BOSTON — The Beanpot remains the most parochial of college hockey tournaments, as much a part of Boston’s fabric as the marathon in April and the Fourth of July fireworks on the Charles River Esplanade.
The latest version of the 68-year-old tournament, which annually pits four powerhouse programs — Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern — against one another for local bragging rights, will end Monday night when Northeastern faces Boston University in the championship game.
The four campuses are situated within 8 miles of one another, but whereas most of their players once hailed almost exclusively from Eastern Massachusetts, the Beanpot is no longer strictly a neighborhood affair contested by players who drop their R’s and spend summers on Cape Cod.
Boston University secured its spot in the final when freshman Wilmer Skoog, the pride of Tyreso, Sweden, scored in the second overtime of a semifinal last Monday to upset Boston College, which was ranked fourth in the country. “It was the biggest game of my life,” Skoog said afterward.
Also celebrating the Terriers’ victory was Finnish defenseman Kasper Kotkansalo, another of a record 117 European-born skaters who are playing Division I hockey this season, nine more than last season’s record number, according to College Hockey Inc. Driving this trend are the increased skill level of European players and better coaching on the Continent, as well as the desire of college coaches to improve their rosters, wherever the player is from.
But it isn’t just Europeans who are changing the face of the Beanpot. What proved to be the winning goal in Northeastern’s 3-1 semifinal victory over Harvard was scored by Brendan van Riemsdyk, a graduate transfer from the University of New Hampshire, who was playing in his first Beanpot game.
One of Harvard’s captains, Nathan Krusko, is from Alpharetta, Georgia. Boston University’s captain, Patrick Curry, hails from Schaumburg, Illinois, and David Cotton, who leads Boston College’s team, comes from Parker, Texas, not far from the Oklahoma border. Joining Cotton on the Eagles’ roster are players from Florida, Georgia, Idaho and Las Vegas.
Boston College coach Jerry York, who owns college hockey’s wins record with 1,083 career victories, grew up in nearby Watertown, went to BC High and played for the Eagles from 1963 to ’67, said he had seen the Beanpot evolve.
“In earlier years, Northeastern typically got its out-of-state kids from upper Ontario,” York said.
“Harvard and BU would get kids from Minnesota, Canada and occasionally Europe, and we joined the mix about 20 years ago,” said York, who has three Finns on this year’s roster. “One of the great things about Europeans playing in the U.S. is it’s helped the local kids get better.”
According to York, many local recruits have stepped up their training year round to secure roster spots alongside players from afar. There has been an emphasis on better training, working with private coaches and attending summer hockey camps.
Whether they are from Stockholm; Scottsdale, Arizona; or St. Paul, Minnesota, the outsiders say they quickly digest the importance of the Beanpot on their campuses.
“It doesn’t take too much time to learn how special it is,” said Harvard’s Krusko, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player as a freshman in 2017, when the Crimson won their first Beanpot in 24 years.
The coaches are able to convey the significance of this annual clash to their players because they have lived it themselves. All four played for the teams they now oversee, and all but Northeastern’s Jim Madigan, a native of Canada, grew up in Eastern Massachusetts. Boston University’s Albie O’Connell played on four straight Beanpot-winning teams. Harvard’s Ted Donato won as a player in 1989 and as the coach in 2017. Madigan was on two Beanpot champions as a player and has won the past two as the coach. York won twice as a player and nine times as a coach, most recently in 2016.
Such historical connections are what make the first two Mondays in February special for Boston’s college hockey community. The Beanpot is now played at the 17,500-seat TD Garden, having long ago left its original home, the 110-year-old Boston Arena (hockey capacity: 4,600), and now more players than ever need passports. But as York pointed out, the essential spirit is unchanged.
“It’s a unique tournament,” he said. “It still has a great feel.”