There is no reason to speak about specifics of Friday’s hockey game. It was one bad (though important) game at the end of the greatest seasons in Bulldog hockey history. This year’s team exceeded all expectations, won the ECAC regular season and tournament championship, and put Yale hockey on the national map with its appearance in the NCAA Tournament. One tournament loss pales in comparison to the significance of this season to the hockey program.
But there is one lesson the Athletics Department should take from this game. There seems to be one reason why Yale lost.
It was not talent. While Vermont left winger Viktor Stalberg was likely the best player on the ice, the Bulldogs’ depth and their ability to score at any time meant Yale was talented enough to win. The Bulldogs didn’t lose because of effort. Every player on the ice played as hard as they could. But they didn’t play as well as we know they can.
It seemed as though the team were nervous, and who could blame them? Yale’s biggest games this season came against ECAC rivals Cornell and Princeton. While the ECAC is not a weak conference by any standard, it is still not a power conference like the CCHA or America East. Vermont, by contrast, plays in the America East against top teams like Boston University.
On some level, the team was not put in a position to succeed. Having never played a road game in a huge “barn” (hockey arena) with the media attention and hype that surrounds major college hockey matchups, the team was thrown into a strange and intimidating environment. Nerves caused the team to play just a little bit below their potential, which proved devastating.
The lesson from Friday’s game, therefore, is that Yale needs to teach its team the lessons they learned against Vermont during the regular season, not during the tournament. During the regular season, the hockey team needs to travel to powerhouses like BU and Boston College and gain the experience of playing in large arenas and hostile environments. There is no doubt the Bulldogs learned crucial lessons from this experience. But next year they should learn those lessons during non-conference regular-season play, not from the tournament itself, so they will be prepared for the tournament.
When Yale’s only non-conference road game is against America East doormat UConn, as it was this year, the Bulldogs will not be adequately prepared for the tournament. Even if Yale has a couple more losses against top teams, it will be worth it when the NCAA regionals come around. It is no coincidence that Cornell, the only ECAC team to win its first round game in the tournament, played two road games against hockey power North Dakota this season. Those matchups prepared Cornell in a way that Yale’s contests in Storrs and Ithaca, N.Y., did not.
There is a lesson here not just for Yale hockey, but for all teams in all sports that don’t come from major conferences. Any team that isn’t going to play on big stages in conference play needs to do so during non-conference play. Otherwise the players, no matter how much they try to prepare for the big game, will likely have trouble staying focused and composed under the bright lights of the national stage.
So let’s get the Bulldogs playing some top competition and preparing for the NCAA Tournament. With the talent this team has returning and the experience of this year’s season, it’s not farfetched to say that with the right schedule and a couple of lucky breaks this team could find itself in a completely difference place next March. In Detroit, at the 2010 Frozen Four.
Collin Gutman is a junior in Pierson College.