Last Friday night capped off the end of an incredible journey for the Yale men’s hockey team. Seven months after taking down three number one seeds en route to an NCAA tournament title, the Bulldogs unveiled their first national championship banner. Not surprisingly, students and members of the local community flooded Ingalls Rink to show their support.
Over the past few seasons, the Yale hockey team has seen its stardom skyrocket. It is now rare to see the Whale not filled to maximum capacity on game nights. While sports will probably never become the centerpiece of student life at Yale, it might be possible for other teams to attempt to replicate the hockey team’s level of popularity and rapport with the city of New Haven.
Of course, not all sports are created equal, and Yale hockey has a few unique advantages. Hockey is fast-paced and spectator-friendly. The action is non-stop and play is rarely interrupted. It is not hard for someone who has never seen an ice rink before to follow the game. A general consensus among many of my friends is that hockey is simply more exciting than other sports.
Unlike a majority of athletic events here, hockey is always a nighttime event. This gives students a chance to make the games a part of their weekend schedule, instead of something they need to go out of the way for. While I would love to attend an evening football game, the lack of overhead lighting at the Yale Bowl makes this a distant pipe dream.
It also doesn’t hurt that in contrast to most of Yale’s athletic facilities, Ingalls Rink is fairly close to the center of the campus. Though there is free transportation to and from the athletic fields, few people seem to know the schedule well enough to take advantage of it.
Some people argue that competitive success alone is enough for any team to become popular at Yale, but I disagree. Plenty of teams have achieved impressive success without receiving much recognition. The women’s volleyball team has claimed three straight Ivy League championships. The men’s lacrosse team has won back-to-back Ivy League tournaments. Yet neither of these teams can routinely convert their success on the field into sold-out crowds.
It is true that the hockey team has an NCAA title to its name and has been consistently ranked as one of the best in the country over the past few seasons. But other teams have matched and even exceeded those impressive accomplishments. The coed and women’s sailing teams are both currently ranked number one in the country. Both the men’s and women’s crew teams have won national titles within the last five years.
Clearly, athletic accomplishment alone is not enough to attract student and community support: The men’s hockey team has benefited from a combination of unique factors.
This doesn’t mean it is impossible to increase the profile of sports at Yale. Online communities have played a crucial part in making hockey the number one sport at Yale and they could help other teams as well. The Whaling Crew, a student-run organization that sends out weekly updates on all sports at Yale, is one way for fans to organize themselves and sponsor events outside the scope of Yale Athletics.
But student support is only one part of the equation. Support from outside the confines of the current Yale student body is just as important. The “Yale Men’s Hockey” group on Facebook has over 200 members scattered across the country. Some have been following the team for years while others have just recently discovered the joys of Yale hockey.
The group is an opportunity for people to share news and updates, organize trips for away games and keep track of players who have graduated. And just like Yalies, many of the group members try to make it to the Whale as often as they can. Taking advantage of these online groups and forums may be the way to go for teams who want more publicity and recognition.
Support for Yale sports does not have to be limited to just the student body. With less than 6,000 undergraduates, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to achieve the same level of enthusiasm for athletics seen at national juggernauts like Michigan and Texas. But with the support of alumni, residents of New Haven and other regional fans, Yale sports could play a much bigger role on campus and in the local community.
Why is this important at all? Wouldn’t the resources we spent every year on athletics be better spent elsewhere? Maybe, maybe not. But this line of thinking ignores the potential benefits a vibrant athletics program would offer. For many people, sports are more than just a game. They are a way for strangers from different backgrounds to find common ground. Just look at the Yale hockey group on Facebook. If not for hockey, most people in the group probably would never have made such an intimate connection with Yale.
I often hear people talking about the importance of integrating Yale as part of New Haven. But this will remain a difficult task if we cannot find something in common with members of the local community. I am not saying that sports are a panacea for the town-gown problems we face, but they offer a chance for us to reach out and expand what it means to be a part of the Yale community.