Of all the games from the 2000-01 Yale men’s hockey season, none was more reflective of the entire year than the final one. It was Game 2 of the ECAC quarterfinals, and the deck appeared to be stacked against the Bulldogs. Having outplayed the Crimson the night before in a 5-4 loss, the Elis faced elimination in a place where they had won just once in 22 years.
Head coach Tim Taylor assured us there were “no demons in the locker room,” and that his team knew what it was up against. Indeed, the Bulldogs responded with a goal in the first minute to take a 1-0 lead. Harvard responded with three goals of its own before Yale answered with three more.
Leading 4-3 midway through the third period, everything looked rosy for the Bulldogs. Harvard appeared to be on the ropes, the crowd was silent, and it appeared that Taylor’s crew had taken its game up a notch just in time to save the season.
After that, you can pick your cliche. Call it the roof caving in, the bottom dropping out or whatever you want, but the result was the same: Harvard scored four straight goals to bury the Bulldogs, moved on to Lake Placid and sent the Yale program to its ninth straight postseason defeat over the last four seasons.
It was a bitter pill for the players to swallow and an uncharacteristic way for a Taylor team to lose, allowing 12 goals in two games. But the 2000-01 Yale season was all about the search for an identity, for consistency and confidence.
Those components never materialized.
Was it a tough, defensive-minded team that could hold its opponents to two or three goals an outing? Or was it a wide-open team that would hope to win games 6-5? At times, it was both. Too often, though, it was neither.
Throughout the season, the Bulldogs showed they could play with anyone in the ECAC, defeating nine of their 11 competitors at least once. The two teams they failed to defeat — tournament champion St. Lawrence and Colgate, which finished 11th in the ECAC — are indicative of the team’s wild inconsistency. So is the 11-game sequence in which the Bulldogs won five straight games in January before losing five of their next six.
To be sure, there were a lot of great memories from this season, beginning with road wins at New Hampshire and Boston College, the eventual Hockey East champion. Jeff Hamilton’s assault of the Yale scoring record — which he broke in the midst of a home sweep of Vermont and Dartmouth — was one of the most memorable moments at Ingalls Rink in recent years. That weekend, the building was as loud as it had been in three years, thanks to probably the most exciting player in Yale history.
And overtime wins! Yale hadn’t had one of those at Ingalls Rink since 1994 until Nick Deschenes ’03 scored to beat Clarkson in the extra session. Then he did it again against Cornell at the New Haven Coliseum to help Taylor move to the top of the Yale coaching wins list. But that milestone was more a testament to the coach’s staying power than anything else.
Most significantly, the team took home its third Ivy League championship in the last four years, something no other Yale team can top.
But it’s for this reason that a pallor hangs over the 2000-01 season. The Bulldogs won the Ivy League in a season that half the league went to Lake Placid. However, Yale stayed home while Cornell, Dartmouth and Harvard battled for the ECAC crown.
The Bulldogs also had their best overall offensive production in recent times with each of the top-17 scorers setting or tying career highs for points. But defensively — more specifically, on the penalty kill — the team was woefully deficient. Goaltender Dan Lombard ’02 never really found a comfort zone, and his teammates often left him in impossible situations. Too often this year, Yale’s opponents owned the area in front of the Eli net.
Possibly the most disappointing thing, however, was that the Bulldogs could not make a run in Hamilton’s last year, ending the careers of the Class of 2001.
But for all the frustrations they endured in the ECAC playoffs, this group of seniors leaves a great legacy behind.
No other class in Yale hockey history played for three Ivy title teams, and this year’s seniors also had a hand in the ECAC crown in 1998. They also contributed to four consecutive ECAC playoff teams, becoming the fourth class to do that.
Hamilton was, of course, a big reason for this success. The all-time leading scorer in Yale history with 173 points, many of his accomplishments are unmatched in Yale history: two-time Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist, which is the Heisman Trophy of hockey; three-time first-team All-ECAC selection; two-time Ivy League Player of the Year. He is a two-time All-American and has a chance to earn that honor again this year — no other Yale player has ever been named an All-American more than once. His return from missing last year injected life into a team that was dead — offensively and defensively — at the end of the 1999-2000 season.
Ben Stafford ’01, this year’s captain, had a career year in his final campaign. He was a reliable and steady scorer with 46 points, the eighth-highest single season total for any Yale player not named Jeff Hamilton (Stafford is 11th-most overall). But everyone who watched Stafford play will remember him not for his scoring ability, but because he never took a shift off. The guy worked in the corners, back checked, killed penalties and did everything you would expect from the team’s leader.
Joe Dart ’01 was the team’s ironman, never missing a game for three years. He played in 92 straight contests, an amazing feat for a defenseman on the south side of 6 feet. For two and a half years, he was a steady offensive defenseman, but something happened in the second half of this year. Maybe realizing his time at Yale was running short, he began throwing his body around a little harder, jumping into a few more rushes, doing more little things to help the team win.
Adam Sauve ’01 reacted the same way to the second half of 2000-01, becoming an imposing, physical force in the offensive end. He was Yale’s best player in the regular season game at Harvard, notching a pair of goals. When the season ended, he was playing by far the best hockey of his career.
Lee Jelenic ’01, who assisted on the Vin Hellemeyer ’04 goal that put Yale ahead 4-3 in Game 2 of the ECAC quarterfinals, was the guy whom everyone looked to for a momentum-turning hit. Sometimes this year his exuberance got the better of him, and nobody will forget his skating circles around Harvard goaltender Oliver Jonas at the Bright Center. But his infectious love of the game and style of play always kept the fans cheering and awaiting his next move.
John Gauger ’01, a stalwart in the defensive corps, battled through a nasty hamstring injury this season. With his mobility limited, Gauger fought on at the end of the season, unwilling to let anything stop him from helping his team down the stretch.
For Peter Toomey ’01, his career ended in frustration, watching the playoff games from the stands. He contributed more to the team this season, playing in 16 games, but never could get over the hump to become a regular. On nights when he played, though, he had the capability to be an exciting offensive player.
The future appears to be bright for Yale with six of the top eight scorers returning next year, and a pair of possible NHL draft picks entering the class of 2005. But without the contributions of the class of 2001 — particularly Stafford and the irreplaceable Hamilton — the Bulldogs will have to wonder what could have, or maybe should have been in 2000-01.