January 16, 1978
Practice Didn't Make Perfect
For the 1970-71 Princeton hockey team, the reward for all its hard work came to one victory and 22 defeats
They didn't arise singly but en masse. All 2,543 of them were suddenly on their feet, cheering madly, applauding, as the worst hockey team in Princeton's history left the ice for the last time. I caught a glimpse of Copper. Despite the loss, he broke into a grin from ear to ear and had a shine to his eyes that nearly brimmed over.
I suppose Vince Lombardi might have said that the 1970-71 Princeton hockey team had a 1-0 season. The Eastern College Athletic Conference records show it as 1-22, but the ECAC operates under the premise that winning is not the only thing and that losses also count. Whatever, Princeton lost a lot.
But the team didn't lose because of a lack of talent. I would not be writing this if it had been the worst team on the ice in 22 of its 23 games. It lost because there is a kind of art to losing, and the Princeton players excelled in that art. There is also an art to quitting, but they never discovered that. We waited and waited, but they never quit. They never figured out why they lost, either, which I guess is why they kept plugging.
My roommate was the goaltender. His first name was Copper—I don't know why. I worry about Copper sometimes, worry what suffering through such a season at the tender age of 19 might have done to him. But he's all right. He hasn't played hockey in five years, which is part of it. I asked him once to write down his thoughts on losing.
Here's what I got: "Losing teaches a person humility. It also teaches him that not all the goals in life are to be gained—that to try and try again is often man's fate. That's worthwhile to know.
"But there's a difference between losing and never winning. Never winning is wicked. Never winning teaches a man about injustice. It makes him question God. We practiced just as hard the year we went 1-22 as we would have had we gone 22-1. Harder, because it wasn't fun. Because it was torture. I had always thought that hard work was rewarded. That practice made perfect. It wasn't, and it didn't. Never winning is for the birds, if you hate birds."
The Princeton hockey team in 1970-71 was not supposed to never win. It began the season with high hopes. A solid core of lettermen had returned, supplemented by a wave of sophomores from such Canadian hockey hatcheries as Moose Jaw, Sask., and Kapuskasing, Ont. The coach was Bill Quackenbush, former Boston Bruin and Detroit Red Wing defenseman, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Preseason scrimmages went well, and the players looked forward eagerly to the opening game.
They lost it. They lost their first six.
I draw a line at six not because they were to win their seventh, but because they were reprieved by Christmas vacation. Those first six games were different from the rest of the year, because the team had yet to achieve that losing attitude. The players were appalled by those early defeats. They were playing good hockey and losing made them angry. Quackenbush fumed and raged.
That was before the holidays. Somehow, the respite gave the players time to accept the idea of being winless. An 0-6 record did not seem so bad after eating roast goose at Christmas dinner. The team's troubles seemed trivial when compared to, say, those suffered by Joseph and the Virgin. Or the goose.
In their first game after Christmas, they were blown out of the rink by Wisconsin, 9-0. No fumes. No rage. Their sojourn down the losing way had begun in earnest.
In subsequent weeks the team experimented with different types of defeat: lopsided ones, seesaw ones, dull, listless ones in which even the winners seemed to be losers for participating. Princeton tried to play cleanly, and when that failed it played dirty, and the players were both cursed at and laughed at by their opponents. Through it all, they lost.
What is a losing attitude? For Princeton, it was taking the lead and wondering, "How will we blow it this time?"
Against Clarkson (ranked second in the East) Princeton held a 4-1 lead near the end of the second period. A three-goal lead is dizzying to a team without a win. In the closing moments of that period Princeton stole the puck and had a three-man breakaway. As the players raced unmolested into the Clarkson zone, the line, dizzily, went offside.
It was a bad play, but Princeton still had a three-goal lead with only a little bit more than a period to play. The team, however, reacted to the offside as a losing team would. In the minute left in that second period Clarkson scored twice.
"What happened?" I asked Copper between periods.
Copper shrugged. "Any team that puts itself offside on a three-man breakaway is too stupid to beat Clarkson."
"You're still ahead," I reminded him.
He thought about that for a moment. "Doesn't seem like it."
It didn't. It never did when the Princeton team was ahead. It was like jumping a man in checkers and knowing you were going to be double-jumped back. Clark-son won, 6-4.
In another bizarre loss, Princeton and Brown were tied 5-5 in the final seconds of the game when a floating shot from the right point inexplicably eluded Copper. It was the last shot of the game.
He was not the sort of person to make excuses. When I pressed him on the matter, he kept saying, "Just skip it." Finally I got him to explain. "I lost the damn puck in the black of an umbrella," he said. Then he shook his head. "I think. Hell, I don't know. That's what it looked like." He shook his head again with finality. "Don't print that. Couldn't have been an umbrella. I look stupid enough."
I didn't print it, but when I stepped outside, it was pouring.
The best defenseman Princeton had, a player whom I shall call Chad Clarke, suffered from an acute hatred of the war in Vietnam. It touched all facets of his life, even hockey. Before a game against West Point, Clarke sat trancelike on the bus. Every once in a while he would deliver a short, savage statement: "Let's kill those Fascist skin heads tonight!" or "They won't be taking on any rice-eating peasants this time!"
Clarke was not himself, and Quackenbush should probably have kept him on the bench that game. In the first minute of play, he pumped a rebound past Copper while trying to clear the puck behind the net. He had scored a goal for the United States Military Academy. When that sunk in, Clarke began a barrage of treasonable offenses with his Sher-Wood stick, spent a lot of time in the penalty box and Army scored five power-play goals en route to a 7-2 win.
Quackenbush seldom raised his voice after those first several games. He preferred to put the blame on the opposing teams' luck or, finally, the officials' incompetence. Referees and linesmen cost the Princeton hockey team 22 victories in 1970-71. Whoever he blamed it on, Quackenbush had accepted defeat, too. The losing attitude even infected the opposition. Princeton entered a game with so little confidence that it instilled a feeling in its foes that nothing could go wrong. Nothing ever did. Before one game, Harvard's Bobby McManama, who later played with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was grinning ear to ear.
"What's the joke?" asked a perplexed Art Schmon, a Princeton centericeman.
"I'm thinking about all the points I'm going to get tonight," McManama responded truthfully.
Sixty minutes later the Harvard star had a goal and three assists.
Copper heard the story afterward and shook his head. "He who laughs first is not supposed to laugh best," he said.
As the losses kept coming tempers grew short, and fights became commonplace in practice. One in particular stands out. It was between the Princeton captain, Tom MacMillan, and the star forward. Jack McNab. Like most fights in hockey, this one was largely a flurry of missed punches, but when the two were broken apart Copper saw each skate away grumbling that he had lost the skirmish because the one had done this or the other had done that. It's possible for both participants to lose a fight, but I had never before heard of both admitting to being beaten.
As the season dragged along, a new strategy was developed. Where some teams try to sit on a one-or two-goal lead, Princeton began protecting a one-or two-goal deficit. Most of the time this tactic failed, but if by chance it succeeded and the game was still close when it ended, the players were all smiles. "Nice loss," they would announce to one another. It wasn't that they had quit. That's an important distinction to make. They had simply started setting their sights a little lower than most teams.
The darkest hour came against Boston University, that year's national champion. The game was played in the decrepit Boston Arena, an appropriate setting for a contest that ended 14-0. It was Princeton's 11th consecutive defeat, a university record. The team would match that record later in the season.
BU scored five goals in the first period, the most Copper had ever let slip by him in a single session. In the second period BU scored six. There were 56 shots on Copper's goal in the first two periods. The puck was never out of the Princeton zone. Between periods the Zamboni driver needed to clean only one end of the ice. At the other end there were only six or eight coasting tracks left by BU defensemen who went to retrieve the puck after Princeton had iced it.
Between the second and third periods, Copper went into the trainer's room and fell asleep from exhaustion. As the team filed out for the final 20 minutes, Quackenbush asked me to roust him out.
I shook him gently, and Copper sat bolt upright. "It's not over, is it?" he said.
"No. They're waiting."
"Maybe they'll start without me." he said hopefully. But he hopped off the table and started toward the locker room door. "What's the score?"
He thought for a moment. "Maybe I can keep them out of the teens," he said and went out to the ice.
When BU scored its 13th goal with a little more than a minute remaining, I saw Copper stare fixedly down at the ice for a long while. His shoulders sagged, and a fire went out.
The 14th tally was the first easy shot to get by him. Copper just blew it. He'd flat run out of personal goals for that game, and a person needs them, no matter how lowly.
On the bus ride home we sat together. He was keyed up, still thinking about the game, and I kept trying to change the subject. We got to talking about books.
"Have you ever read The Red Badge of Courage?" he asked me. I had. "I felt like Henry Fleming tonight," he said. "They had my number listed wrong in the program. The fans thought I was John Miller. [Miller had left the team a month earlier.] They kept yelling, 'Miller, you stink!' " Copper smiled for the first time in the bus ride. " 'He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man.' That's what Crane said about Fleming after he deserted and got away with it." Copper pushed his seat back. "I'm going to sleep."
It took him about five seconds. Everyone on that team had got pretty good at looking on the bright side.
Dawn came against Colgate, a 5-4 win for Princeton in overtime, but the second 11-game losing streak immediately followed. In a way, it was cruel to the players for them to win when they did. Coming at exactly the halfway point in the schedule, it gave Princeton just enough hope to last the rest of the year.
There was a girl named Jane who ladled out soup during lunch in the cafeteria. She used to embarrass Copper by stopping the lunch line to tell him how sorry she felt for him. She wasn't alone in that—everybody felt sorry for someone on that team. They were a source of confidence for every man, woman and child in the university community: "Things may be rotten for me, but look at the hockey team."
The day after the Colgate win, Jane saw Copper coming from as far away as the salad bar, and started slopping chicken gumbo all over the counter in excitement. But instead of congratulating him, she nearly burst into tears.
"Isn't it terrible?" she lamented.
"What?" he asked casually.
"Haven't you heard?"
The Daily Princetonian, unbeknownst to me, had run a headline, HOCKEY WIN NULLIFIED! The story said that Quackenbush had been caught giving pep pills to the players and had defected to Cuba with our Communist defenseman, John Stuckey. It was the paper's annual joke issue, but a lot of people believed the headline. They could believe anything when it came to the hockey team, except that it had won.
Late in the season Dune Rainie, Princeton's biggest defenseman, was struck squarely in the ankle by a shot. Dune was a New Hampshire farm boy, and he knew how to holler. "Ouchhhh!" he screamed. Then he dropped his stick, clutched his ankle and began hopping in a circle as play continued around him. He hopped for 30 seconds before it occurred to him to get off the ice and let another man take his place.
Another trait the team developed was a sincere appreciation of its opponents' talent. Between periods the players were always talking about how good the other team was. Peter D'Ewart, a defenseman, carried this to an extreme in a game against Cornell. With the score tied in the third period, D'Ewart and Rainie were defending against a two-man break. The Cornell puck carrier, who was opposite D'Ewart, threaded a perfect pass between Peter's legs to his wingman, who had gotten past Rainie. They were right in front of the Princeton bench at the time, and Quackenbush, the rest of the team and the fans in the front few rows clearly heard D'Ewart call out, "Nice pass!" to the Cornell player. Copper made the save, and when D'Ewart returned to the bench, Quackenbush asked him dryly if he was enjoying the game. Peter nodded.
If Princeton's players could find bright moments in the bleakness, it was because they were amateurs playing a game. But there was one man who was not an amateur, and that was Bill Quackenbush. Coaching was his occupation. He measured his own success or failure by the team's play. While Copper and his teammates could go back to their books and try to excel in other areas, Quackenbush would go home and wonder, "Why? What am I doing so wrong?" The team's failure carried into other areas of his life. One Sunday, when a few of the players were at his house for dinner, for little apparent reason Quackenbush snapped at his wife. After an uncomfortable silence, he turned to the players and said apologetically, "See what a season like this does to me?"
The saddest moment of that sad year came in a Howard Johnson's. The team bus had stopped there after a trouncing by Harvard. Quackenbush was sitting by himself at the end of the counter. He looked like three miles of bad road, as only he could after one of those losses. The man had been a great hockey player in his day—the team was his embarrassment. I sat next to him. His eyes were red, and his sparse hair was mussed. I asked him about his son's high school hockey team, and he seemed eager to forget about hjs own immediate problem. After talking for a bit about his son's team, he said, "I keep telling his coach they ought to be doing certain things differently, but he doesn't listen...." He paused and said, "I guess I see why, now." He wasn't smiling. Quackenbush was a gentle man, and, that season, a very unhappy one.
Years like that are always a lot easier to look back on than to experience, but there was one thing that helped mute the blows all the way along: the fans. Princeton students were not used to winning hockey teams. They weren't prepared for one as bad as that one, but once they became accustomed to the idea, they adapted just as the team did. They were like the old New York Met fans who loved the team, perhaps not despite the fact that they lost, but because they lost. People liked the damn hockey team. That the players could live with as horrible a season as they were having was important to people. They represented man struggling on in the face of adversity. In a fast-changing world, one needs something stable to cling to. For five months people clung to the Princeton hockey team—it would always lose, and it would always struggle on.
So before the final game of the season, the team received what no hockey team in the history of the university had ever been given: a pep rally. It was attended by a modest but enthusiastic crowd, and all the players made fierce-sounding promises.
And, wonder of wonders, the final game, against Dartmouth, was sold out, a standing-room crowd jamming the Hobart Baker rink. Princeton charged off to a 2-0 lead but ended up losing 4-3 in a very exciting game. It all seemed very appropriate.
Then, as the team was leaving the ice, came an incredible ovation. For two minutes Quackenbush, Copper and the rest of the Princeton team stood and listened, almost in awe. It was a chilling scene. The tribute wasn't mocking; it wasn't rowdy. It was honest appreciation. The fans loved that 1-22 hockey team, loved it more than if it had gone 2-21 and probably less than if it had gone without a win at all. What were those fans cheering, the loser in each of us?
In his speech at the hockey banquet after the season, Tom MacMillan said, "I have come to bury this team, not to praise it." Consider it buried. But don't try to bury the losers. God help you, they shall inherit the earth.