Scarlet Daily Digest - Friday Feature: The Vagabond Champions

GO TERRIERS
GO TERRIERS

GO TERRIERS

March 25, 2011

By Scott Weighart - Special to GoTerriers.com

They had no home rink and no locker room. Those who couldn't drive or get a ride in a teammate's car had to hit the streets and hope that unreliable taxis would materialize to get them across town to practice.

Throughout the 1970-71 season, the Boston University hockey players started most of their days dressing for practice in the basement of a West Campus dorm.

They finished the year as the first Boston University hockey team to win a national championship. It marked the beginning a championship legacy for the program, which has now amassed five D-I titles. Now it's the 40th anniversary of that landmark achievement, meaning it's a good time to reflect on a group of nomads who proved that home is not necessarily where the heart is.

Ironically, the Terriers expected to be enjoying a major step up in hockey facilities that season. Walter Brown Arena was on track to be opened in time for the 1970-71 season. As a result, the program had opted out of their previous agreements regarding ice time for practice. The team had been practicing and playing at Boston Arena, which is now called Matthews Arena. Not ideal, but the team at least had lockers over there.

Then the completion of Walter Brown Arena hit a snag. Due to an ironworkers' strike, construction came to a halt. That left the Terriers as homeless hobos until the problems got ironed out in time for the following season.

Thinking back about the unusual circumstances, defenseman Bob Murray views the arrangement as a nuisance with an upside. "We'd get dressed in all of our gear and grab our sticks and skates and helmets and hop in cars to go up to Harvard a couple of days a week," Murray says. "Then other days we'd go over to Northeastern to practice. So I guess we were vagabonds that year. It was strange to not have a home rink or home locker room, but in some ways that brought us closer together."

Coach Jack Kelley was a legendary taskmaster, so the logistical issues had no impact on how frequently and intensely the team practiced. "We practiced constantly," defenseman Bob Brown recalls. "Except for Sundays, we were probably on the ice two hours a day. Because we were homeless, that also brought some interesting camaraderie for the guys."


 

 

As the fall wore on, the feeling was `This is the way it is, and we'll manage.' The planets began to align for the squad. Although there were only three seniors on the team, it was a mature bunch that played with desire. In those days, freshmen weren't allowed to play on the varsity level, but several talented sophomores, which included three of the team's top six scorers, raised the bar in terms of talent. Bob Brown and Ric Jordan were offensive powerhouses on the blue line; Brown scored 60 points in just 31 games, and Jordan added 50. Forward Ron Anderson was a 20-goal scorer that year, and he would go on to play with the Washington Capitals in the NHL.

Those additions gave the team a level of depth that opponents couldn't handle. "Back then, Coach Kelley did play four lines, but not a lot," captain Steve Stirling says. "We had three really good lines. There was no real first, second and third line. If you go back and look at the depth chart, you'll see that every line was capable of scoring on any given night. There weren't a lot of teams that had three lines that could match us."

Current men's hockey coach Jack Parker--then an assistant coach--still marvels at the team's success with the man advantage. "The most amazing thing about that hockey team was that our power play was at a 40- or 41-percent rate," Parker says. "It was almost automatic. To this day, people still refer to that type of power play as the BU power play. It took a long, long time after that for people to figure out how to stop that type of power play. We got more power-play goals than the opposition got any kind of goals. So that's how great our power play was and how stingy our defense was."

Stirling led the way with 27 goals and 43 assists for 70 points in 31 games. But if teams managed to contain his line, then it might be a night when John Danby's line dominated. Danby kept pace with Stirling all season, finishing with 28-36--64 totals.

Meanwhile, Kelley pushed the team hard. "We were a disciplined team," Stirling says. "If you weren't disciplined with Coach Kelley, you didn't play. We played together as a unit, we didn't take a lot of bad penalties, and we had a lot of skill and speed. You had [current UMass head coach] Toot Cahoon and Paul Giandomenico. Both played with me--I was in the middle of those two all year--and they could fly. We could beat teams with speed; we could beat teams with talent, but when it was all over and done with we beat them because we were a really disciplined hockey club."

The goaltending tandem of Dan Brady and Tim Regan was also a major factor. "For me, the goaltending was the difference," Stirling says. "When we needed it, Regan and Brady came up big for us. And they weren't household names. They weren't pre-select All-Americans; they were just guys going about their business."

Stirling believed that the goalies were the unsung heroes of that team. However, any champion needs any number of players who fulfill less glamorous roles. "I would say Bobby Murray," Brown says when asked about those who may be overlooked when one looks at the gaudy statistics of that team. While Brown and Jordan earned raves for their big numbers, Mike LaGarde and Murray gave the defense real depth and consistency. "I didn't know much about his game prior to that year, but he really rose to the occasion," Brown says of Murray. "We went primarily with four defensemen, and he played such a steadying influence on our game right up until he got hurt in his senior year."

As for Murray himself, he cites yet another unsung hero. "One of the guys who played well for us and in a variety of roles was Guy Burrowes, a forward who passed away a number of years ago," Murray says. "He was a guy who was tremendously respected and liked by all his teammates. He was a lot of fun as a teammate but worked as hard as anybody did and achieved a lot."

As a sophomore, Stirling played for a Terrier team that saw its season end with an overtime loss to Ken Dryden and Cornell at the Boston Garden. The following year, a 5-4 loss to Clarkson in the ECAC tournament ended the year on a disappointing note. Now things were coming together. The team started the year 13-0-1 before losing to Cornell at Lynah Rink on Jan. 23.

The team won its second Beanpot in a row and went into the ECAC tournament with a stellar 24-1-1 record. The Terriers trounced Rensselaer, 11-0, in the opening game, only to lose a stunner to Harvard, 4-2. Then again, they earned some revenge the next night with a 6-5 victory over Cornell, thanks in part to the third-period goaltending of Regan, who replaced an injured Brady late in the second period.

It may have turned out to be the most important consolation game victory in NCAA history. "We lost to Harvard in the ECACs and in virtually all of history up to that point, that knocked you out," Brown says. "But because we beat Cornell the next night, the ECAC committee voted to send us as the second rep from the east along with Harvard because they won it. That was an oddity."

The team had earned a second life. It was an opportunity that they were not about to let slip by. They beat Denver in the semifinals before topping Minnesota in the national championship game, winning each game by a 4-2 score. "I think by then we were rolling," Brown says. "We were hitting on all cylinders.

"I think the loss in the ECACs and getting a chance to redeem ourselves as a hockey team," Brown adds. "It wasn't right with the first drop of the puck in the nationals, but we started to roll. I think everybody rose to the occasion. We got great goaltending from Dan Brady, and we just continued to get stronger as the games went on."

"This was our opportunity to seize the moment, and boy, did we ever," Stirling says. Stirling opened the scoring with yet another power-play goal in the first period, then forward Bob Gryp made it 2-0 minutes later. Halfway through the game, Stirling scored again to make it 3-0. "We got to three, and then Danby got a breakaway," Stirling says. "And clear to this day, I remember thinking, `If he scores, the game is over.' He doesn't score, and I'm thinking, `Wow, we're in for a dogfight.' Which we were. They gave us everything they had until the end."

Minnesota made it 3-1 in the third before Anderson gave the Terriers some breathing room with 2:15 remaining. By the time future coach Dean Blais scored with 16 seconds left, it was academic. The Terriers had won their first hockey title ever.

The championship meant a great deal to everyone. "It felt great, obviously," Brown says now. "I don't think I appreciated the degree of what we accomplished until long afterwards--probably the next year."

The players were happy for themselves but also for their coach. "Jack was pretty emotional because it was his first national championship," Stirling recalls. "He had been so close so many times. Somewhere in the tabloids, they were saying Jack couldn't win the big one. I think for all of us, we felt that BU hockey had been there knocking on the doorstep but hadn't been able to get in. So there was excitement but also a huge sigh of relief. It was a huge step for the program."

The bulk of the players from the 1970-71 season would go on to be BU's first--and only, thus far--back-to-back national champions during the subsequent season. They would do so in the relative luxury of Walter Brown Arena, which would be the home of the men's ice hockey program until January 2005.

Back in their vagabond heyday, though, the 1970-71 team lived up to a quotation from President Theodore Roosevelt: "Some men can live up to their loftiest ideals without ever going higher than the basement."

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