Just eight seconds after Brian O’Neill ’12 had scored Yale’s first game of the night, he levelled Jake Hendrickson with a hard hit near center ice. Hendrickson was prone on his stomach after the hit and Brian O’Neill ’12 was escorted to the penalty box. And then, suddenly, Yale’s top scorer was skating off the ice and into the locker room. He had been ejected.
When referees had whistled a penalty, everyone watching — from fans in the stands to ESPNU announcer Barry Melrose — imagined that the Yale star would receive a typical two-minute minor penalty at most. Instead, O’Neill received a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
By the time Yale was back at full strength five minutes later, Duluth’s 3–1 lead had grown to 5–1 late in the second period. The game was all but over.
“I don’t agree with that call,” Melrose said on the telecast. “I thought O’Neill kept his elbows down. I thought he made contact with the chest, which he is able to do.”
O’Neill’s infraction was not the only dubious call to go against Yale in the second period of its season-ending loss on Saturday. Duluth has made the score 2–0 during the power play that followed a controversial roughing the goaltender call against Chris Cahill ’11, in which the left wing appeared to make contact with Duluth netminder Kenny Reiter only because he had been tripped by an opposing player.
Then, less than a minute into O’Neill’s penalty, defenseman Nick Jaskowiak ’12 was whistled for boarding. Duluth needed just 52 seconds to score on the ensuing two-man advantage.
Between Cahill’s penalty and the end of O’Neill’s, Duluth scored three goals. The game transformed from a close 2–0 battle into a 5–1 blowout. Yale’s fans grew more and more disenchanted.
“People started off humorous and rowdy, like a typical student section,” said Eric Caine ’14, who was at the game. “Then, as the game went on, frustration grew and grew until by the end everything had just become somber.”
Students voiced their frustration with loud “F— you refs” chants that could be heard on the ESPN telecast. The referees left the ice at the end of the second period to raucous boos from the crowd, which only grew louder when the officials returned for the third. At least two Yale fans showed their anger over the Jaskowiak penalty by throwing water bottles onto the ice.
“We weren’t acting like angels over there, that’s pretty obvious,” said Peter Jasinski ’12, who attended all but two Yale home games this season. “The student section was the maddest I’ve ever seen it.
The anger did not die out after the game. Fans floated conspiracy theories that the NCAA wanted a local team to make the Frozen Four, which is being held in St. Paul, Minnesota this year. The Yale Precision Marching Band held an informal concert Sunday afternoon in which it flew a large “Go Bulldogs #1” banner and dedicated two renditions of a song by Cee-Lo Green sometimes called “Forget You” to the referees.
The YPMB balanced its message to the referees with Yale fight songs, but the frustrated tone shined through. Drum major Kate Carter ’12 announced Green’s song as “a reprise of good sportsmanship” and saxophonist John Ela ’11 offered a sarcastic speech in praise of fairness and good officiating.
“I’m a connoisseur of hockey referees,” Ela joked. “I follow many of them on Twitter. And last night’s game was positively the best-officiated one I have ever had the pleasure of watching. I really appreciate refs who are not bribed by either team.”
Fan anger is not always justified. After the game, a flurry of comments on online college hockey message boards argued that outrage over the penalties was simply a distraction from a game in which Duluth outplayed Yale.
Indeed, penalties or not, students were eager to celebrate the achievements of the hockey team rather than dwell on the merit of the officials’ calls. The student section, which remained mostly full until the final whistle, maintained a “Let’s go Yale” chant throughout the post-game handshakes.
But even the fans most willing to move past questions about officials pointed to the fact that, if the two goals Duluth scored during the O’Neill major penalty were subtracted, the game would be tied 3–3. Such simple arithmetic cannot adequately measure the penalty’s impact. Nobody may ever know how the game would have finished if O’Neill had not ejected, but Melrose was certain of the call’s magnitude.
“The O’Neill penalty was the game,” he said.