Two weeks ago, Vancouver-area natives Jeff Anderson ’11, Brendan Mason ’11, and their men’s hockey teammates made a pit stop in Lake Placid, N.Y., en route to a pair of games in upstate New York. The team had the opportunity to train at the Herb Brooks 1980 Arena, where the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team made history by defeating the juggernaut Soviet squad on Feb. 22, 1980 in the XIII Olympic Games.
With three seconds left in that game, commentator Al Michaels exclaimed his now famous call: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” In those three seconds, Michaels epitomized the spirit of the Olympics. Thirty years later, the Yale squad, fighting for supremacy in the ECAC, trained on Olympic ice in the mountainside town.
Tomorrow, Yale alumnus Ron Vaccaro ’04 will take his place beside Michaels as a researcher for the NBC Olympics team as the XXI Winter Olympics begin a 17-day long festival of global sports competition in the proud city of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Vaccaro is one of several Yalies with connections to the upcoming Winter Olympics. While he will have the opportunity to witness the games from the perspective of the media, former women’s hockey forward Natalie Babony ’06 will be experiencing them first-hand as a member of the Slovakian women’s ice hockey team. Anderson and Mason, meanwhile, will watch the Olympics from television sets in New Haven. These stories present the global sporting event from three different perspectives, united by their affiliations to Yale.
Babony — an Ontario native and dual Slovak and Canadian citizen — earned a spot on the Olympic team on Dec. 29 after donning the Slovakian colors in two previous international appearances at the World Championships.
“To this day, all of my extended family lives in Slovakia,” Babony said in a press release earlier this year. “We grew up speaking Slovak at home and continuing many Slovak traditions, so it is very much a part of who we are, who I am.”
Babony notched 21 goals and 31 assists during her Yale career and will be the only foreign-born player on the Slovakian team.
“[Yale women’s hockey coach] Hilary Witt was a great coach and taught me things that I carry with me today, like that on any given day any team can win,” Babony said. “Canada has 70,000 registered hockey players, Slovakia has 250 so it’s an amazing feat that we made it this far. I don’t know that any huge upsets will happen, but I think just maybe we can close the gap slowly.”
Babony comes from a family of hockey players: Her sister, Andrea, played on the Slovakia team with her in previous world competitions, her brother Mark was a college athlete and her father played in the Slovakian minor leagues.
The Slovakian team faces off against Canada for their first Olympic contest — an intriguing game for the Canadian-born Babony — on Feb. 13. Her family will be heading to Vancouver from Toronto on Friday for the Saturday match.
“It’s like the best of both worlds because I did grow up here and it’s very much a part of me as much as being Slovakian is,” she said. “It’s an honor truly and I feel so blessed to have this opportunity.”
THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Vaccaro, a former Jonathan Edwards College resident and staff reporter for the News, will be responsible for bringing the stories of Olympic athletes to viewers across the country.
His job is to provide Michaels, and the rest of the American NBC team, with the colorful, interesting anecdotes that spur a nationwide love affair with the Winter Olympics every four years. Vaccaro’s job entails familiarizing viewers with sports from ice hockey, which Americans can watch every day, to biathlon, which may be as foreign to U.S. viewers as fencing is to a football fan — all in only 17 days.
“The majority of these sports are sports that most people don’t know much about except for two weeks every four years,” he said. “But there are so many compelling human interest stories — from athletes who win just by making it to the starting line to those dominant figures who inspire awe with their multitude of gold medals.”
Vaccaro, just six years out of Yale, is no stranger to the Olympics, and Vancouver will be his fourth Games. The Ansonia, Conn., native also developed an early love of broadcast sports.
A WYBC-1340 flyer advertised an opening for a statistician to help its football broadcasting team in 2000. Vaccaro jumped at the opportunity and just one week into his Yale career found himself part of a broadcasting tradition that led him to work with Yale football legends Carm Cozza and Dick Galiette.
But Vaccaro did not stop there. He began working with the sports information office at the Yale Athletics Department and regularly called hockey and football games.
On a recommendation from Assistant Athletics Director Steve Conn, Vaccaro secured a job with Olympic Programs at NBC that began just 21 days after graduation. A month later, he headed to Greece for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
“I’m quite lucky,” Vaccaro said about working with the NBC Olympics team.
Broadcasters rely on their researchers to provide accurate information about the athletes and sports they are describing. Vaccaro has prepped for his responsibilities at the 2010 games for the past four years as the research supervisor for Football Night in America — NBC’s Sunday night football pregame show.
With the 2010 Olympics beginning tomorrow, Vaccaro’s six years of experience at NBC and four years broadcasting for Yale Athletics and WYBC will help him to bear the responsibility of working for the only American network that carries one of the most prominent sports events of the year.
“NBC has such an incredible team in place that I’m lucky to be a very small fraction of it,” Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro’s role at the Olympics entails finding out what the stories behind the sports are and what makes each athlete or team special. The experience gained at Yale, he said, made it easier for him to do so.
“I think my time at Yale helped prepare me for this experience by opening my eyes to such a vast array of different people,” he said. “Everyone has a story unique to themselves and we try to illuminate those stories, and that’s rewarding.”
ILLUMINATING THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
Yale men’s hockey left winger Anderson first noticed the Olympic presence in his hometown of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia — a suburb located just 25 miles from downtown Vancouver — at the airport. The five rings that are synonymous with the Olympics were first illuminated at Vancouver International in March 2009. Now they serve as a reminder to travelers — as if anyone could forget — that Vancouver is the proud home of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The Games will kick off tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. EST, just about the same time as the first period of Anderson and the Bulldogs’ hockey game against Colgate in Hamilton, N.Y., comes to a close.
Anderson, fellow British Columbian teammate Mason and lightweight crew team member Noah McColl ’10 will not be able to attend the Olympics in their hometown. The No. 6 hockey team is in the midst of a tight race for the top spot in the ECAC. McColl said he is hesitant to miss two weeks of classes his senior year and was unable to secure tickets to the events.
“I am definitely disappointed I won’t be there,” Anderson said. “To be able to see the Olympics in your hometown is something very few people get to do, so it’s disappointing to miss that.”
But Anderson — who enjoys watching downhill skiing because of time spent on the slopes when he was younger — added that friends and family members who were lucky enough to snag tickets to the Games will take pictures for him.
McColl, from Salt Spring Island, about 40 miles away from Vancouver, said universities in the area have a two-week break for the Olympics. The calendar for the University of British Columbia lists a break from Feb. 15 to 26, the duration of the Games.
McColl, who said he will be closely following the progress of the Canadian national hockey team, has friends in Vancouver who have been able to find jobs working at Olympic events.
“I’m most envious of a friend who is working as an usher for the ice hockey games,” he said. “The major perk for these jobs is seeing the events you work.”
McColl noted that the road to Whistler has been improved to allow easier access to ski and snowboard events, and a new arena has been constructed to host speed skating events. Anderson echoed McColl saying that the city’s skyline looks almost the same as it always has — with the exception of additions like the Olympic Village.
For Vancouverites and Canadians, hosting the 2010 Games is a source of excitement and pride. McColl said he has been looking forward to these Olympics since he first heard Vancouver would host the Games.
“I remember being excited that for two weeks Canada would be everyone’s focus, and the tremendous natural and cultural beauty of the country would be shared with the world,” McColl said.