’07 wins it for football, Allain may for hockey

Ivy League Champions! It’s a phrase attached to Yale teams less frequently than some would like. So, to those members of the 2006 football team, congratulations are due.

On the Wednesday before The Game, I argued that the team’s seniors could make a lasting impression on the Yale football family by instilling a winning attitude in the underclassmen. To any fan in Cambridge, it was obvious that Chandler Henley did just that. He projected a palpable enthusiasm and desire to win. His cheerleading, which seemed somewhat out of place early in the season, was just what the team and fans needed en route to victory.

That Steve Santoro celebrated his fourth quarter touchdown by folding his arms across his puffed-up, number-14-marked chest was only further proof of the team’s — the program’s — new demeanor. Mike McLeod’s performance (103 yards and three touchdowns) speaks for itself.

But in many cases, it’s a coach, not a player or group of players, who dictates a team’s attitude, good or bad. Take note of the No. 17 Yale men’s hockey team. You think first-year head coach Keith Allain has had anything to do with their early season success?

Look at him (if you want to make this an interactive experience, go ahead, log onto the Yale Athletics web page and actually look at Mr. Allain’s picture). His face is hardened; it screams, “hockey coach,” without straining itself to actually scream. His hair is slicked back so perfectly that when he skates it probably doesn’t move, not one blade.

Add onto his appearance the fact that Allain is one of seven brothers from Worcester, Mass., and his toughness seems established.

But he’s also a professional hockey coach. Yes, he does get paid for coaching, so literally he is a “professional hockey coach.” But moreover, he has coached and found success at the highest level. Under his tutelage, Jim Carey — not the comedian — won the 1996 Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s most outstanding netminder. Then, in 1999-2000, as the St. Louis Blues goalie coach, Allain mentored a group of goaltenders that won the William M. Jennings Trophy by giving up the fewest goals of any team in the league.

Now picture a Sunday morning at the beginning of October; the Ingalls Rink staff has recently laid down a new sheet of ice for the 2006 season. The men’s team, under its new Malcolm G. Chace Head Coach, is out skating, conditioning their bodies for a long, unrelenting season. Allain stands with whistle poised in mouth, static strength amongst panicked skaters.

On a Sunday morning, remember. Maybe it’s because some members of the team have recently been involved in an over-publicized altercation. Maybe it’s because Allain — the professional — doesn’t see the need for a Saturday night on the town when the season is just weeks away. Or maybe it’s just part of Allain’s — the coach’s — plans to win.

And win is what they’ve done. At 6-2-1, the team is off to its best start since the 2000-’01 season. And they’ve done it in an unorthodox manner. Freshman Sean Backman leads the team with seven goals and nine points. That’s good for a tie for 32nd in the ECACHL in points. Of the 19 Bulldog skaters who have played in at least eight games, 17 have chipped in at least one point. Three freshmen, Backman, Mark Arcobello and Thomas Dignard, are among the team’s top four scorers. The team is succeeding, and a broad scoring distribution is a major indicator of why.

Talk about attitude. Backman and Arcobello, the team’s sparkplugs to date, are categorically undersized. Both are listed as an identical 5-9, 170 lbs. But they have outperformed expectations by playing an undaunted style of hockey. They’ve come to Yale to win, which has to be just what Coach Allain expects of them. And the fact that he expects at all is what’s important, because it’s often expectations that provide the necessary motivation for a program coming off several disappointing seasons.

It has been estimated by baseball statistical analyses that the most influential coach adds or subtracts, at most, four wins a season (I only apply baseball here because its statistics are often the most reliable). Apply that number to other sports, which all have shorter seasons, and the apparent statistical influence of a coach on a given team’s wins and losses is relatively insignificant.

So it’s the intangibles, right? But there is nothing intangible about what Keith Allain has done to rejuvenate the Yale hockey program. He has forced his will on 25 student-athletes. They are now more professional in the way they approach the game. They have found a way to win as a team. Moreover, they have respect for the coach and for what he’s trying to do.

Ivy League Champions?

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