VAZQUEZ | Faithfully following a team

When students apply to Yale, they rarely list college sports as one of the main draws. In fact, we describe Yale’s glory days in sports as something of a bygone era. But our athletic teams continue to excel at the national level, while having to contend with academic standards unlike those of their rivals. Yale men’s hockey has been a powerhouse for the last four years and with that they’ve built a dedicated fan base — especially among the senior class.

Three years ago, I attended my first game at the suggestion of a senior friend, but I was skeptical as to whether I would enjoy it. I had lived in South Florida until coming to Yale, and hockey was one of those sports I had only ever passively watched. But after my first game, I was hooked. Yale hockey was not only exciting, but the fans were enthusiastic and animated through every minute of playing time — the atmosphere was electric. As a freshman, I went to Worcester and saw the 2009–’10 men’s hockey team make it to the Northeastern Regional finals after a monumental victory over North Dakota — the team’s first NCAA victory since 1952 — although they fell to Boston College, the eventual national champion, by two goals.

Sophomore year, I became a “regular.” I started sitting in the same first two rows with a couple of friends who had faithfully attended every game because they had a suitemate on the team. They energized the student section by always starting chants — sometimes not appropriate for the ears of deans’ and masters’ children — but nonetheless, they came from the heart.

The 2010–’11 Bulldogs were a force to be reckoned with. They not only stood at the top of the national polls and rankings for two months, but they had a graceful style of play and control of the puck that left opponents in the dust. I began attending nearly every home hockey game at that point. It was common for group emails to be exchanged among the “regulars” with which we circulated hockey rankings and sent out friendly reminders to pick up student section tickets before they ran out. This was the season that Yale would surely make it to the Frozen Four! In Bridgeport, I watched Yale defeat Air Force to move onto the Eastern final, but once again we fell to the eventual national champions, Minnesota-Duluth. The high of possible national contention came to an abrupt end. The feeling was too familiar.

The 2011–’12 season was a rebuilding year. The fair-weather fans thinned out, and the Whale seemed emptier with the team’s streaky ups and downs throughout the season. My friends and I continued to attend the games faithfully, but you didn’t have to get to the game an hour early to make sure the first two rows of the student section were yours.

This season, I thought I was going to be in for much of the same — I never dreamed this squad would transform into a national contender. But after the first few games, I realized that the 2012–’13 Bulldogs were different. They had an unpredictable ability to come from behind, unlike any of the previous iterations I had closely watched. They didn’t blow opponents out of the water, but they got the job done. The student section began to fill up again, and our team returned to the national limelight.

Then came an injury to goaltender Jeff Malcolm ’13 that ruined the team’s smooth run just as the season was winding down. Without Malcolm, we fell to Quinnipiac twice and lost five straight games. It took a Notre Dame victory over Michigan on the last day of the season for Yale to clinch a seed in the NCAA tournament. But unlike the Elis’ previous two tournament appearances, the game wasn’t anywhere nearby — the Bulldogs would be playing in the Western Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich. But thanks to a collaboration between the Whaling Crew and Yale Athletics, the game was streamed in the John J. Lee Amphitheater. The overtime victory over No. 2 Minnesota in the first round was incredible to watch, everyone was astounded — but we still needed one more victory to move past the “Icy Eight” for the first time in three tries under head coach Keith Allain ’80.

The regional final against North Dakota was the most nerve-wracking sporting event I’ve ever watched. The Bulldogs trailed by one goal well into the third period, but in the last eight minutes, an explosion of four goals sealed the win and pushed Yale to the Frozen Four for the first time in 61 years. As the clock wound down, close to 200 Bulldog hockey fans that had gathered in the amphitheater burst into roaring applause. Hugs and high fives abounded.

After four years of closely following the Bulldogs, they are finally Frozen Four-bound. This trip is more than a milestone for a hockey team. It proves the national talent of Yale Athletics. This is what all the sweat and early morning lifts were for. History is in the making, and I hope that both Pittsburgh and New Haven are ready. On April 11, the Bulldogs will be the closest they’ve been to a national title since 1952.

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