After one of the men’s hockey team’s finest games of the year, a scoreless tie versus No. 11 Colgate, Wayne Dean, Yale’s overseer of men’s hockey operations, organized a makeshift press conference. Members of the media had a chance to speak with head coach Tim Taylor and goalie Matt Modelski ’07, hearing from each of them how proud the team was with its performance, before Dean called for center Nick Shalek ’05, the Bulldog captain and a key penalty-killer in the game.
Shuffling in shirtless, with sweat still fresh from the overtime grind, an amiable Shalek answered questions courteously. When Dean asked the reporters after a few minutes if they needed anything else from the captain, all shook their heads no.
In a typical moment of youthful exuberance, Shalek refused to go away.
“Are you sure?” he asked, flexing his biceps. “What about these?”
It is rare to see a player so much at ease with a room full of reporters, many of whom are paid for what they do and twice his age.
But then again, Shalek has never been the usual Yale athlete.
The road less traveled
The son of a lawyer and an advertiser, Shalek was born in Santa Monica, Calif. Impressed by a photo of childhood friend and current Princeton star Grant Goeckner-Zoeller in full hockey gear, nine-year-old Shalek asked his mother if he could play ice hockey. She said yes, but it ended up taking Shalek longer than expected to finally get a stick in his hand.
“I started skating first because my idiotic Swedish babysitter signed me up for skating lessons instead of hockey,” he said. “So I had a whole year of skating lessons before I ever played.”
Now considered one of the strongest skaters on the team, Shalek knows that the delay may not have been a bad thing after all.
“I guess it was good in hindsight,” he admitted.
After spending the first decade of his life in Santa Monica, Shalek moved to Purchase, N.Y., “right after the Rangers won the cup.” He enrolled at the nearby Rye Country Day School in sixth grade and spent summers playing for the prestigious Connecticut Yankees youth travel team, where he skated with current teammate Christian Jensen ’06 and a number of other future Division I hockey stars.
When Shalek reached high school, however, he opted not to go to boarding school, a decision akin to hockey suicide for a northeastern player.
“All those guys, in eighth grade, decided they were going to prep school the next year,” Shalek recalled. “I was not really inclined to leave home. I like my family. I like living at home.”
Shalek smiled sheepishly when he mentioned his family, having just hours before been at home for his mother’s birthday dinner.
“So I decided to stay at Rye,” he continued. “I figured if I wanted to play college hockey I was just going to figure out how to do it from Rye.”
While his hockey peers were on the fast-track to Division I college hockey, living either with host families on the junior hockey circuit or in dorms in the ECAC pipeline that is the New England Prep School Ice Hockey Association, Shalek was at home, playing three sports, all of which he captained his senior year, and excelling in the classroom.
A gifted student, Shalek was a National Merit Scholarship winner and the recipient of numerous other academic awards, in subjects ranging from math to English to the humanities. With injuries keeping him from the summer showcases that would have offered him rare exposure, when it came time to decide where to go to college, Shalek realized hockey was not going to be his ticket to the Ivy League.
“I looked at Amherst and Middlebury and some other D-III schools where I thought I could play hockey and lacrosse, and just decided it wasn’t really worth it to compromise the school for hockey,” he said.
When Shalek toured the Ivies, he found that a skinny, six-foot private-schooler without high-level experience or a natural position was a tough sell to coaches vying to be competitive in the cutthroat ECAC.
“I went to Princeton and the guys wouldn’t even talk to me,” Shalek said. “At Harvard, [former hockey coach Mark] Mazzolini told me to go play juniors for a few years and they would take a look at me. At Brown they said they hadn’t had a walk-on on the team for 20 years.”
Yale head coach Tim Taylor at least offered Shalek a chance.
“When he came in here and sat down on my couch in the summer prior to his senior year in high school, I told him that I had no plans to recruit him but that he’d be welcome to try out for the team,” Taylor said.
It was all Shalek needed to hear.
Cracking the lineup
After being admitted early to Yale, Shalek set out to walk onto the hockey team. He said the month-and-a-half-long period between the start of school and the start of official practice put him in an awkward position, a kind of student-athlete no-man’s land, attending captain’s practices and other functions for a team of which he might not be a part.
C.J. Nibbe ’05, a fellow freshman that year who was a standout prep player in Minnesota, remembers his first encounter with Shalek.
“The first time we met was at a team lift,” Nibbe said. “The other freshmen had already met. We saw him and we were like, ‘Who’s this dude?’ We obviously didn’t think he’d stick around all four years.”
But Shalek caught on, impressing Taylor and the rest of the coaches with his work ethic, a trait he possessed long before his strength and skating developed. With the freshman class loaded with talent — current pros Chris Higgins ’05 and Joe Callahan ’05 were among the newcomers that year — Shalek did not see the ice in 2001-02, but he certainly did improve.
“Nick came out and worked his tail off freshman year,” Taylor said. “He didn’t get to play any games, but he kept everybody else honest during practice.”
With a year of college-level practices under his belt and the benefits of a rigorous, self-imposed summer weightlifting regimen, Shalek arrived on campus his sophomore year ready to crack the lineup. He switched to defense, thinking the move might give him a better chance to play, but in the first official practice of the year he re-fractured his back, the same injury that he had suffered on the lacrosse field in high school.
The injury kept him off the ice for six weeks, delaying his debut until Jan. 18, 2003 at Notre Dame. Shalek would skate in three more games, all on defense, and would register his first collegiate point with an assist in a home win against St. Lawrence Feb. 7.
Yale recruited blue-chip defensemen Matt Cohen ’07 and Shawn Mole ’07 before Shalek’s junior year, however, and they pushed Shalek back to forward.
But playing time in the forward ranks were not easy to come by either. Yale had a star-studded sophomore class of forwards — which included Jensen, Joe Zappala ’06 and Jeff Hristovski ’06, Yale’s three leading scorers last year — so Shalek would have to find his niche in another role.
That he did, emerging as a fourth-line checker playing with center Nate Jackson ’06 and winger Bobby Burns ’07. Shalek played consistently in the second half of his junior season, suiting up for 12 games and earning academic All-ECAC honors.
By last spring, the junior class, heralded three years before for marquee names like Higgins, Callahan and Jensen, had been whittled down to four (Higgins and Callahan had left early, Jensen had deferred a year before enrolling in 2002, and Mike Grobe ’06 had taken a year off), so it was not unreasonable to consider the former walk-on for the captaincy.
Shalek had finally become a regular contributor for the Bulldogs, and his academic and leadership qualities were exemplary.
Shalek was named the 2004-05 captain at a banquet at the Yale Golf Course. He accepted the honor in front of teammates, coaches, parents, and friends and supporters of the program.
Taylor said that he was not surprised that someone of such high character would be voted captain by his peers.
“The reason obviously that he was elected captain was not because he was a dominant on-ice player, he was a dominate off-ice player,” Taylor said. “He’s extremely intelligent and practical in his approach to problem-solving with regard to team issues. The way he gets the most out of ability — people respect how far he’s come and how hard he’s worked.”
For all the work Shalek has done getting his own game in order, nothing seemed to be able to help the team this year. The Shalek-led 2004-05 Bulldogs have become a weekly exhibition of Murphy’s Law, stumbling out of the gate and never quite regaining their footing.
It was a running joke among the still-optimistic team parents after an opening weekend 10-0 home loss to St. Cloud State that perhaps the team had hit rock-bottom at the right time. Those same parents would have to wait until after Thanksgiving to see their sons win their first game.
Personally, Shalek has had by far his best season yet. Suiting up in 28 of the team’s 29 games this season (his only missed game was due to injury), he has scored a career-high four points and last Friday notched his first career goal.
“It was tough that we lost that game, but Shalek scoring a goal is a victory in itself,” Nibbe said.
“I was in the net and I was just going nuts,” goalie Peter Cohen ’05 said. “The whole team was just so happy for him. It’s a testament to who he is and how everyone feels about him to see that reaction.”
The trajectories of the careers of Cohen and Nibbe have not followed the same course as that of Shalek. Nibbe was a heavily recruited player from a highly competitive Minnesota high school, but injuries have plagued a career that has included just 36 games. Cohen was Yale’s starting goalie for the first half of the 2002-03 season, but he ceded the job to Josh Gartner ’06 midseason and has only recently gotten much chance to play again.
Still, Shalek’s only two classmates on the hockey team, also his best friends and roommates, have become pseudo-co-captains this year.
“Our class may not be the most talented group of hockey players on the team but we do as much as we can to try to keep spirits high,” Nibbe said. “And when we do get a chance to play, we work our tails off and try to lead by example.”
“Me and C.J. have both tried to make a conscious effort to keep the team moving in the right direction,” Cohen added. “It’s easy for things to spiral downward when you’re losing games, but it’s important to have some of the older guys who’ve been around to keep everybody in check.”
Shalek said that he credits Nibbe and Cohen for keeping morale up, especially now, with the ECAC playoffs and heavily favored Dartmouth looming this weekend.
“From the beginning of season we knew it was all about winning in the playoffs,” Shalek said. “We feel remarkably good for a [4-23-2] team. We think we could surprise a lot of people. The things that have kept us together through a bad season will be things that motivate us to win this playoff series and move on to next.”
Beyond forechecking: Shalek unplugged
For all the team’s struggles this year, things have fallen into place for Shalek off the ice. A double major in economics and political science, Shalek spends what little time he has left after school and hockey working in his post as president of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society.
So, is there anything the captain-scholar-president can’t do?
“Basketball,” Nibbe says without batting an eye. “He’s terrible at basketball. Can’t dribble, can’t shoot. He’s gotta be one of the most uncoordinated people I know. And he might disagree, but he can’t dance either.”
Aside from obvious shortcomings on the hardwood — ball court or dance floor — Cohen believes that Shalek has a bit of Rip Van Winkle in him.
“He’s late for everything,” Cohen said. “I honestly think I pretty much wake him up for everything we have to do in the morning. I set my alarm a few minutes early because I know I’ll have to get him up. The other day before a game I found him taking a nap in his suit. We had to be at the rink in like 15 minutes.”
Given his proclivity for shuteye, perhaps Shalek should reconsider the nine-to-fiver he is slated to work next year. An intern last summer at a New York investment banking firm who teammates joke will one day rule the world, Shalek will work next year in the Yale Investments Office. Working for Yale Chief Investment Officer David Swensen, an avid hockey fan, in a job Shalek describes as “a little more brainy and academic than i-banking,” will keep Yale’s captain in New Haven for at least another year. And, by all accounts, the city — and the University and its men’s hockey team — will be thrilled to see him stay.