Friday, December 14, 2012

What If: Another Day at the Office

December 1968: Doug Hearns scores an overtime goal to defeat Ken Dryden and Cornell

The Beatles - Hey Jude

By the time the 1968-69 season rolled around, the worst of the most troubled period in RPI's hockey history was coming to an end. The dreadful 1966 and 1967 campaigns were fully in the rear-view, and in the 1967-68 season, the Engineers began their road back to respectability. It was painfully obvious that they weren't quite where they needed to be to be competitive yet, given four losses to Clarkson and St. Lawrence, plus an 8-1 pasting by Ned Harkness and the reigning national champions from Cornell, but after two years with just one ECAC win, RPI was certainly ready to take an 11-11-0 overall record.

That wasn't quite enough to end the discussion on whether the team should remain in what was then termed the "University Division" of the NCAA in hockey, however. The pedigree that came with having been a national champion pulled the program toward staying, but the nature of the remainder of the school's athletic offerings coupled with the barely concluded doldrums the team had recently experienced pulled away.

The 1968-69 season kicked off with a road trip to Amherst, MA to square off with American International, an ECAC-II level team that was local enough to have appeared on the RPI schedule in every season dating back to 1956. The Yellow Jackets, much like today, were a traditional punching bag for pretty much everyone. From 1956 to 1965, the Engineers beat AIC by at least five goals - and usually more, frequently by double digits - in every single season. The 1966 team, however, had been so bad that they had lost to AIC by five goals, still the only time the Engineers have ever lost to the Yellow Jackets.

The winning ways returned the following season with a closer than usual three-goal edge in 1967, and had gotten back in the normal swing of things with a 7-0 win in February of 1968. This time, RPI picked up another win, but it was close by the measure of previous seasons, just a 5-1 edge.

Waiting for them in the home opener just four days later were the Cornell Big Red. Harkness had done with Cornell pretty much what he'd done at RPI, and just as quickly. In 1963, Cornell had a long, but relatively undistinguished history on the ice. That changed immediately once Harkness came to Ithaca, and by his fourth season behind the bench in 1967, the Big Red were enjoying a 27-1-1 season, their first ECAC title, and their first national championship.

1968 was almost as good for the Big Red. They returned to the Frozen Four with a 26-1-0 record, but were upset by North Dakota in the first round, having to settle for third place and a still astounding 27-2-0 record. Needless to say, with a record of 54-3-1 in the preceding two seasons, Cornell coming to RPI was supposed to be pretty much a walk in the park.

The Engineers hadn't had much luck against Cornell with their old bench boss leading things, naturally. Although Rube Bjorkman's Engineers won an 8-0 game in Ithaca the first time RPI played against Harkness' squad, the Engineers had lost five straight to the Big Red, including 7-2 and 8-1 showings during Cornell's previous two monster years. With senior Ken Dryden and four other All-Americans on the team, one could be forgiven for thinking RPI's second game of the season was a hopeless encounter.

As it turned out, the Engineers were able to keep it close for much of the contest as the Big Red appeared to be experiencing a bit of an off night. Even so, the visitors were able to maintain a 3-2 lead late. With time growing short, senior Dale Watson managed to put one past Dryden to give the Engineers an improbable tie against the supposedly unbeatable Big Red.

Now, in today's game, this game would have ended as a 3-3 tie, because it wasn't until 6:09 of overtime that Doug Hearns took the most memorable shot since Gordie Peterkin, beating Dryden low to give the home team an impossible 4-3 victory. It was RPI's very own Miracle on Ice, just over 11 years before the real thing.

Ken Dryden made 81 starts in net for Cornell during his incredible collegiate career (which fed into a Hall of Fame NHL career that included six Stanley Cups). He won 76 times and tied once. Two of those four losses came in the NCAA tournament... but one of those extremely rare losses took place in Troy at a sleepy little school that had been a laughing stock on the ice for several years. After that, people weren't laughing much anymore - and in the afterglow, few were talking about RPI's need to play with schools their own size.

Given how heavily favored the Big Red were in this game, just getting them to overtime would have been considered a moral victory by itself - but say Cornell had won, or had waltzed through as they were supposed to? Are we psyching ourselves up for a weekend against Middlebury and Williams today?

Probably not. Although Hearns' goal is most frequently pointed to as the moment the program was saved - and it may well have been the moment the doubters disappeared - one has to consider what the Engineers were able to put together for the remainder of the season and into the 1970s before presuming that the program was bound for lesser competition without the David-slays-Goliath victory.

Three days after the big win, the Engineers came back to earth with a 7-3 loss against Clarkson, a team they hadn't beaten since well before Harkness left Troy dating back to 1961. A week later, a 5-4 loss at Northeastern left RPI 1-2 in the ECAC. But things would turn around later in the season. In mid-January, RPI put up a shocking 7-0 victory over Boston University, one of the league's better teams.

Then on February 14th, RPI achieved the unthinkable - they went to Potsdam and beat Clarkson, 5-4, the first time the Engineers had taken down the Golden Knights in almost a decade. The following night, the team skated to a 5-5 tie with St. Lawrence in a game, legend tells it, that was supremely biased against RPI, as the Engineers had been heavily (and apparently unjustifiably) penalized, leading to four power play goals for the Larries.

Returning home, RPI put up an 8-5 win over Boston College, which led John "Snooks" Kelley to declare that RPI had "played the best game of any team [they'd] played all season." (And they'd already played Cornell.) A win over ECAC-II team Merrimack and a 5-2 victory over St. Lawrence (on apparently more equitable terms) followed, helping RPI qualify for the ECAC playoffs. Boston University drew their revenge in the one-game playoff, winning in Boston 4-2, but by the season's end, the Engineers were playing such good hockey that the only question on anyone's mind was how well the team would perform in the 1970s.

The BU game was Garry Kearns' final contest behind the RPI bench, but in many ways, it represented what he accomplished - he put the Engineers back in contention. The next season, under new coach Leon Abbott, was not one to write home about, but the 1970-71 Engineers started their season 9-0-1, and by then the question had been completely put to rest.

The win a Cornell team that counts as one of the greatest in the history of college hockey cannot be diminished. Perhaps without it, the Engineers would not have had the belief in themselves necessary to claw their way to the huge victories they put up late in the season. At the end of the day, RPI proved themselves more than just a one-hit wonder that season. Watson and Hearns set the table, but Garry Kearns and his charges already had what it took to have a successful season, and save a program's legacy. It's likely that even without Hearns' memorable goal (or the one from Watson that helped it happen), we'd still have Division I hockey at RPI.

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