Yale hockey forward Jeff Hamilton ’01 had waited a long time for this moment — 119 games, one period and 52 seconds, to be exact.
He waited an entire year longer than anyone expected, having made the painful decision to postpone his senior year due to a severe injury that kept him off the ice for months. And then he patiently fought through his “second” senior season, the marked man on a team destined to finish near the bottom of the ECAC pack.
But after almost five full years spent moving up the list of Yale hockey’s all-time leading scorers, Hamilton finally got his record. In the penultimate home game of his career, the star forward picked up the puck in traffic and flipped a backhander over the right shoulder of Vermont goaltender Andrew Allen for his 15th goal of the season and the 161st point of his illustrious career.
The capacity crowd at Ingalls Rink rose to its feet for a rare in-game standing ovation, as Hamilton took the crown from Mark Kaufman ’93 as Yale’s all-time scoring king.
“[Breaking the record] was an incredible feeling,” Hamilton said. “After the goal it felt as though I was floating on the ice — then I realized that [defenseman] John Gauger ’01 had me in a bear hug and was lifting me off the ice.”
One night later, with the scoring record monkey off his back, Hamilton went on to notch his fifth career hat trick, including two jaw-dropping third period goals. For the second time in as many nights, the crowd rose to applaud Hamilton, as he skated off the ice at Ingalls Rink for the final time in a Bulldog uniform.
In that one weekend, Hamilton had cemented his place as arguably the greatest offensive player in Yale hockey history.
Four games later, the senior’s career came to a disappointing end
when the Bulldogs dropped back-to-back games to Harvard in the ECAC playoffs. But by the time he left the ice at the Crimson’s Bright Center, he held Yale records for career scoring (173 points), single-season game-winning goals (7), career game-winning goals (18) and games played (124).
Hamilton stands alone as Yale’s first ever two-time Hobey Baker Finalist (’98-’99 and ’00-’01), the Bulldogs’ only three-time All-American (’97-’98, ’98-’99 and ’00-’01) and the sole Eli skater to be named Ivy League Player of the Year twice (1999 and 2001). He is also the school’s only three-time first team All-ECAC selection, a three-time first team All-Ivy pick and a member of the New England Hockey Writers’ Association All-Star team.
But while the Englewood, Ohio, native often made it look effortless on the ice, his path to the Yale record books was far from easy.
“My five years here were a roller coaster ride of events,” Hamilton said. “Some goals were achieved and some were never reached.”
After breaking the scoring record, a modest Hamilton said that as a freshman he was just worried about getting ice time and never imagined that he would become the player head coach Tim Taylor has called “arguably the best offensive player ever to don the Yale uniform.”
Before Hamilton arrived at Yale, the Bulldogs had never won an ECAC title. But, thanks in large part to the Elis’ star forward, that changed with the 1997-98 team. Hamilton scored quite probably the school’s most important goal ever — the game–winner on the road against Rensselaer in the team’s final game to seal the Bulldogs’ only ECAC crown in the 106 years of Yale hockey.
“Smoking a cigar in the locker room after the game while watching everyone enjoy the accomplishment was something that I will never forget, and I’m sure that no one else in the room that day will forget it,” Hamilton said.
The hockey gods were not kind enough to allow Hamilton to enjoy the post-season that year, however, as he was injured in the ECAC playoffs and unable to play when the team made it to its first NCAA tournament since 1952.
After a disappointing loss to Colgate in the first round of the 1998-99 conference playoffs, Hamilton and the Bulldogs seemed poised to return to the NCAAs the next year, but fate dealt Hamilton another cruel blow.
After sitting out the team’s first few games due to a suspension for an NCAA violation, Hamilton severely injured an abdominal muscle on his first shift of the season. He attempted a comeback against Princeton, but aggravated the injury and could not return. On Dec. 3, 2000, Hamilton announced he would elect to take a medical redshirt season and withdraw from Yale to save a year of eligibility.
In his “second” senior season, Hamilton and company made a run for home ice in the playoffs, but a disappointing final weekend of the regular season meant they would be on the road the following week to face Harvard in the opening round of the ECAC playoffs.
After losing the first game of the best-of-three series at the Bright Center March 9, Hamilton and six other seniors faced the possibility of playing their final game with a “Y” on their jerseys. The Bulldogs fell 7-4, and while a frustrated Hamilton was not able to put the puck in the net all night, he picked up four assists in his final game as a Bulldog, giving him 32 assists and 23 goals for the season, and 93 assists and 80 goals for his career.
Hamilton’s scoring success throughout his final season is particularly impressive because opposing defenses were often geared solely to stop him.
“He was under an awful lot of pressure to perform every night,” Taylor said. “He was closely watched and marked by every team we played. For him to come up with 50-plus points and 20-plus goals is a great tribute to him.”
Overall, Hamilton brought a presence to Yale hockey that both energized the team on game nights and elevated the prestige of the program beyond the rink.
“Some people are just hockey players — Jeff has got that look, and not just on Friday and Saturday nights,” goaltender Dan Lombard ’02 said. “He’ll get on the ice whenever he can. He just brings an electricity to the game — it’s great to have someone like that on the team.”
Hamilton said he will miss the experiences with his teammates the most.
“Sitting in the locker room just hanging out with these guys is something that will never happen again,” he said. “People always joked about how much time I spent at the rink, but I just knew that I would regret not spending time with these guys when I had the chance.”
Hamilton has been on the ice since he was three years old, and he credits his father with helping him stick with the game over the years.
“He was very knowledgeable about the game and was my coach before I went to high school,” Hamilton said. “I owe a lot of what I have accomplished throughout my career to him,”
Even though he has already hung up his Yale skates, Hamilton plans to continue playing hockey next year and is currently talking to several representatives of National Hockey League teams.
“Hopefully I will be surrounded by hockey the rest of my life,” Hamilton said. “Hockey has always been my passion in life, and when the time comes to stop playing seriously, I will find some way to give back to the game.”
For now, though, Hamilton is proud of his time at Yale and grateful for all the opportunities he has been given over the last four years.
“Leaving here with the other six seniors [in the Class of 2001], we can be proud that Yale hockey has risen to a new level,” Hamilton said. “This is something that is built over time with the help of many. We have an unwavering support system from the parents, fans and coaching staff. I’m sure I can speak for all the seniors when I say ‘thank you’ to everyone who has had a hand in this unforgettable ride.”
As the crowd at the Ingalls Rink showed at Hamilton’s final game, the feeling is mutual.