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For Beanpot rivals, change not in the air

Joe Whitney and defending champion Boston College are hoping to celebrate another Beanpot title this season. Joe Whitney and defending champion Boston College are hoping to celebrate another Beanpot title this season. (File/Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / February 7, 2011

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Tonight at TD Garden hockey fans will celebrate the start of the 59th Beanpot tournament. For those rooting for Boston University and Boston College, who will face off in the late game, there is an air of genuine confidence. After all, since 1993 when Harvard was crowned champion, the title has gone to the Eagles or Terriers.

BU has won a record 29 Beanpots, including 12 of the last 17. The five it didn’t win were taken by BC, which has won 15 overall and two of the last three. Northeastern hasn’t won a Beanpot since 1988. The tournament has been dubbed the “Jack Parker Invitational,’’ referring to the Terriers’ veteran bench boss, and the “BU-BC Invitational’’ because of the schools’ dominance.

So, what to do? Change it? Keep it the same? The way the matchups are determined is through a strict rotation. The featured contest at 8 p.m. on the first Monday is determined in June by a Garden committee, made up (in part) of representatives from the four schools. This year, the Crimson (4-17-0) are struggling, but battled hard against No. 3-ranked Yale before falling, 1-0, in New Haven Friday.

Northeastern’s season is on the upswing (8-11-6) with just one loss in the last six outings, and that was in overtime to red-hot Merrimack Friday.

Would the Beanpot be better if the defending champion was guaranteed the late game the following year? Would more interest be generated by putting Northeastern and Harvard in the late contest more frequently? Should the tournament be seeded using the teams’ records a week before the start of the tournament, with No. 1 playing No. 4 and Nos. 2 and 3 squaring off? Is it anticlimactic that BU and BC are playing each other in the semifinals?

The consensus among the college hockey world is to leave it as is. Tradition rules in provincial Boston and those around the tournament believe the way it is structured is the most fair.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’’ said Parker. “The problem with the Beanpot is we haven’t had enough of a rotation of champions as we’d like. Obviously, we’d like to see BU win it every year, but the town would like to see Harvard win it more or Northeastern win it more, not just BU, BU, BC, BU, etc. That’s the only problem, the draw is fine.’’

Parker said the fact that Northeastern or Harvard will be in the final this year should serve as proof that the Beanpot is structured as fairly as it can be.

“For a while, there have been schools that have dominated,’’ he said. “The first 10 years, it was Harvard and BC, and BU and Northeastern were out. Then it was BU and Harvard, and BC and Northeastern were out. When three schools are nationally ranked, it makes for a much more competitive tournament and a much more enthusiastic tournament. I think that’s going to happen.’’

Parker said it seems to work out more often than not that the defending champion plays in the late game, even though it’s not mandated.

“You kind of have to give Northeastern and Harvard a chance to play in that first-round late game once in a while, too,’’ he said. “The only time you can guarantee that Harvard and Northeastern won’t play in the late game the first night is when it’s a BU-BC first-round game.’’

Although it has rarely happened lately, the Beanpot was often a source of great upsets. Parker said if changes were made, it might ruin the chance of that occurring.

“It’s fine the way we do it,’’ said Parker. “Some years, BU and BC are the two favorites and they’ve had real good years and some years they’re not. The bottom line is, it’s nice to get to the finals, too. If you have BC and BU always play in the semifinal against somebody else, and they’re the two strongest teams, then maybe you don’t get a chance for an upset in the final.

“You want to have it equal for everybody. Don’t assume that certain schools in a given year are going to be better all the time. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that BC and BU are always going to better than Harvard and Northeastern and therefore they should never play each other in the first round. That’s wrong. We’re both on pretty good stretches right now, but it’s not going to last forever.’’

If there are subplots to this year’s Beanpot, it’s whether Harvard can upset Northeastern and advance to the championship game as a way to salvage what has been a disappointing season. Can BU beat BC after losing to the Eagles three times already this season? BC coach Jerry York said there’s enough to merit leaving the tournament the way it is.

“I think it’s the best and fairest way to do things because it runs in cycles,’’ said York. “I like it how it is. I have never really given it that much thought but someone would have to really convince me that there is a better way to do it.’’

Count Ed Carpenter, the former director of athletic communications and assistant director of athletics at BU, as believing the Beanpot should stay as is.

“I’m a real traditionalist,’’ said Carpenter. “I think that it gives you an opportunity that every third year, you’ll see the same team.

“I’ve heard some people say, ‘We’ve got to put some new life into it, it seems it’s become the BU-BC Invitational.’ But that’s just how the luck of the draw is. Every three years, it’s going to be BU-BC and it’s going to be Harvard-Northeastern in the first game. I like that a lot.’’

If Carpenter would be in favor of any change, it would be a small one.

“I could see moving the featured game around on the first night,’’ said Carpenter, “so that a senior class at Harvard or Northeastern or BU or BC will know that at least once in their careers they would be playing in front of a full house at the Garden.’’

Northeastern and Harvard won’t be playing in front of a full house today. The challenge for coaches and players in the early game is generating excitement. The building is nearly empty at the start and there is zero atmosphere.

“We’ve been in it a lot,’’ said Northeastern coach Greg Cronin. “It stinks early because there is nobody there. Then, about halfway through the second, it starts to fill in. It’s a bizarre situation. It’s awkward [to play early]. Last year, we played in the second game and it was pretty exciting. I still think Northeastern, despite the fact that BU and BC have dominated that tournament, brings a great fan base. We’ve only been in the final once in my five years [2009] and that was an incredibly impressive night. We lost to BU on three shorthanded goals. Our crowd was incredible. It’s nice to see it. It’s good to have that richness in all four schools.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.