While an overtime loss to St. Lawrence ended the men’s hockey team’s season March 6, it marked a new beginning for Yale’s top two defensemen, Joe Callahan ’05 and Jeff Dwyer ’04.

Over break, Callahan, who forfeited his final season of college eligibility, and Dwyer signed professional contracts and are already playing in the American Hockey League for NHL affiliates. Callahan and Dwyer left New Haven for Springfield, M.A. and Chicago, I.L. respectively.

The Phoenix Coyotes selected Callahan, an Abington, M.A. native, with the 70th pick in the third round of the 2002 NHL Draft and contacted him during vacation.

“I took a few days over break. Obviously it was really a tough decision,” said Callahan, an honorable mention All-ECAC blueliner and the conference’s sixth highest scoring defenseman this year. “[Phoenix Coyote management] called last Thursday as soon as the decision was made. They said: ‘drive up to Springfield, you’ve got practice in the morning.'”

In three games with the Springfield Falcons, Callahan has one assist, registered in a 5-1 win over the Lowell Lock Monsters.

“It’s a lot faster, guys are a lot stronger,” Callahan said. “It’s different hockey. It’s everyone’s job now. Everyone is real good at knowing where to be.”

In addition to a faster game, the professional game features rules differing from most levels of hockey, including touch-up icing and the elimination of two line passes.

Callahan follows in the footsteps of former roommate and Eli standout center Chris Higgins ’06, who gave up his final two years of eligibility to sign with the Montreal Canadians last summer. The 2002 ECAC Co-Player of the Year has 21 goals and 21 assists in 59 games for Montreal’s AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Much like Higgins, Callahan sought out the advice of family and the Yale coaching staff.

“[The coaching staff] was great,” Callahan said. “Obviously [Yale head coach Tim Taylor] kind of plays his side and says ‘You can still get better in college.’ They want what’s best for you. They had a big part in the decision making process.”

While Callahan’s new home in Springfield is a couple hours’ drive from New Haven, Dwyer is living in Chicago, playing for the Chicago Wolves. The Atlanta Thrashers drafted Dwyer, who is Yale’s fifth all-time leading scorer among defensemen, in the sixth round of the 2000 NHL Draft with the 178th pick overall.

He signed an amateur tryout contract with the Wolves on March 13 and is a +2 in four games.

“[Playing professional hockey] is something you say you’re going to do when you’re in third grade,” Dwyer said. “It’s icing on the cake.”

The 6’2″ defenseman still had a tough decision make, weighing his desire to play professional hockey against the lure of a fun and relaxing senior spring after a long season.

Instead of classes, sections, and papers, Dwyer has the nuances of professional hockey on his mind.

“It’s more of a controlled game, everyone knows where to be,” he said. “You’ve just got to pick your spots a lot more. I’m just working on my defense.”

In four years at Yale, Dwyer certainly left his mark. He played in 122 of the Bulldogs’ 123 games during his career, missing his first game this February due to injury. He was Honorable Mention All-Ivy in 2001-2002 and shared Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors with Harvard’s Tim Pettit in 2000-2001. Dwyer finished his career with 14 goals and 55 assists.

Like Callahan, the move from amateur to pro did not take long, with a contract coming together in three hours, Dwyer said.

While Dwyer’s departure from the team was expected, Callahan leaves the Elis in a tough spot for the 2004-2005 season.

“It’s tough with Callahan not going to be on the team next year — that definitely hurts [the team],” captain Vin Hellemeyer ’04 said.

Yale, this year’s worst scoring defense in the ECAC at 4.32 goals allowed per game, will have to find a way to fill the gap left by Callahan, also one of the team’s most physical players.

Additionally, the Bulldogs will be short on senior leadership, as no members of the class of 2005 are cracking the top three forward lines or the top two pairs of defensemen.

Despite Callahan’s early departure, teammates recognize the chance to play professional hockey is difficult to turn down.

“Every hockey player grows up wanting to be a pro hockey player,” Hellemeyer said. “[Callahan and Dwyer] got that chance and you have to respect them for taking it and wish them the best of luck.”

With the NHL’s future in doubt given the collective bargaining agreement’s expiration at the end of this season, many players, including Detroit winger Brett Hull, have predicted a work stoppage.

While an NHL strike would undoubtedly be bad for hockey, it would improve the level of play in the AHL.

“If the NHL strikes for the year, the AHL will be the top [league],” Callahan said. “All the owners and the people from Phoenix say the AHL will have its best year.”

Despite having left Yale behind for now, both players intend to graduate and have been in contact with their residential college deans. As for the future, Dwyer and Callahan may have plenty of time to reminisce about their bright college years next season.

Callahan’s Springfield Falcons are moving to Salt Lake City, U.T. after this year. They will play in the same division as the Wolves, setting the stage for plenty of Bulldog reunions with a competitive twist.

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