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Yale’s first goal of the North Dakota game last March could have missed the net in any number of ways. It could have bounced off one of the three defenders between Tom Dignard ’10 and the goal. On its flight toward the net, it could have missed the outstretched stick of Denny Kearney ’11. After the puck hit Kearney’s stick, it could have slid away from the goal or at another player. Instead, it bounced off the ice, under the stick of one Fighting Sioux defender, over the stick of another, and past the glove of the baffled goalie. Not even six minutes into the game, Yale led, 1–0.
Hockey is a frustrating sport. It is played with a small disc of rubber that bounces strangely off skates and pads and sticks. There are none of the carefully choreographed plays of football. Rather, there is constant motion and therefore a constant chance of witnessing a terrible mistake, a big hit, or a brilliant goal. But goals rarely result from dazzling individual efforts or obvious blunders. They come after desperate scrambles in front of the net, when the puck disappears from sight among a crush of players, and then suddenly the red light behind the backboard flashes. Goals don’t come on the prettiest of plays when the prone, beaten goalie throws his stick up in desperation and somehow makes contact with the puck. They come on routine slap shots that manage to find their way past well-positioned goalies.
The Yale men’s hockey team was playing the biggest game in school history when it took the ice against the vaunted North Dakota squad on March 27 in the NCAA Northeast Regionals. The Fighting Sioux were seven-time NCAA champions. Yale had never won an NCAA tournament game. If the Bulldogs won, they would be one of the last eight teams left standing. But few thought the Ivy Leaguers stood a chance against a team full of scholarship players. “We kind of knew that we were playing with house money,” then-captain Ryan Donald ’10 said after the game ended. “Not too many people were expecting too much out of us.” Yale scored twice more before North Dakota could manage a response. The favorites never recovered. By the end of the night, the men in blue and white were swarming goaltender Ryan Rondeau ’11. They had captured their first NCAA tournament win ever and upset a school with an undergraduate enrollment twice that of Yale’s.
The next day, Yale played Boston College (BC). The Elis lost 9-7. It was the highest scoring tournament game in fifty years and the last serious challenge BC faced on its road to winning the 2010 national championship.
This year’s team has already surpassed last year’s. In December, it became the first ever Yale hockey team to hold the No. 1 national ranking and remained in the top spot for eight consecutive weeks. But the players and their coach, Keith Allain ’80 — the architect of the team’s rise since his arrival five years ago — insist that the only ranking that matters is the one at the end of the season. This year’s NCAA tournament begins March 25th.
In the final weeks of the regular season, the players drift into practice in groups of two or four. They remove their headphones and shoes at the door and peer through a glass wall at their teammates, who are already kicking around a soccer ball to warm up. They meander toward the locker room, nodding through a window at Coach Allain in his office. After muffled yells and laughter, each group emerges from the locker room, sporting grey T-shirts that read “Unfinished Business.”
The goal this year is not only redemption on the national stage but also the restoration of Yale’s former glory. 115 years ago, Malcolm Chace and Arthur Foote traveled to Canada to represent Yale in a tennis tournament. Chace had held the intercollegiate singles title for the past two years, and the pair had a doubles championship under their belt. In 1896, however, they changed the face of a different sport. Fascinated by a game they saw Canadians playing on frozen ponds, they decided to form a club team at Yale. Collegiate ice hockey was born. On February 1st, the Bulldogs, captained by Chace — who his teammates called the “the blond-haired wonder” — tied Johns Hopkins in the first college hockey game in American history.
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The Johns Hopkins team folded after only a few years. Yale kept playing. It was successful early on when there was little college hockey outside the Ivy League. Those early Elis played all their games at an outdoor rink in New York and won enough to capture intercollegiate titles in 1899, 1900, and 1902. Then came a slump. Yale’s hockey players stayed far from the national stage for the next century, save for two magical years in 1952 and 1998 when they qualified for the NCAA tournament but were knocked out in the first round.
Charlie Pillsbury ’70, former roommate of Gary Trudeau, was a member of the Yale hockey team when it was composed of a miscellany of men who played other varsity sports in the offseason. George W. Bush came to all the home games and taunted opposing goalies. Pillsbury explains, “We were the last year before they started recruiting. The only Canadian we had was some Jew from Quebec,” he says, referring to his longtime friend Joel Bard. “The next year, there were six Canadians.”
Keith Allain ’80, was in that new wave of recruited players, playing goalie for all four years. Before he returned to Yale in April 2006, Allain had been coaching in the NHL. To many, the Ivy League job might have seemed like a demotion of sorts. Instead, Allain saw it as a homecoming. He told the New York Times, “I took the job first and foremost because it was Yale. I don’t think I would have looked at college if it wasn’t Yale.” The year prior to Allain’s arrival, the Bulldogs went 10-20. National recognition did not seem a reality.
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From his office one February afternoon, Allain looks past everything that might distract him from a national title. There is a group of reporters asking him the same questions as last week, but through the window he studies the movements of the players roaming in the hall between the weight room and the locker room. He leans back in a large swivel desk chair and props his bare feet — which he has just removed from the sandals that lay under the desk and which he will soon lace into skates for practice — up on a small grey table.
His office is uncluttered and unadorned. Only two photos sit on his shelf, and the rest of the space is occupied by DVDs of game footage and books with titles such as Coaching the Mental Game, Why Teams Win, and what must be the latter’s sequel, Why We Win. Wall decorations consist of three white boards. Two are allotted for plays, bearing the outlines of hockey rinks and marked with arrows in various colors. Scribbled across the final white board are a few key phrases: “goaltending,” “team defense,” “leadership,” “discipline,” “desire to improve,” and finally, “maintain our identity.” The office, like the coach, is focused, devoted, and unwavering. Allain stops to blow a small bubble but, changing his mind, rolls the gum he’s chewing back into his mouth and turns his dour blue eyes to the sports columnists: “Winning is a process,” he says.
And Yale has been patient — slowly working through the so-called winning process since 1896. Allain has sped that process up. Each year since his arrival, the team has tiptoed closer to the national stage. In Allain’s first season, the team struggled to a 11-17-3 record. In every season since, it has won more games than it has lost. Yale won the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Championship in Allain’s third season and posted a 24-8-2 record, its best in years. Last year, the team won 21 games, including that memorable game against North Dakota.
Allain’s gift is building a team, not finding individuals. He recruits players who share his psychology and vision, who want that championship as badly as he does. He recruits players who might be overlooked by more storied programs. He recruits players who are not necessarily the biggest, burliest, or most skilled — those stars want to play for a coach with national championships under his belt. Instead, Yale’s coaching staff builds a team with attributes beside pure brawn. “There’s a certain type of player we’re interested in,” says Allain. “I think we look for competitiveness first and then speed second.” The building blocks of Yale’s recent glory years have been quick, diminutive attackers with a scoring touch.
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Brian O’Neill ’12 is just Allain’s type. A forward who often gets less press than some of his flashier teammates, he led Yale in scoring last season and is doing so again this season. His game is a scrappy one of whacking at rebounds and staying in constant motion to get open for a pass. He is optimistically listed in press materials as 5’9”.
O’Neill grew up playing hockey with his twin brother, Brennan. “My dad played roller hockey growing up and decided it would be a good idea for me to play ice hockey,” he says. O’Neill, whose dad never skated — “I think he always wanted to play ice hockey and just didn’t have the money” — perceived hockey as a path to a good education. Besides loving the sport, O’Neill says, “I thought it was my best way to move up in life.”
To recruit players like O’Neill and build a team that can compete on the national stage, Yale’s coaching staff must compete with behemoths like North Dakota, Minnesota, and Boston College for the top players in the U.S. and Canada. These bigger schools can offer players athletic scholarships, massive fan bases, and home games in front of packed houses of 10,000 or more. (Ingalls can fit only 3500). They can also offer players academic support; for example, in 2006, the University of Michigan opened the Ross Academic Center, a 12 million dollar, 38,000 square-foot facility, exclusively for the use of varsity athletes. To remain competitive, Yale’s coaching staff often uses the promise of a Yale degree to entice players. “Our selling point,” Allain says, “is that we’re going to allow you to compete at the very highest level of our sport and go to the best university in the world.”
Allain wasted no time revamping the team. “There was a change in coaching style right away,” says Matt Modelski ’07, a former goalie who was a senior when Allain arrived. “Allain’s practices are shorter. They’re up-tempo.” Allain likes to practice on Sundays. “You can imagine that it changes things when you have to be at the rink at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. It makes you keep your focus. It makes you get your priorities straight,” Modelski says.
Allain prefers that the team’s on-ice sessions be competitive and lively. Every drill is a contest between the “blue team” and the “white team,” and the losing side is punished with extra skating. “We look for aggressive people when we recruit, and I think it becomes contagious,” says the coach. “You can sprinkle in a couple of non-aggressive people in an aggressive group, and they have to become aggressive in order to survive.” Every practice is played like a game is on the line. Still, on one defensive drill the hard-hitting Chad Ziegler ’12 restrains himself from slamming his teammate into the boards, as he would have with a real opponent. Instead, he merely puts his arm on the back of the player he is trying to stop.
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After the last drill of the day, the Elis return to Allain, taking a knee at his feet. A few words of instruction later, he sends them out for the final segment of practice: a mini-game in which the two goals are placed on the two blue lines just 50 feet apart. The atmosphere is charged enough that shoves and arguments can break out. Players sometimes smash their sticks on the ice after missing an easy shot and often silently raise their arms in self-reverence when they score. Allain encourages the competition: “If you’re keeping score, you’ll get more intensity and more excitement.”
Nick Maricic ’13 is a goalie and thus usually watches these confrontations from afar. He is also a Californian who became interested in hockey when a roller hockey fad, stemming from the 1992 release of the first Mighty Ducks movie, swept through Southern California. He says with a laugh about the intensity of practice: “Guys will be yelling at each other and chirping back and forth — chirping is what we call trash talking. But at the same time it’s fun too. Everyone’s playing that hard and competing so hard because they’re having so much fun doing it.” Sometimes the intensity boils over in practice, but it always settles in the locker room, when the blue and white squads come together again.
During the intermission at a home game, Don Little and Tom Kearney, the fathers of Broc ’11 and Denny ’11, respectively, muse about such intensity. For the last four years, both men have travelled from their homes in New Hampshire to watch their sons’ games and have thus seen how the team has grown with Allain. “I think the coach is a lot like them.” Little says. “They’re very competitive, but he also likes them to have fun. So not only do they like playing for him, but they have a high respect for him.”
For most of the players on the team, Allain is the latest in a long string of coaches. They have come through youth teams and high schools and, often, full-time junior leagues in gap years before college.
Ryan Rondeau ’11 will turn 25 before he graduates. Before he came to Yale, he spent three years playing junior hockey. Rondeau’s academic hiatus translates to 180 more hockey games than Kenny Agostino ’14, a rare player who came straight from high school. Rondeau first signed with the Alberta Junior Hockey League team, the Canmore Eagles, and then with the Waterloo Blackhawks in Iowa. He, like his fellow junior league players, hoped to draw interest from college coaches and sharpen his skills before matriculating at whichever school would recruit him.
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Other players choose to hone their skills by attending boarding schools in the Northeast. This route usually involves spending five years in high school. Mike Matczak ’11, for example, transferred to Milton Academy in Massachusetts, repeated his sophomore year, and played three years on the team there. Whether in the junior leagues or at boarding school, the player gets extra seasoning before he makes the jump to the more skilled and more physical college game.
This abnormal recruiting process — 18 of the 28 Elis played junior leagues and are thus older than the average undergraduate — has social implications. Many of the players are either engaged or in long-distance relationships. Further, the hockey season lasts five months, far longer than that of most other varsity sports. During these months, the players spend upwards of twenty hours per week at the rink. The team forms an intense bond, eating lunch together most days in Commons, and watching hockey games together at their team house on Edgewood, where eleven of the players live.
Last year, the team translated its countless hours spent together into the unprecedented win against North Dakota. The immediate effect of the victory was brief elation followed by a return to focus. “We got off the ice, did our regular cool down routine, and just got ready for Boston College the next day,” said Colin Dueck ’13. “We were definitely excited but we were already looking ahead. That’s just how our team works. You always have to look forward.” A win against Boston College would have meant moving on to the Frozen Four, the final four teams of the NCAA tournament.
When the upperclassmen were recruited, a Frozen Four appearance was not on Yale’s radar. Now, says O’Neill, “We’re a legitimate national contender. And from my freshman year that wasn’t our goal.” O’Neill and his teammates now have their sights set only on winning the national championship, looking beyond lesser accomplishments like an ECAC title. For this year’s seniors, plans for the future will wait until after the season ends. Still, most would like to continue playing hockey in some capacity and know that the better the team fares, the better their professional prospects.
And Yale hockey’s success has also begun to force Midwestern schools to take the team seriously. But not everyone is convinced. Andrew Miller ’13, who leads the team in assists and hails from Detroit, says, “I know a lot of people at home who don’t even know that Yale has a Division I hockey team.” The story is probably familiar to Yale students: many parents and friends refuse to believe that Yale is a national contender in any sport as mainstream as hockey. Around Christmas time, Allain coached the national junior team, which brought together players from all the top hockey schools, who were all curious about Yale. “We had players from BC and BU and North Dakota and Minnesota,” says Allain. “And they all wanted to know about the Yale hockey team. ‘How good are you guys? Are you guys that good?’”
During the season, as they walk down the hallway from their locker room to the ice, the Elis glance down at the words stenciled in block letters on the floor: “Confidence. Teamwork. Discipline. Respect. Passion,” and, finally, “Win.” Those words were added when Ingalls underwent a much-needed renovation in the summer of 2009. When Brendan Mason ’11 first came to Yale in 2007, Ingalls was, as he politely put it, “A historic kind of rink.” The locker rooms were cramped; the climate control system was faulty; the ice was soft; and the team had to trek back and forth from Ingalls to Payne Whitney between skates and lifts. Mason continues, “I think before it was…,” he pauses to choose his words carefully, “something you would expect from an older school. And now it’s the best you could pretty much ask for.”
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After a 23 million dollar renovation, the rink now boasts refurbished stands, new cooling equipment, and in the basement, 14,000 square feet of gleaming new amenities under the parking lot on Mansfield Street. The new underground area has become an all-inclusive training center for both the men and women’s hockey teams and includes expanded locker rooms, a sports medicine center, strength and conditioning rooms, and a study lounge.
Ingalls Rink has sold out every game since December. Yale started winning long before then. The Elis captured 15 of their first 16 games this season, including a 10-game winning streak that spanned the winter vacation and vaulted them into the top spot in the national rankings. Four Yale forwards hovered among the top 10 scorers in the country, and Rondeau emerged as a consistent goalie, who could carry the team at the other end of the rink. The long winning streak came to an end in mid-January when some of the team’s top scorers went cold. It lost four consecutive road games as well as the No. 1 ranking. The Elis have not recovered the top spot. But they ended their road losing streak with a characteristic offensive outburst at Clarkson University on February 12 and, as of press time, went on to win three straight games.
The team was eight games into its winning streak when it played Harvard in early February. The student section was overflowing twenty minutes before the opening faceoff. Alumni, players’ relatives, and New Havenites crammed themselves into the remaining portion of the stadium. Senators John Kerry ’66 and Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 sat together in the stands. University President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey joined them.
Don Little and Tom Kearney were there as usual, as were Ken and Christine Trentowksi, who drive from their home on Long Island to all the home games, and most road games, of their son Ken ’11. Three weeks later, Christine made the five-hour commute to Albany and sat amidst a contingent of Yale shirts. “All the families usually sit together,” she says. “It’s a real community.”
Blue and white jerseys follow the team to even its most far-flung road games. Jerry Lavish holds degrees from ECAC rivals Union and Rensselaer Polytechnic and still lives in the Albany area near the two schools, but he wore a Yale baseball cap when the Bulldogs traveled to Union in late January. Lavish’s son James ’93 learned to skate on the Union rink but went on to play for the Elis and win an ECAC title during his time on the team. Jerry, who attended all of his son’s games during his time at Yale, says, “They had a good team then, but it was nothing like this.” Now that the Elis are flying high, he has begun to follow the team regularly again.
Lavish only had to drive 15 minutes from his house to the rink. Joe Denicola ’86, and his wife Debby, who live in Hamden and have season tickets to Ingalls Rink, made a three-hour drive to Albany to watch Yale compete. They watched their son wrestle in a competition near Albany earlier in the afternoon, but the timing was a mere coincidence. According to them, they were there primarily to see the Elis. Even more dedicated is Steve Cushner MED ’75, who flies in on alternating weeks from Arizona to see the Bulldogs play at home.
The fans crammed into the stadium for the traditional rivalry game with Harvard, but to the hockey team this was not the team to beat (as of press time, Harvard is ranked last in the ECAC). Since the North Dakota win, the Elis’ focus is on the teams that stand in their path to the national championship, Boston College chief among them.
Brian O’Neill ’11 says that after the North Dakota game, “finally we were like, ‘O.K., we can do this.’”
This season — and especially this coming postseason — is a chance to prove that that win was no fluke. After Yale closes its regular season against Cornell on February 26, the team will begin its preparations for the ECAC conference tournament. After it ends, the Elis will await their seeding for the most important four games of the season: the NCAA championship.
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Yale’s path through the national tournament will begin with the Northeast Regional in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The NCAAs are single elimination: it’s win or go home. So the Elis will try to extend their season first on March 26, and then again on the next night. If they survive the weekend, they will go back to practice to prepare for the national semifinals and finals — the elusive Frozen Four — on April 7.
Eight minutes into the final period of last year’s game against BC, the Eagles led the Bulldogs 9-4, and the game was as good as lost. Broc Little, Yale’s leading scorer of the season, had spent most of the game on the ground, pushed around by BC’s bigger men. But with one minute and 22 seconds left in the game, he was upright and swinging at a puck flying through the air. His stick connected, and Little sent Yale’s seventh goal of the night soaring into the net. Yale had made a three-point comeback when they could have thrown in the towel. No other team in for the rest of the tournament would gut it out for as long as Yale had. BC won its next two games by a combined twelve to one score.
One year later, BC is again among the favorites for a national title. The Elis are still considered underdogs. But the puck could bounce anywhere. Next year’s T-shirts could say anything.