Reliving an old rivalry

By By Jeff Howe, Collegian Staff

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(Eds. Note: This is the first part of a two-part series examining the history of UMass hockey. This edition deals with the rivalry between the University of Massachusetts and Vermont over 30 years ago. The second edition will appear in Wednesday’s Collegian, and it will deal with the relationship between Don Cahoon and Jack Canniff.)

They were hated, but they were treated like celebrities. They were mercilessly booed on the ice, but outside the rink, their drinks were on the house.

That was just how things worked when the Massachusetts Redmen met up with Vermont back in the 1960s and ’70s. As two perennial ECAC contenders, the rivalry between UMass and the Catamounts was of classic proportion, and with Vermont joining UMass in Hockey East this season, that historic rivalry has a chance to be revitalized some 30 years later.

Even though they were both Division II programs, former Boston College coach John “Snooks” Kelley told the Boston Globe in 1972, “If those two teams were in Division I, they would be fighting for the playoffs right now.”

“The teams were so even no matter what year it was,” former UMass coach Jack Canniff says. “It was like the Yankees and Red Sox.”

“When we look back on those games, they were the highlight of our career,” UMass’ all-time leading goal and point scorer Pat Keenan says. “We especially liked going to UVM’s building even though we were considered mortal enemies.”

Canniff took over the struggling program in 1967 and quickly breathed a new life into the Redmen, leading them to the 1972 ECAC Division II Championship, the only one the Maroon and White have ever laid claim to.

And though the meetings between UVM and UMass fell mostly in favor of the Catamounts, Canniff’s club found the majority if its success in 1970 and 1971, when the Redmen won three of the five games between the two.

The series came to a head on March 10, 1971, in the semifinal game of the ECAC Championship at UVM’s Gutterson Fieldhouse. Trailing 2-1 in the third period, the Redmen made a furious attempt to tie things up late in the game, but Catamount goalie Dave Reece shunned aside the relentless offense of his opposition.

“We really applied heavy pressure all the way through the third period, and I thought we deserved better fate,” Keenan says. “We just didn’t cash. Dave Reece played a big game, but so did [UMass goalie] P.J. Flaherty. That was just one of many highlights we have in that building.”

It was one of the most disappointing losses in the program’s history, but with all of the respect that the two teams and fan bases had for each other, the UVM faithful were glorious in defeat and paid homage to the Redmen later that night.

“When we played at UVM’s Gutterson Fieldhouse, spectators would be on the verge of physical involvement during the game,” Keenan says. “But the same fans treated us like visiting celebs and bought us beers after our 1971 playoff loss. In subsequent years, fans would engage me, making it clear our games were more compelling to UVM than those against higher profile schools like UNH or local rival Middlebury. It was just better than other games.”

The Redmen nearly had their crack at revenge in the 1972 ECAC playoffs. With UVM ranked No. 1 and UMass at No. 2, there was a potential date awaiting at Gutterson – where the Redmen won a 4-3 overtime thriller in December of that season – in the championship game.

UMass waltzed through the first two rounds, knocking out St. Anselm, 5-3, and Merrimack, 4-2, at Orr Rink, home to Amherst College and also the Redmen since there was no money for their own arena on campus at the time.

But for once, there was a kink in the Catamount armor.

“We were really enthusiastic about getting another crack at Vermont after they beat us the year before,” Keenan says. “And after we just finished a strong performance at home, we heard on the radio that Buffalo beat UVM in Burlington quite handily. That was a surprise, and it was certainly a disappointment even though [by Vermont losing], it guaranteed us home-ice advantage.”

Behind the efforts of Keenan’s hat trick, Flaherty’s resistance in net and the surprising contribution of Chico Shea, who scored three goals of his own, the Redmen proceeded to blow Buffalo out of the building in the championship game by a score of 8-1, slating them on top of the Division II college hockey world. Though they didn’t get their opportunity for revenge, Canniff wasn’t necessarily disappointed the way Keenan was.

“That’s him. That’s not me,” Canniff says with a laugh. “We were very fortunate that Buffalo beat Vermont; otherwise it would have been us and Vermont, which might have been a classic of a game.”

Nowadays, Keenan says he’ll go out of his way to visit The Gut anytime he is within a couple hours – and has been there as recently as December – because it still houses pictures from the two teams doing battle from the 1971 and 1972 seasons. It brings back memories of a place that saw some of the most heated hockey games in the entire country between players who were sworn enemies – but it was that intense competition that has now turned these former players into friends.

When Keenan runs into former Catamounts, such as Dave Reece, they remind him that, “UMass was far and away the most anticipated game in that era.”

But though the players have become friends, that doesn’t mean everyone involved in the rivalry has.

“All-American UVM defenseman George ‘Earthquake’ Kreiner told me a decade later that coach Jim Cross considered UMass their most important opponent, and [Cross] actually hated me, though we’ve never actually met. That’s intense,” Keenan says.

He also recalls a distinct home-ice advantage the Catamounts had back in the day.

“There was a live catamount caged behind the visiting team’s goal, snarling in a way that convinced us he had been deprived of his dinner,” Keenan says. “It wasn’t fond of crowds, and it disliked Minutemen.”

As did everyone in Burlington at the time.

But through all of the loathing, there was a respectful passion that consumed both sides of the competition. It has created such a tremendous memory for all of those involved, making them more than eager – now as much as ever – to look back and reflect upon their glory days.

-Jeff Howe is a Collegian Columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]