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On Solid Ice
Boston is a hockey town. Since the days
of Bobby Orr and the big, bad Bruins, who won two Stanley Cups
in the early 1970s, the New England region has been one of the
nation’s hockey hotbeds.
Less than ten miles north from the old Boston Garden (now the
FleetCenter) sits the Tufts University campus in Medford. Hockey
didn’t catch on at Tufts like it did most everywhere else
in the region during the 1970s. There wasn’t a varsity
team at the time. Despite some success, including a win over
perennial power Boston University during the 1954–55 season,
hockey had been dropped at Tufts in 1961 due to lack of interest.
“We had no connection with the campus,” said Ben
Sands, E54, a defenseman at the time.Hockey came back as a successful
club sport in the 1970s and regained varsity status for the
1986–87 season. Again the sport didn’t thrive at
Tufts like it did at other schools. The Jumbos qualified for
the playoffs in 1988, 1989 and 1991, but no rink on campus and
the program’s spotty history hindered any potential swelling
Due to the high cost of renting ice for the team to play and
practice on, and its low profile on campus, the program was
again in jeopardy of disappearing when the administration required
a budget cut by the Athletic Department in 1994. Brian Murphy
was captain of the team at the time. The Jumbos went 0–4–3
in their first seven games that year, then word spread that
the program was going to be eliminated.
“We couldn’t understand it,” Murphy said.
“For the seniors especially, it was important that the
program continued. We wanted there to be a legacy of Tufts hockey.”
That’s when the true legacy of the team started. Long
the campus underdogs, the Tufts hockey family—alumni,
parents and fans—took matters into its own hands. Petitions
were signed, money was raised and the Jumbos started winning.
Under the guidance of part-time head coach Steve Hoar, the team
tied a school record by winning 11 straight games. Among the
victories were upset wins over NESCAC opponents Connecticut
College, Trinity and Amherst.
“In the first game of the streak against Connecticut College,
we were down 3–0 after the first period,” said Paul
Nemeskal, a 1997 graduate who was a sophomore on that team.
“Our goalie at the time, Bunk McMahon, A95, who never
said a word, just snapped. He screamed at us in the locker room.
We came back and won, 6–4.”
The team’s success certainly helped the cause, but it
was the generosity of many alumni and parents that essentially
saved the team. Sands, who coached the varsity from 1986 to
1991, and Lou Tomasello, father of early 1990s goaltender Steve
Tomasello, established the Friends of Tufts Hockey. An endowment
fund was created to help defray the annual costs of operating
the program. Mike Leven, father of 1986–88 leading scorer
Jon Leven, A88, donated $40,000. The Tufts Jumbo Club contributed
$20,000. The administration, impressed by the resolve to save
the hockey program, agreed to contribute additional money to
help keep the team in business.
“It was an amazing show of support,” Nemeskal said.
“Most of the guys on the team had been playing hockey
since we were four or five years old, so it was important to
us. It meant a lot to us how the alumni and parents stepped
up and put their money where their mouth was.”
The program took another big step in the right direction when
Murphy was hired as its first full-time head coach in 1998.
Last year the team began playing and practicing at Malden Forum,
an arena approximately 15 minutes from campus that they share
with local high schools and youth programs. Without a consistent
rink in previous years, finding ice time had been a headache.
“We practiced at 11 at night and at 5 in the morning,”
Nemeskal said. “One time when we practiced at the Charlestown
MDC rink late at night, a player’s car was stolen. We
practiced on outdoor rinks late at night in the middle of winter.
Our level of dedication was strong.”
Hopes are still that a rink will be built on campus. Many people
think Tufts could be one of the country’s premier small-college
programs with an arena. For the time being, Murphy can focus
on helping his team compete in a very challenging new league.
Tufts moved into the NESCAC/ECAC East League last season after
playing in the ECAC Northeast Division. The NESCAC/ECAC East
includes Middlebury College and Norwich University, which have
combined to win six of the last eight NCAA Division III national
championships. Tufts finished 4–15 in its first run through
the league last year. They expect to be much improved this season.
Sands, one of the University’s most loyal alumni, is spearheading
a fund-raising effort to build a locker room for the team in
Malden, pending approval from the city. Former players like
Steve Tomasello, who are now established in the workforce, have
made significant contributions. With no alumni from 1961 to
1986, it is this group of young professionals whose generosity
and concern for the team is building a solid foundation. Ultimately,
they want the Tufts program to be evenly matched with the teams
that they play against.
“If you went to a game at most of the other schools in
Tufts’ league and saw the support the team gets from the
student body, you’d see all that the Tufts hockey team
could be,” Steve Tomasello said. “The excitement
and the morale it creates would be a selling point for the University.”
The current players can sense that the program is gaining momentum.
That’s a big change from the past.
“We’re excited about the step up in competition
and the chance to play in so many nice rinks in front of more
people,” said senior Chris Martin, a co-captain and defenseman.
“I think Tufts can be a top team in this league in the
future. It’s a great school in a great hockey area.”