Many Yale freshmen were still getting carded at R-rated movies, but that was hardly the case for men’s ice hockey player Matt Modelski ’07 when he arrived on campus in 2003. Modelski celebrated his 21st birthday during his very first month of college, a milestone that the vast majority of Yalies don’t reach until well into junior year.
Modelski was one of many Yale hockey players who took time off before moving to New Haven, playing two years for Chicago in the North American Hockey League, one of two junior “A” hockey leagues in the United States. As a result, Modelski had an uncommon amount of experience, having already lived on his own while playing semiprofessional hockey, compared to most of his fellow freshmen.
“I signed with a team right after high school, and I really enjoyed it,” Modelski said. “It was a great opportunity because all you do is play hockey. Coming to Yale was great, but it was nice to have some time off to focus and just play the game that we all love.”
Although the majority of Bulldog athletes come directly from high school, many Division I men’s hockey players opt to spend an extra year or two working on their skills before they enter the fast-paced college arena. While some choose to spend five years in high school — either by taking a postgraduate year at a prep school or by transferring to another secondary school midway through and repeating a grade — others, like Modelski, skate in junior leagues, focusing solely on the sport for one or two seasons. Because they generally finish high school a year earlier than Americans, many Canadian-born hockey players also take the time off so that they can catch up with their future classmates.
While Yale does not keep year-to-year records of the number of players who take time off before starting college, typically about half of the members of the squad are alumni of the various junior hockey leagues in the United States and Canada. Twelve of the 25 Elis on the 2006-’07 roster played juniors, and several others took the extra year of high school to compete for top programs at boarding schools like Andover or Deerfield.
The time off gives players the opportunity to mature both physically and mentally in preparation for the rigors of four years of college hockey. Players are not paid for competing in the any of the leagues, but their teams help arrange housing and part-time jobs, if necessary. Although junior leagues allow some current high school players to compete — Mike Karwoski ’09 skated for the New York Applecore in the EJHL while he was a student at St. Anthony’s High School on Long Island — the majority have already graduated. Modelski, for example, moved to Chicago and worked a part time job while in the NAHL.
“You get experience living away from home and playing hockey,” said forward Blair Yaworski ’08, who grew up in Calgary but competed for Sioux City in the United States Hockey League for a year. “You become physically mature, and it’s a good time to develop your strength and your play.”
The sheer number of games played in a year of junior hockey is a significant factor. Between exhibition play, a 60-game regular season and the postseason, USHL teams compete in as many as 80 games a year. Many Yale hockey players do not make it on the ice for 80 games in their entire careers — Jeff Hamilton ’01, now in the NHL, holds the record for the most games played as an Eli with 125.
“They play a lot of games, and it allows them to develop their strength before they get to school,” said captain Matt Cohen ’07, who came directly from high school but said he sees value in taking time off.
For forward Sean Backman ’10, who spent an extra year in high school and a year in the USHL, the additional game experience helped him make a nearly flawless transition to the next level. Backman notched a goal just 17 minutes into the first period of his first collegiate game and has since settled comfortably into the role of the team’s leading scorer, adding 18 additional points in the past 20 games.
“I think for most guys it helps them more than it hurts them because you’re that much older and more experienced,” Backman said. “That extra year just helps you get [used] to college hockey.”
But several Elis stressed that the decision to take time off depends highly on the individual and that some can make the transition to college hockey directly from high school. Although the time that Backman took off may have helped shape him into a dominant forward, teammate Mark Arcobello ’10, who came to Yale directly from the Salisbury School in Milford, sits just a point behind him in the squad’s standings. As the youngest Bulldog — and the only freshman on the team whose birthday falls within the same range as the majority of his classmates — it took Arcobello only slightly longer to adjust to the speed and skill of college hockey. After going pointless in his first four games, he has hardly missed a beat, amassing 18 points in the last 17 games, including three multiple-point nights.
“Sometimes when you’re pushed to a level of play that’s too high for your own personal skill level, you become overwhelmed or you don’t develop properly,” Yaworski said. “But if you go at the right speed, some people can play at the college level [right away]. Basically it depends on the individual in how that happens.”
Developing at the right pace is also crucial for those seeking to play hockey beyond the college level. In the past 23 years, 13 former Elis have played in the NHL, while another 20 have been drafted. Chris Higgins ’05, the most recent Bulldog to turn pro, was the highest-drafted Yale hockey player ever, going in the first round — 14th overall — to the Montreal Canadiens. He has tallied 37 goals and 23 assists for the Habs in the past two seasons.
Five Bulldogs on the 2006-’07 roster were NHL draft selections themselves: Rob Page ’08, Will Engasser ’08, Patrick Brosnihan ’09, Brennan Turner ’09 and Greg Beller ’10. Both Turner and Beller played junior hockey before donning Yale blue.
“When you can optimize your hockey development, it will lead to greater opportunities in college and post-college,” Yaworski said.
But taking time off also widens the age spread of the players on the squad, which can sometimes affect the team dynamic.
“We have guys on the team who are 24 and who are 18,” Cohen said. “That can be a big gap in terms of maturity. It can be difficult for guys to relate, and one of the important things for a team is to keep everyone close. But it can also be a positive thing because the older players can mentor the younger guys.”
But Modelski, who at 24 is the oldest Bulldog, said that age was not a problem for him, particularly since several of his fellow seniors are also older than average.
“A lot of the guys have taken a couple of years off, so you can’t really tell,” Modelski said. “Everybody just gets along. We’re on the team together and we’re friends, no matter what the age.”