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2/25/2004

A True Scholar Athlete - Gene Kinasewich Harvard '64

He wore number 13 on his Crimson sweater as he sped down the ice weaving his hockey magic, lighting up old Watson Rink as Harvardians roared in delight.

Can it be 40 years this spring that captain Gene Kinasewich '64 hung up his skates as a Harvard hockey great after three storied seasons in Cambridge?

Kinasewich blossomed as a prominent scholar-athlete at an institution known for multi-excellence. He graduated magna cum laude in the June of 1964 while collecting the Bingham Award as Harvard's top athlete. Further, he went on to earn two master's degrees and a doctorate from the Graduate School of Education. By his mid-20s he was Assistant Dean of Harvard College.

Not bad for a kid from Edmonton, Alberta, who, when asked during a chance meeting with Harvard hockey devotee Jim Lombard '61 if he'd consider attending Harvard, replied "Where's Harvard?"

Kinasewich found out, and would leave his imprint on the college - and vice versa.

"Gene epitomizes what Harvard is all about," says former Athletic Director Bill Cleary '56. "Has there ever been a better scholar-athlete story?"

Or one reflecting a more inflamed desire by an athlete to get a Harvard education?

Here was this son of Ukraine immigrants - the 13th of 14 children (hence the jersey number) - who had lost both parents by age ten. He was celebrated as Alberta's most memorable gift to Boston hockey since the original "Edmonton Express", Bruins great, Eddie Shore. But whereas Shore was a big, tough defenseman, Kinasewich was soft-spoken and smallish (5-8, 165), but he made it work as a slick two-way forward who handled the puck deftly and skated superbly.

A hot NHL prospect, Kinasewich was informed by Harvard that he would not be allowed to play sports there. But he enrolled anyway, wanting the education.

Happily, Kinasewich eventually cleared several hurdles and did play hockey for Harvard - 61 goals and 110 assists in 74 games over three seasons, Beanpot Tournament MVP as sophomore, ECAC Tournament MVP as a junior, while leading the Crimson to the brink of the National Championship, three years All-ECAC, and on and on. And, of course, a Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Famer and legend.

But none of that loomed on the horizon when Kinasewich arrived in Cambridge in 1960. Forty-four years later, he recalls his first hour in the Yard as an incoming freshman. It was his first day as a Harvard student - and nearly his last. He had just driven more than 3,000 miles across the continent from Edmonton and was unloading his car in his new digs at Holworthy Hall.

"Someone told me that Dean Watson, Bob Watson, was looking for me," Kinasewich remembers. "So I went to see him."

"'Gene, I have some bad news," Watson said to Kinasewich that day. "The Ivy eligibility committee, the Deans of the member colleges, have declared you ineligible because you received some expense money as a junior hockey player. We tried the best we could, but I must tell you that you won't be eligible to play any sports for the four years you're here. I'm sorry. Whatever scholarship aid you've been granted is guaranteed, of course, as long as you keep up your grades. But I want to be sure it's absolutely clear that you won't be allowed to play sports here. There can be no question about that in your mind."

"I was stunned," Kinasewich says. "Here I was all set to go, getting settled and about to pick my courses. Now I didn't know what to think.

"'You'd better think about this,' the Dean said to me. I know you have other options including an acceptance at the University of Michigan. If I call the admissions people there they'd probably reconsider. Would you like me to do that?'

"So much was racing through my mind," Kinasewich remembers. "Here I was 18 and alone in another country with family a long way away. I couldn't imagine not playing sports at Harvard for four years.

"'Maybe you should call Michigan,'" Kinasewich remembers saying to Watson. "When he called Ann Arbor, the line was busy. He hung up and told me to relax and he'd try again shortly. 'Can you give me a few minutes,' I said to him. 'I want to take a walk and think more about this.

"So I walked around the Yard and thought a lot about what my family would say, about what my friends would say. I knew if I left I'd be walking away from the opportunity of a lifetime.

"But if I stayed, I'd be giving up hockey. The Detroit Red Wings had the rights to me and I had hopes of playing in the NHL. I hated to give up that dream.

"The more I thought about it, the right answer finally surfaced. Had I planned to play hockey at Harvard? Absolutely. It had always been a big part of my life and might be my future. But that wasn't why I came to Harvard. I came to get an education, the best available. That's the important thing, the only thing. Hockey was a separate matter, and I'd deal with it later.

"So I returned to Dean Watson's office," he goes on to say. "I said 'Forget calling Michigan. I'm honored to be here and want to stay.' He said, 'Are you absolutely sure of your decision, Gene? Remember you cannot play here.' He repeated it several times, and each time I repeated 'yes,' wondering why he kept saying it. Soon I found out.

"'Now I'll tell you something,' Watson said.’Harvard disagrees with the Ivy League's decision and will appeal. But we won't do it for a year. Meanwhile, do as well as you can academically and we'll see what happens.'

"Wisely, the Dean hadn't informed me of Harvard's plan to appeal until I made a firm decision. If he had told me from the start that Harvard would fight, I might have stayed for that reason, clinging to the hope that I'd be cleared.

"So I'll never forget that and how he and Harvard went to bat for me. And, waiting a year was sound thinking too, showing the Ivies that I was truly at Harvard for an education, not hockey. Turns out that not all the lessons you learn at Harvard come in the classroom. I did my best in my studies, and at year's end Harvard presented its case and I was finally cleared to play as a sophomore."

That launched Kinasewich's hockey legend at Harvard- one that nearly didn't happen.

"I sometimes think about the 'what ifs,'" he muses. "What if the phone at Michigan hadn't been busy? My whole life would have worked out wholly different."

Kinasewich's tenacity would be tested once more following that sophomore season. It was deja vu all over again, only this time it was the ECAC that declared Gene ineligible. The conference had been stirred up by misleading information in a Sports Illustrated story on the expense money matter.

"I was glancing at a newspaper and turned to the sports pages and nearly fell out of my chair," Gene recalls. "The headline KINASEWICH INELIGIBLE. I rushed over to Bob Watson's office and he said 'not only are we going to fight this, but so are all the Ivy Deans.' And they did, threatening to pull out of the ECAC if it didn't clear me. Pending the appeal, I was permitted to skate with the team but not play games when the schedule opened in December."

On their own, Kinasewich's teammates, headed by Dave Johnston '63, drafted a white paper to the ECAC.

"Two games into the season, I got a call at Lowell House from the ECAC requesting that I come to New York City for an interview," Gene says. "I flew home immediately afterward so I could attend that night's game against Northeastern at Watson. I took a cab from Logan Airport. It was after five and a piece of paper was taped to the front door. I'll never forget the beautiful words scrawled on it: GENE CAN PLAY!

"The decision was made after I'd left the ECAC meeting, and the good news was telephoned to the Athletic Department. So I raced down to Dillon and suited up. I was back - this time for good, thankfully.

"I'll never forget what Harvard did for me. It's a great testimony to what a great place Harvard is and the lessons it teaches outside the classroom. That far superceded any game that was played, any goal that was scored."

So what was Gene Kinasewich's most memorable moment when he was finally allowed to put on the Crimson uniform?

"When I put on that Harvard sweater and skated onto the ice for the first time after being declared eligible as a sophomore," he says. "I'll never forget the thrill."

His most memorable game?

Beating BC in overtime for the 1963 ECAC Championship," Gene replies. "I don't remember all that many of my goals; assists were usually more satisfying. But I do remember that goal. Vividly."

So would the 6,000-plus who filled Boston Arena to overflowing for the showdown between two powerhouses for the East's hockey supremacy and a ticket to the NCAA Frozen Four. The victory crowned the Crimson champions of the East and capped a Kinasewich hat trick that made him the tourney's MVP.

"The old Arena has seldom heard such pandemonium," veteran Boston sports writer Will Cloney '33 would write, adding: "For Gene Kinasewich, it was the culmination of his long and courageous battle to play hockey at Harvard."

Kinasewich's biggest thrill soon led to his biggest disappointment. Harvard turned down its automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament that year.

"So our season was suddenly over," Gene remembers, "and that was sad - a big, big disappointment because we felt we would go all the way and win Harvard's fist NCAA hockey championship.

"Ours was a great hockey team captained by Timmy Taylor '63 and we couldn't wait to play in the nationals, held that year at BC's McHugh Forum. That was perfect for us. It was in our backyard so we wouldn't need to travel and we were familiar with the rink.

"But Harvard declined, saying it wouldn't participate in the nationals until the NCAA altered its hockey recruiting rules- something it did three or four years later after Bob Watson (by then Harvard's Athletic Director) spearheaded a commission that tackled the Junior A issue once and for all.

"But that came much too late for our exceptional 1963 team, and I still think about what might have been."

Never a stranger to comebacks, Gene Kinasewich competed most fiercely when a game was on the line. And, at 62, he's at it again. This time he's battling cancer and in January he underwent surgery.

Shortly before the operation, his former wife Janet Kinasewich threw a "Celebration of life" party for her former husband at the Lee Family Hall of History in the Murr Center.

Predictably, no one enjoyed the gala more than the guest of honor. "It was a great, great time. Just spectacular, like wallowing in cotton candy," Gene savored. "I loved every single minute of it."

The plan had been for a small intimate gathering. Perhaps 50 people. But as word of the tribute spread, friends and teammates began calling, wanting to attend.

"It's well that word didn't get around fully," said one who was there. "If everyone who admires Gene showed up, the party would have had to be moved next door to the Stadium."

Just a small testament to what Gene has meant to the Harvard community. Forty years after he arrived on campus, he is still leaving his imprint.


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