Fans fight about these things. These things matter deeply to fans. They plague all varieties of 'quels and 'peats, and seasons.
One perennial question taunts the fans of college hockey. The partisans of eight (okay, really seven) fanbases defend the distinct, often violent, relationship that their preferred program shares with another as the greatest rivalry in college hockey. This piece resolves that debate between the four most prominent contenders deserving of consideration.
If one's rivalry consists of no meetings in modern championship games and a first playoff meeting of consequence in 2001, one needn't apply. The viable contenders are Boston College-Boston University, Cornell-Harvard, Michigan-Michigan State, and Minnesota-North Dakota. Each is compared and weighed to all other contenders in terms of antics, background, consequences, and emotions of the series. Reader, you anticipate the end result already. The elements are compared in parts to put to rest the debate as to which rivalry is second-best to the Crimson-Red rivalry.
There is one guiding light throughout this piece:
But--here's the critical thing--if you find yourself dealing with an unhelpful reliance on geography and a preoccupation with laundry, then you may need to find a new rival.
The Eagles of Boston College are the oldest opponent of the Terriers of Boston University. The hockey program of Michigan State commenced with a game against its most hated foe, Michigan. Neither participant of the Minnesota-North Dakota rivalry extend this historical honor. Harvard's first opponent was Brown. Cornell's first opponent was Swarthmore.
This counts as a decided win for the Boston College-Boston University and Michigan-Michigan State rivalries. There is great dignity in being able to say that a rivalry that draws national attention today marked the beginning of it all. However, that victory must be tempered by a proper understanding of the relationship between Cornell and Harvard Universities.
Existence as refutation is a powerful germ. That is exactly what Cornell offers Harvard. Cornell University would not exist if Harvard University was not derelict in its duties. Andrew Dickson White excoriated Harvard as the standard bearer of the old guard for failing to educate adequately the élite of the United States and to become America's Oxford. The namesake of Cornell University, its other founder, believed Harvard University's failures were dual.
Ezra Cornell cited Harvard University's failure to espouse the rejuvenating ideals of the mid-19th Century in admissions as a motivator for his creation of the great American university in Upstate New York. Harvard excluded students on the basis of religion and class. This sat poorly with the self-made Quaker. Ubiquitous racial prejudice limited opportunities at Harvard University. Both Cornell and White who championed abolitionism and racial equality saw in Harvard a cynical view of the United States, not the aspirational tones of the era. In American education, Harvard was founder, Cornell was redeemer.
Someone who lacks understanding of true rivalry may find himself asking, "what does this have to do with hockey?" It has everything to do with hockey. Xenophobia was another one of Harvard's preconceptions. The student-athletes at Cornell University from its first teams reflected the values and embodied the composition of their University. Early greats of Cornell hockey came from Canada, the Midwest, the Jewish-American community, and working-class families of Upstate New York.
The philosophical rift is literally traversed when Cornell and Harvard meet. Why did it take the programs nearly a decade before their first meeting? The stakes were simply too high for either side. The programs negotiated regularly from Cornell hockey's first seasons. Each time, one party would walk away from the agreement.
It was as the negotiation between two prize-fighters in the early 20th Century. As Tyson proved with Holyfield in the 1990s, a champion can evade for only so long. The hockey programs of Cornell and Harvard were already great before their first meeting in 1910. As every time since, players for Cornell faced the self-doubt of irrelevance, those of Harvard confronted the same of obsolesce, not just for their respective hockey programs, but for their universities.
It took two tries to deliver an eternal moment. On January 28, 1911, the children of German immigrants from Buffalo who would go on to serve their nation honorably in the First World War connected to give Cornell University its first victory over the privileged sons of Harvard. Jeff Vincent's scoring in overtime cemented the Cornell-Harvard series's universality of meaning. The goal made Cornell national champions. It was the first game of consequence in the series.
Rivalries are most vested and interesting when their constituent games matter. Games never matter more than in the playoffs. Which rivalry of the four considered counts the greatest number of all-time playoff meetings?
The four series are surprisingly consistent. All of the rivalries have met between 13 and 22 times in the playoffs. The tail of the group is the Michigan-Michigan State series. The head? Well, as expected, the Minnesota-North Dakota rivalry is the series that counts the most playoff meetings between the two programs. Where do the other two fall?
Boston College and Boston University have tangled five fewer times than have the Gophers and the Former Sioux. A three-game deficit is all that separates the Cornell-Harvard rivalry's 19 playoff meetings from the 22 of the Minnesota-North Dakota rivalry. The offering of the former WCHA despite its youth (Boston College and Boston University first met in the playoffs in 1949 while Cornell and Harvard first met in the playoffs in 1911) edges the historic Eastern foes very narrowly.
All fans know that intensity grows in proportion to depth in the playoffs. A fever pitch is not reached until hardware is on the line. Spartans and Wolverines have sparred only three times with a postseason title on the line. Minnesota and North Dakota drop from the highest rung to the penultimate slot with five meetings for championships. Eagles and Terriers have clawed and snarled six times for playoff rings since their first meeting in 1949.
The clash of Crimson and Red has blotted seven championship games in its history. Critical readers may wonder if inclusion of pre-NCAA era playoff match-ups skews this figure in favor of the ancient foes. Cornell and Harvard remain the most common rivals to meet in title games in college hockey even if controlling for the modern era.
Michigan and Michigan State did not meet in the playoffs until 1997. They preserve all three of their title-game meetings. The same situation benefits the programs of Minnesota and North Dakota that did not meet for a trophy until 1979. The Beantown rivals fare badly. Only three of their six title game appearances occurred in the modern era. Their series plummets to a tie with the Spartans and Wolverines at the bottom of the heap. Carnelian and Crimson lose but one championship meeting.
The rivalry of the Ivy League is the most commonly played definitive match-up in college hockey.
Combining regular-season and playoff titles that Cornell and Harvard have won produces a gaudy haul. The constituent programs of the series combine for 86 championships. No other rivalry comes close to the dominance that the Crimson and Red wield over ECAC Hockey, the Ivy League, and the NCAA.
Boston College and Boston University share 67 championships. A combined Minnesota-North Dakota trophy case would hold only 58 championships. Once again, the Michigan-Michigan State series checks in at the bottom of this criterion with a combined title haul of 56 championships. A note of methodology is in order here.
The total for the Minnesota-North Dakota rivalry includes for tournament titles only those in which either program was the absolute champion of its league. The WCHA previously divided its conference into an East and West. The Conference recognized co-champions proving that the era of participation trophies is not new. These "championships" (more aptly semifinal victors) are excluded from the series's total because no analog ever existed in the East in the modern era.
The nearest competitor of a rivalry in the hardware or glitz-and-glamour criterion lacks nearly 30% of the combined titles that the Cornell-Harvard series claims. For those curious, if one were to include the overglorified holiday tournament that is the Beanpot, yes, the haul of the Boston College-Boston University rivalry finally would surpass that of the Cornell-Harvard series. The Beanpot-inclusive total for the Beantown rivalry is 116 championships.
Intellectual consistency dictates that attention should be drawn to which rivalry owns the greatest number of postseason tournament championships. Alas, it is not the Cornell-Harvard series. The Big Red and Crimson share (as best that they can) 24 tournament titles. Boston College and Boston University lead all of the rivalries with 36 collective tournament titles.
All four rivalries share something in common. They all were intraconference at one time. Only three of them remain as such. The similarity that they all shared when Minnesota and North Dakota were in the same conference was the dominance that the rivalrous pair exerted over its conference. Boston College and Boston University in Hockey East, Michigan and Michigan State in the CCHA, and Minnesota and North Dakota in the WCHA claimed the greatest and second-greatest numbers of conference tournament titles in their respective conferences.
Harvard has the second-largest share of Whitelaw Cups of any team in ECAC Hockey. Its total is second only to that of Cornell. The uniformity of this trend across all four rivalries reinforces the role that playoff meetings play in igniting and maintaining the passions of college hockey's greatest rivalries.
Rivalries can be overplayed. There is a reason why college football rivalries are usually viewed as uniquely preeminent. Success sustains for an entire season. Failure festers for an entire year. The closer a rivalry in college hockey approximates the frequency of meetings in college football the greater the likelihood that a series's passions can reach a zenith.
Sheer number of installments is too crude of a meter for comparing the dilution of a rivalry. The percentage of high-stakes meetings within that series must be considered. The series with the highest percentage of meetings in the playoffs and title games is necessarily the most heated because a greater percentage of the chapters to that series' saga bears gavest consequence.
The Cornell-Harvard series consists of the greatest fraction of contests of import. The margin between the Cornell-Harvard series and its nearest rival rivalry in terms of preponderance of playoff meetings is understood better in terms of percentage deficit than absolute terms. The Crimson and Red are more than 70% more likely to clash in the playoffs than have been the Gophers and Fighting Hawks. Playoff meetings between Boston College and Boston University, and Michigan and Michigan State suffer from a relative deficit of greater than 100% in terms of the prevalence of playoff meetings in their all-time series.
The dominance of the Ivy League's greatest rivals does not falter when looking at only the percentage of games in a series that have decided championships. Cornell and Harvard do have a challenger different than they did for the percentage of playoff meetings in a series. Boston College and Boston University claim the second slot. The Eagles and Terriers series are in a hole 117% as large as the frequency of their title-game meetings. Cornell and Harvard have met nearly 400% more commonly in title games relative to the density of title-game meetings in their series than have Michigan and Michigan State.
The most played rivalry of the four is the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. That series knows 302 installments. The two least played rivalries are those between Boston College and Boston University, and Cornell and Harvard. Fans have watched Boston College play Boston University 269 times. Cornell and Harvard have met but 145 times.
The Cornell-Harvard series maintains its passions with only bi-seasonal meetings in the regular season. One regular-season game at each campus every season preserves interest without dilution. Each contest matters because each program is guaranteed only one chance to defend its ice.
All other later rematches in the season are earned through the attrition of the playoffs. More than 15% of the series's 145 games occur in the playoffs. Nearly five percent of all meetings between the two programs decide a title. The unequaled zeal associated with the Cornell-Harvard rivalry can be attributed to these realities.
Sorry, Minnesota-North Dakota, clever misspelling of interrogatives to mock the misfortune of your opponent's losing its historic name because of NCAA censure neither truly manifests an institutional invective nor amuses national audiences for more than mere seconds. Reduction of one's overwhelmingly crude repertoire to an even more simplistic exclamation for a hated foe is, in a word, lazy, Michigan-Michigan State. Boston College-Boston University offers a little creativity and musicality to a chant that still falls short in an era when Tarantinonian dialogue makes the pep band's refrain seem befitting of the Disney genre. Yes, Terriers, those Boston College sweaters do look like Grey Poupon, but expect more of yourself!
The essence of the Cornell-Harvard rivalry is distinct. Unlike the other three prominent rivalries, its essence is neither encapsulated in the detergents of the laundromat nor preserved in the keystrokes of the cartographer. Cornell-Harvard plays out on a hockey rink, but the elements of the rivalry involve so much more. Many of the memorable elements of the rivalry occurred before puck-drop and long after stick salute.
When one has to make a trip to a farmers's market or grocery store before a game, one knows that one has something special. Everyone knows about the hurled chickens (Harvard's salvo to mock the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University) and the responsive fish fly (Cornell's retort to criticize Harvard College's perceived unfortunate proximity to Boston). Come on, Boston College-Boston University, even New Hampshire throws a fish.
The chicken-and-haddock exchange is most well known. It is not alone. The propensity of Harvard to hurl things at Cornell does not end there. Ask Darren Eliot, at one point, Harvard fans took Trader Joe's two-buck chuck as a literal suggestion. Today? Crimson partisans lob ears of corn onto the ice of Bright-Landry Hockey Center. This act presumably doubles as a sad homophonic pun and a post-H5N1 ridicule of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Cornellians expand the assortment of sea fare with which they welcome their visiting Cantabs. Sharks and squid join fish. Beach balls, inflatable dolls, and other items blot the ice of Lynah Rink from time to time. At one point, phallic projectiles were the choice of airborne harassment.
Now, the Lynah Faithful take to reminding the Crimson that this rivalry is about more than hockey. It is about a clash of ethics and ideas. Chants critical of Harvard College's lax grading system and policies that favor grade inflation endure and grow after more than a decade. The students and alumni exchange taunts of "safety school." The antithetical existence that stalled the first meetings of the programs now finds seasonal release during each hockey contest.
This blurring of the academic and athletic, and the institutional and programmatic is unnovel. Players who often felt that one university slighted them conveniently find themselves donning the antagonistic shade of red. Athletic directors in Cambridge became quite familiar with the streets of Toronto and Montreal when trying to disqualify student-athletes at Cornell University during the Harkness era. Harvard relished in recruiting the advantaged children of New England's prep hockey system. Figures large in Crimson athletics despised the opportunity that Cornell extended to the sons of farming and working-class families in Canada. This extension was no different than that offered to Cornell's earliest American players.
The first note in the Cornell-Harvard symphony that resonated on campuses rather than just within rinks, the note that made the series forever an institutional clash, was one that Harvard students struck in Boston Arena in 1911. It was more than a half-century before chickens, fish, phalli, or corn skated. Harvard alumni and students who throw an ear harmonize with a tradition that their predecessors introduced to the rivalry. Dead rabbits littered the ice after Jeff Vincent bested Harvard in overtime. Never again was any rivalry in college hockey on equal footing for its all-consuming, all-encompassing nature.
You kind of like your nemesis, despite the fact that you despise him. If your nemesis invited you out for cocktails, you would accept the offer. If he died, you would attend his funeral and--privately--you might shed a tear over his passing.
Only by two metrics did the Cornell-Harvard rivalry not register as the most contentious series. Boston College and Boston University combine for more tournament titles. Minnesota and North Dakota have met three more times in the playoffs.
The rivalry most played in title games is that between Cornell and Harvard. No rivalry is more decorated than the one shared between the Crimson and Red. The greatest density of games that are in the playoffs or decide championships are played in the Cornell-Harvard series which indicates that each installment matters more. It is the permeation of institutional identity into the ritual of the series and how the play of each team reflects identity that catapults Cornell-Harvard above all others.
Cornell University and Harvard University are nemeses. They, like their associated hockey programs, make each other better. Cornell would have little to aspire to if it were not for the example of Harvard. Harvard would be a far less egalitarian institution if it were not for the example of Cornell. Both hockey programs would be mediocre without the goading presence of the other.
Each game between the two universities is about hockey. Each game is about so much more. Remember that this week.
Cornell extends an offer this Saturday for the Crimson to accompany it to Theodore Zinck's for highballs. To answer another question, Cornell assuredly would attend Harvard's funeral. The carnelian reserve the right of putting the Crimson on the pyre.