It would be remiss to let a significant sporting event like Monday night’s college hockey collision between the University of Maine and Harvard in Portland pass without further review.
You didn’t see it?
Don’t feel bad. Neither did more than 1,300 other fans whose absence was marked by empty seats at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
Too bad. It was something. Harvard, the marquee program in the ECAC and the 1989 NCAA champ, against Maine, the beast of Hockey East and the defending NCAA champion. The two programs hadn’t met in 10 years. In a wild 60 minutes, Harvard escaped with a 7-6 win, surviving Maine’s 5-on-3 advantage in the final minute.
The question in a lot of minds before the puck was dropped was how a game this attractive wound up being played on a Monday night in Portland? Especially since Maine had to travel back from a tournament in Minnesota during the day Monday in order to make the date.
Chalk it up to the fascinating game behind the games known as college sports scheduling, a contest of calculated risk requiring strategy, timing and guts.
Based on Monday night’s outcome, Harvard won the scheduling game, too.
Let’s go to the replay:
It all began last January when the Ivy League presidents voted to allow their hockey teams to schedule an additional contest.
“That gave us an opening,” recounted Harvard head coach Ronn Tomassoni, who, like Maine counterpart Shawn Walsh, handles his program’s scheduling. “I called up Shawn and he said, `yeah, absolutely, we’d love to play.’ ”
Next, the two coaches had to agree on a time and place. This is where the strategy came in.
Harvard’s window in its schedule was at the end of a two-week break for the holidays. The Crimson would return to ECAC play this Friday and Saturday. Naturally, Tomassoni didn’t want to play Maine too close to the weekend and risk distracting his troops for league play.
Maine, meanwhile, had already committed to playing in last weekend’s tournament in Minneapolis, which meant the Bears would play on Friday and Sunday half a continent away.
That meant an early weeknight contest. Maine wanted the game in Portland from the outset, according to UM athletic director Mike Ploszek. There is a tentative agreement for a return date by Maine to Massachusetts sometime in the next five seasons. That left the day to be determined.
“We wanted to play Tuesday,” said Walsh, knowing his team would have to travel back from Minnesota on Monday. “They said they wouldn’t play us at all if we couldn’t play tonight.”
What gives Harvard this kind of clout? Since it only has two uncommitted game dates available each season, plenty of potential opponents clamor to play the Crimson. Tomassoni’s reason for insisting Maine play on Monday boiled down to take-it-or-leave-it.
“I wanted to play it earlier, but, unfortunately, they had the tournament,” he said. “This was the only hole in our schedule.”
Tomassoni’s strategy was obvious. Harvard’s layoff rust was an acceptable handicap provided the Crimson could catch a game-sharp Maine team playing its third contest in four nights.
Now, the puck was in Walsh’s zone. Would he take the game under such circumstances?
“I’ve tried to make decisions for our program for our fans and players,” Walsh said, retracing his thinking in the wake of Monday’s loss. “Our players want to play them. Our fans want to see the game… We did it.”
It was a gamble, typical of Walsh’s aggressive style. But if the logic could be argued with, the sentiment could not. Too many college sports teams avoid games like this.
And it almost worked for the Maine team. Almost. It did work for the 5,409 fans who could attend.
Which proved the bigger factor in the end, Harvard’s rustiness or Maine’s fatigue?
The Crimson outshot the Black Bears 32-23, but Maine, showing great heart, outshot Harvard 13-8 in the third period while being outscored 3-2.
What tipped the scales to Harvard was very likely when Maine goalie Blair Allison, who was scheduled to split the game with counterpart Blair Marsh, had to leave the contest after 10 minutes with back pain attributed to dehydration after a day spent traveling in the air and on a bus.
“Marsh gave us a good 30 minutes. It was 3-3,” said Walsh. “Then Allison gave us a good 10 minutes. He gave up one goal. Then everything stiffened up in his body. We had to put Marsh back in and I don’t know if mentally he was ready to go back in.”
Harvard went ahead, surviving a Maine two-man advantage for 51 of the final 98 seconds of the game.
“Was it the right decision? Who knows?,” mused Walsh, assessing his scheduling of the game after the loss. “If we’d tied it on the 5-on-3, sure. It makes your team a little stronger. Maybe as a coach you’re putting them in a position you shouldn’t put them in. But that’s hindsight.”
Such are the risks in the scheduling game.