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Crimson count on Du in a crunch

For so many years, a young man's route to the Beanpot was a local journey. A few stops on the Green Line, maybe a short ride up Route 3, a jaunt along the Mass. Pike to Storrow Drive, all the paths feeding from frozen ponds and MDC rinks to Boston College, or Boston University, or Harvard, or Northeastern.

They were home-grown hockey players, headed for hometown programs, city kids and kids from the nearby 'burbs, and you never needed a world atlas to study the rosters.

Of course, this was back when all sticks were wooden, players didn't guard their faces with cages or shields, and the Beanpot coaches were guys named Snooks and Cooney and Fernie and Jack -- Kelley, not Parker.

For proof that times have changed and that the Beanpot rosters are reflective of how small the world has become, consider Kevin Du, Harvard's dynamic junior forward who will lead his Crimson against BU in the nightcap tonight at TD Banknorth Garden.

In possession of a skating style that is a joy to behold, Du has a warm smile, a flair for the dramatic, and a flavorful story of ethnicity like few other players who have put on the blades in this Beanpot business. His parents are Chinese, though they were born and raised in Vietnam, while Du himself is a Canadian citizen, born in the tiny town of Tomahawk, Alberta.

Du explains the lineage and when it is suggested that his is a unique tale, there is a soft laugh, though he concedes it's probably true. Yet, he cannot say that his heritage made for a difficult time growing up, even if ''there was just one other Chinese family living in town," said Du.

That's because Kevin Du spoke the national language -- hockey.

When he was 5, Du put on skates and hit the ice to join every other boy across Canada.

''It was just a way of life. Everyone skated," said Du, who was steered toward the game by his father. Lu Du fled Vietnam in 1979, tired of life in the war-torn country. In Alberta, he found a new way of life, and a piece of that life included the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers. Just as people in Boston and New England had been turned onto hockey by Bobby Orr a decade earlier, Lu Du bought into the game thanks to No. 99.

''My dad got hooked on hockey and he put me in it," said Kevin Du. ''He figured it would be a good way for me to get into the Canadian culture, to meet friends."

Phuong Du also fled Vietnam and settled in Alberta and she met her future husband through a mutual friend, who rightfully figured their common background was a natural attraction. Soon, they had acquired another common interest -- hockey, thanks to their oldest son's prowess.

Kevin Du took easily to skating and soon stood out. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Spruce Grove, an Alberta town of 18,000 people. He had become good enough to play for the St. Albert Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, a team for whom the legendary Mark Messier once skated.

Having honed his skating skills in a backyard rink his father built every winter, Du opened eyes and drew attention from Division 1 collegiate programs in the United States. It was the interest from a particular university in Cambridge that was most notable.

''The name Harvard is well known around the world and it's no different in Canada," said Du. ''As soon as you mention Harvard, everyone sort of takes notice. It's definitely a big thing."

Du was sold on Harvard during talks with then-coach Mark Mazzoleni and on visits to the campus, but he doesn't deny that one slice of the picture really stood out: the thing about the Beanpot.

''To be honest, I had never heard of it while growing up," said Du. ''But when I heard about it, it was certainly one of the selling points. In 2004, my first Beanpot, we played in the [late] game and when we got on the ice, it was a packed rink and a great atmosphere. There's a great history to the tournament."

From his arrival, Du has been an integral part of the Harvard program. His 2003-04 freshman campaign featured six goals and 10 points and he earned the George Percy Award as the team's top rookie. His output doubled to 20 points a year ago (nine goals). He has won an ECAC championship game and played in two NCAA Tournaments. What he doesn't have, however, is a Beanpot victory of any sort. Not only haven't the Crimson won the coveted Beanpot since 1993, they haven't won a first-round game since 1998 and they've lost their last four encounters in the tournament.

Those are statistical entries that dim Du's perpetual smile and he concedes that he and his teammates are determined to change things. If he has a hand in upsetting the defending champs from BU this evening, Du will do it with a skating style that impresses.

''He's a very, very pretty skater to watch," said Harvard coach Ted Donato. ''He plays at a very high tempo and is very creative with the puck as far as stickhandling goes."

Does he remind the coach of a particular Harvard great who wore No. 6 for that magical 1988 NCAA championship team?

Donato laughed.

''I think he's a lot better skater than me," said Donato, the Dedham native who ranks 12th in career points (50-94--144) for the Crimson. ''He's probably a little bit smaller, if that's possible, but he's got a different style. I looked to shoot a little more than Kevin does. I liked to slow the game down more so; he likes to play at a tempo that a lot of people have trouble keeping up with."

The fluid skating has translated into a team-leading 20 points this season, with Du doing most of his great work as the creative setup man (he's got 17 assists). Constantly looking for open space, Du sees the ice beautifully and has soft hands.

''He's a little bit of a throwback in that his game is really fun to watch," said Donato. ''He plays with great speed. He's not built for a slow game with a lot of hooking and holding. He's a guy who looks like he's in the middle of 'Disney on Ice,' he's such a nice skater."

With a crowd watching and something important on the line, Du has been at his best. As a freshman, he scored the winning goal to stun BU and, later that season, he scored the goal that won an ECAC playoff series against Vermont. Last year? Du had the goal in overtime that beat Colgate in an ECAC tournament semifinal.

''Every player plays to get the big goal," said Du. ''I'm no different."

No, he's not. Nor does his unique ethnic mix make him stand out, either. No, what affords Du the chance to make an impact is his ability to skate. And skate. And skate. Few of his peers are better at it than Du, who considers it a privilege to be a member of the Harvard team.

''I really believe we have the best of both worlds," said Du. ''Not only are we able to attend probably the best institution in the States, we also get to play for a really great program under an incredible coach."

He's a long way from Tomahawk, though Du wouldn't change a thing because while the winters in Alberta are cold, the people are warm.

''It really helped a lot that I played hockey," said Du. ''It got my family involved in the community. My family felt comfortable and we met a lot of great friends."

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