October 25, 2007 PRINT Bookmark and Share

A World Apart

Hockey East Commissioner Bertagna and Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto Were College Friends

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

College hockey can be a pretty insular world, and that's why a lot of people love it. But now and then, something occurs that widens our field of vision, if only for a while.

For Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, it was the recent suicide bomb attack on the life of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Bhutto, though two years younger, was a classmate of Bertagna's at Harvard. Jay Reilly, brother of current Army coach Brian Reilly, was also in that class.

Bertagna kept in touch sporadically, though that became harder to do as time went on, with Bhutto rising through the ranks in Pakistani society, becoming the first female leader of a Muslim country. She went into self-imposed exile eight years ago when she and her husband were accused of corruption charges.

"There was a time where, I'm sure I have a box in my basement, the first 10 years (after graduation), where I was getting holiday cards," Bertagna says. "Something very official from Karachi or wherever she was at the time. But our lives took different turns."

Bertagna, 55, was already paying close attention as Bhutto negotiated her way back into the country, a situation that received a lot of media attention. But it was jolting when Bhutto was nearly killed by a suicide bomber on the day she returned. The attack killed approximately 100 people.

"When you hit my age, and all of a sudden you're starting to hear about classmates dying, the news and conversation gets a lot more serious," Bertagna says. "And a lot of us are in a close circle. We were sending e-mails to each other (about Bhutto).

"In anticipation of her going back (to Pakistan), we worried about her safety. And here I am worried about fog at Boston College. The biggest crisis in my day is whether to call the game after two periods, and you compare it to her, and I think it's pretty brave."

Bertagna said it was easy to spot Bhutto's charisma when they were in school together, but it was hard to say then that she'd become a world leader.

"I think when you're at a place like Harvard, there's an assumption people like that will make their mark," Bertagna said. "There was an obvious person of substance there. ... Her father is U.S. educated and he was prime minister. This was the family business.

"The reviews of her actual time in office were mixed. There's question whether her husband was a bit of a rogue."

Bertagna said he likes to think her exile from the country had more to do with her husband than Bhutto herself.

"I'm not objective. She's a friend I always felt highly of. I think she's (returning to Pakistan) for the right reasons and it may yet cost her life.

"We didn't know if she'd land and (current president Pervez) Musharraf would arrest her. But I think they need each other right now."

On the lighter said, Bertagna tells a couple of now-famous stories that he's recounted many times before.

In one, Bhutto wanted to make Reilly a birthday cake, and thought it would be funny if Bertagna could bring her a puck so she could stick it inside the cake.

"So I get this call, 'Joey, I can't get the cover off,'" Bertagna, the former Harvard goaltender, recalls. "I said, 'What cover? This thing is small enough as it is, don't make it any smaller.'"

In another, Bertagna went to a fund-raiser in Washington where she was speaking, during the George H.W. Bush administration. He hadn't seen her in years, so was nervous as he approached her table to say hello, hoping she'd remember him. But she quickly beamed and welcomed him warmly ... then proceeded to introduce him as the goalie in the film "Love Story."

"I thought, 'Damn, my whole life has been reduced to two seconds in a movie in 1969. I've got to have something more than that.'"

Though considering the dangers Bhutto faces daily, perhaps the relative security of the insular college hockey universe is just fine.

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