ditto 1975 and 1986. And was there a more heart-pounding League Championship Series than 2003?

Northeastern coach Greg Cronin. The visiting Northeastern University Huskies defeated the University of Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks 3-2 with 14 seconds remaining in overtime on Friday, February 11, 2011, at Tsongas Arena in Lowelll, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
What's next for Northeastern and coach Greg Cronin? (photo: Melissa Wade)

If you were a Sox fan, you didn’t want to hear it. A part of you would have preferred to have gotten swept in each of those series so you wouldn’t have gotten your heart ripped out and then fed into a shredder.

The suspense — the omigod-we’re-gonna-do-it euphoria followed by the omigod-not-again! agony — made the losses all the tougher to bear.

Which is how Huskies fans had to feel after this year’s Beanpot when their boys took the No. 1 team in the country into overtime and … well, cue up the Red Sox in 1967, 1975, 1986 and 2003.

It hurt from the most casual of fans to the most die hard.

My daughter Nicole is a very casual fan even as an alum because while growing up she spent more time than she wanted to in hockey rinks my son was playing in. But she called me after the third period, her voice filled with excitement.

“Can you believe it?” she said, this most casual of fans very much thrilled.

After the gut-wrenching overtime in which the nation’s top team asserted a territorial dominance befitting its stature and then secured the win, I watched a die-hard Northeastern supporter — normally the most gregarious of fellows — walking, head down, unable to speak, unable to even meet anyone’s eyes.

Yeah. Just like 1967, 1975, 1986 and 2003.

If you’re a Huskies fan, the pain lingers. The cuts still haven’t healed.

But remember this. For Sox fans, there was 2004 and then again 2007. The agony made the wins all the sweeter.

And the wins did eventually come.

Or to bring this closer to the college hockey world, look at the team that inflicted this latest of cuts, the Boston College Eagles.

Yeah, I know you don’t want to look at them. They’ve won two of the last three national championships and seem a perennial fixture in the Frozen Four.

But before their 2001 title, they were the pre-2004 Red Sox all over again. People talked about the Curse of ’49 — their last championship — and Eagles fans agonized over the tear-your-heart-out losses.

“You just have to keep knocking on the door,” BC coach Jerry York said at the time.

Which is what I’d say to Northeastern fans still waiting for their first Beanpot title since 1988. If your team keeps knocking on the door like it has two of the last three years, it’ll open. And if it doesn’t open all by itself, the right leadership will make sure the bleeping thing gets knocked down.

Which brings us to …

What comes next for Northeastern hockey?

We don’t know anything for certain yet, but Cronin’s suspension feels like very bad news for the program.

Yes, behind assistant coach Sebastien Laplante the Huskies took three of four points from BC last weekend. They’ll presumably be fine for the rest of the year. Heck, they may even use this as an everyone-is-against-us rallying cry and be even tougher than they would have been otherwise.

But long-term this looks bad. It’s just a question of how bad.

First, let’s state the obvious. Ignoring the pending problems, Cronin has been very good for Northeastern hockey. In his charmingly smashmouth manner, he’s elevated the program. Two years ago, Northeastern qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years. The Huskies came oh-so-close to the Hockey East finals and the NCAA quarterfinals.

The program is far better off if Cronin stays and suffers no ill effects from the alleged infractions.

If he leaves for the pros, however, Northeastern hockey takes a significant step backward. If “the right man” replaces him, it will recover but usually a program skips a beat in the transition as a new coach assembles his type of team. And if “the right man” doesn’t replace him — and not just any replacement will do — then the program takes a major hit.

I don’t see any other way around that.

Now, if Cronin stays (assuming the suspension is lifted), questions still remain. When will the suspension be lifted? Will O’Connell also remain? What changes in Northeastern recruiting will be mandated?

It could prove disastrous if, as punishment, Cronin and his recruiters are placed in shackles beyond that which the NCAA normally mandates. Or if O’Connell leaves and a replacement must be found who understands the type of player Cronin needs. Or if Cronin’s suspension lasts long enough to affect this year’s recruiting.

It’s all so fragile.

The Huskies are already facing the stiffest of recruiting competition, not just from down the street at Boston University and Boston College, but farther north at New Hampshire and Maine. Not to mention all the other programs hungry to join the perennial powers.

(And it goes without saying that Northeastern has to play by the rules. That’s not the point here.)

Northeastern can’t lose any of the recruits it would have otherwise gotten this year. It can’t withstand recruiting shackles. Otherwise, it means a step backward at a key point in the program.

As a guy who roots for all Hockey East teams to have success, I’m hoping we have Cronin and O’Connell operating at full capacity (within, of course, NCAA limitations) for the rest of this season, the next, and many seasons to come.

Those enigmatic Terriers

BU’s game on Friday night against Providence captured its season in a microcosm.

The Terriers opened the year with a 10-game undefeated streak and shot to the top of the polls. Coach Jack Parker cautioned that the team wasn’t yet quite as good as its record, and he was right.

The Terriers won only a single game in both November and December but headed into the Beanpot looking to once again use the “BU Invitational” as a springboard for a strong stretch run.

Instead, the Terriers finished fourth in the Beanpot for the first time since 1980 with a consolation performance against Harvard that left Parker furious.

“I thought that was an embarrassing display by my team,” he said. “In reality, we didn’t come to play; we thought that the game was over at any time.

“We get what should be the game-winning goal, and then we go to sleep again. We didn’t compete nearly as hard as we should’ve competed.”

Not only did it leave his team in the cellar of a tournament it had owned in past years, but it also dealt a potentially huge blow to BU’s NCAA tournament chances, dropping it in the PairWise.

Playing a game like that as if it were a “meaningless” consolation game instead of one with major postseason implications is the kind of thing that should happen to other teams, ones less in tune with year-in and year-out NCAA tournament expectations.

In light of that faux pas, you would have thought that the Terriers would respond with a dominating performance against Providence on Friday night. And you’d have been right in a major way for 20 minutes and right overall for about 30. But over the last half of that game, you saw precisely how a talented team lost that consolation game to Harvard, giving up five goals to the worst offensive team in the country.

No offense to Providence, but the Friars haven’t won a league game since Nov. 5. They’ve played teams tough, picked up some ties, suffered a lot of close losses and won some nonconference games, but the BU team that dominated for the first half of the game should not have been up by only a goal with under two minutes to play.

It’s almost like the team has a collective Attention Deficit Disorder. Put them up against Boston College in the Beanpot semifinal and you get a great overtime game. Put them up against the 4-18-1 Crimson in a consolation game or a team over three months separated from its last league win and you get hideously inconsistent play.

“I thought we played great the first half of the game and really looked sharp,” Parker said after the Friday win. “Then we just drifted away from what we were supposed to do. We took some stupid penalties in the end and gave them a
chance to get back in the game, just like the last time [we played them.] If it wasn’t for Kieran Millan once again, we would have lost that game.

“[In the first half] we not only had a territorial advantage shot-wise, it was a huge territorial advantage possession-wise. We had the puck almost the whole time.”

In the third period, however, the Terriers were outshot, 15-8.

“It’s either selfish or stupid,” a disgusted Parker said. “Guys want to get their goal. ‘It’s 2-0, now I’ve got to get my goal.’

“Then we take the stupid penalties. [Wade] Megan and [Alex] Chiasson’s penalties were absolutely as dumb as it gets.

“You look at what happened in the third period, that’s a … disgrace. That’s just guys not knowing what it takes or being too selfish to care what it takes.”

It’s hard to know what’s in store in the playoffs for this team. There’s talent on that roster but as much as the talent at BC, UNH, or Merrimack? Close, but certainly not enough to overcome inconsistent and potentially selfish play.

“I told the team even after the Harvard situation that we have a couple things going for us that will help us in the playoffs and help us down the stretch to get into the playoffs,” Parker said.

“One, that we continue to kill penalties very, very well. And two, we’ve done a good job on the power play lately. Before this, you could see it coming around because we were getting some opportunities. That’s something we have to have.

“If you’re going to win, you’ve got to have a power play. You’ve got to be real good on special teams.”

You’ve also got to be focused, smart and unselfish for 60 minutes.

Book update

The preorder information for my novel Cracking the Ice still shows no real information on Amazon and what information is there is wrong. (The age group is wrong. It’s for teenagers and adults.)

However, an award-winning author has offered this assessment:

“Cracking the Ice scores the literary equivalent of a hat-trick: funny, harrowing and finally, heartfelt. This book is a winner.”

This column will end for the season before the book comes out in May but you can follow its progress on my writing website.

I also have my first two available short stories for Kindle and Nook owners. “Beloved” and “Back to the Garden” previously appeared in DAW anthologies. The stories will also be available shortly through Smashwords for iPad owners as well as other devices. More e-stories will follow.

If you’ve enjoyed my humor in the past, you should check out “Beloved.”