In years past, student fans at the typical Yale men’s hockey game have been so few and far between that you can “lie down and take a nap in the student section,” as 25-year season ticket holder Ben Raccio put it.
But things have changed at the Whale now that the Bulldogs — who are on a six-game winning streak — are first in their conference with only six games remaining in the regular season. The stands have been packed with record numbers of screaming students in recent weeks, so much so that the team’s past four home games have been sold out.
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Student attendance the past two weekends has been three times the norm, according to the Athletics Department. This much is clear: On Friday and Saturday nights this winter, Ingalls Rink is the place to be.
“I don’t remember them playing this way,” said Gerardo Giacoman ’09. “You couldn’t even leave in the last few minutes because you thought something was going to happen right to the very end.”
That was the case at the team’s game against Dartmouth on Saturday night, as a full house of 3,500 spectators watched and cheered as the Bulldogs defeated the Big Green, 3-1, in a win that moved Yale closer to claiming its first regular season championship in the hotly competitive ECAC since 1997-’98.
The cheers from the student section, loud throughout the game, reached a fever pitch in the final 40 seconds of the game, when Sean Backman ’10 flipped the puck into an empty net. After a Dartmouth player hit Backman, a fight — rare in collegiate hockey — broke out across the ice as students sprang to their feet, screaming. One particularly fired-up supporter even tried to scale the glass barrier to help the Yale team. A chorus of “Dartmouth sucks!” chants from half of the arena greeted a Dartmouth player who picked up the teams’ abandoned sticks and helmets after the scuffle.
“When you see someone’s face crunched against the glass in the student section, you know you’re watching a great sport,” Thomas Howard ’12 said.
The frenzy was the climax of a growing fervor in the student section, which was packed on Friday against Harvard and the week before against Princeton and Quinnipiac. The latter two games were so crowded that last week, the Athletics Department required students to pick up free tickets at the Yale Bookstore to attend this weekend’s games. So many Elis rushed there that by mid-afternoon Friday, one cashier laughed when asked for a ticket to the Harvard game. “Sold out hours ago,” she said.
In fact, the game against Princeton on Jan. 30 drew 600 students — compared to the usual crowd of about 200 students — while the 650 student tickets available for the Harvard game were all snapped up, Director of Ticket Operations Jeremy Makins said.
“There is a real buzz about the team,” said Associate Athletics Director Steve Conn, the director of Yale Sports Publicity. “I mean, the team has been playing well for a long time, but now people are excited because this team is exciting. They get people into the game and off their feet. People know that they can’t turn away for even a second because something may happen.”
Indeed, in the student section at Ingalls this weekend, many of the students in attendance said they attended their first game due to buzz around the team’s recent success. Most said they were enthusiastic about following the team into the future, too.
“I’m a major league hockey fan, but I wasn’t sure if [Yale hockey] was worth my time,” Erika Wells ’11 said on Saturday. “This is my second game, but I plan on attending more.”
Throughout the game, performances from the Yale Precision Marching Band and Captain Freedom — also known as football linebacker Tim Handlon ’10, who dressed in red, white and blue spandex and skated around during intermissions — helped to keep up the crowd’s energy. Yale College Dean Mary Miller stopped by to conduct the YPMB, while Captain Freedom led a rendition of “God Bless America” and hurled souvenir t-shirts into the crowd.
Constant action and the ability to follow the puck in person have also encouraged some students to choose hockey over other Yale varsity spectator sports. “It’s much more exciting than Yale football,” said Nathan Hardesty-Dyck ’12. “Ingalls is loud and full, but the Yale Bowl feels desolate.”
Players on the team are also enjoying the extra enthusiasm and attention. Defenseman Ryan Donald ’10 described the crowds as simply “awesome.”
“I think that everyone feeds off the energy in the building, and all of the guys have noticed the increase in student interest over the past few weekends,” he said in an e-mail message. “It certainly adds another dimension to the game that everyone enjoys.”
Even the game’s younger attendees were enthused by the event.
Ben Pandolfino, 2, ran laps around the Whale with his mom, Cai Pandolfino, rushing along behind him. Another child screamed as the Bulldog mascot danced around the stadium.
“I no like the puppy!” cried Maisie Betchel, 2, who was held by her mother Serena Totman Bechtel ’91.
The men’s team is on the road until on Feb. 27, but when the Bulldogs return, they will undoubtedly play in front of a sold-out crowd. The next team to visit Ingalls Rink, Cornell, ranked fifth nationally, fell out of its tie for first place in the ECAC this weekend when it lost to Princeton in an upset.
With that showdown on the horizon, The Game, it could be said, may not be the biggest Yale game this year.
Efren Bonner contributed reporting.