Yale men’s hockey’s relationship with the pros began when Andrew Gagarin ’37 joined the U.S. Navy All-Stars in 1941. Soon after, George “Hig” Gould ’55 would clinch a silver medal with the U.S. team in the 1956 Olympics. With four current Bulldogs already drafted for the National Hockey League, this long history of elite hockey exhibits no sign of slowing down.
Forward Luke Stevens ’20, defenseman Phil Kemp ’20, defenseman Jack St. Ivany ’22 and forward Curtis Hall ’22 all anticipate joining the roster of one of 31 NHL teams or their respective developmental teams in the AHL. These four Elis follow in the footsteps of many former Bulldogs, including recent graduate and star forward Joe Snively ’19. Snively currently plays in the AHL for the Hershey Bears after signing with the Washington Capitals last March. Though Snively dreams of eventually playing in an NHL game with the Capitals, for these players, the idea of going pro has been simmering in their minds for quite some time.
“The players who have gone on from Yale to have successful professional hockey careers all have several things in common,” head coach Keith Allain ’80 said last year. “[They have] a great passion for the game of hockey, a high capacity for hard strenuous work, the determination and mental toughness to overcome adversity and a strong desire to improve each and every day.”
These Elis have grown up with the dream of playing professional hockey.
Stevens was picked by the Carolina Hurricanes in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. The senior, voted both the fastest player and the best singer by the rest of the team, cited his father, Kevin Stevens, who played in the NHL for 15 years, as a major impetus for his entry into the world of hockey at a young age.
“Growing up, I was always around hockey rinks, and that’s kind of where I fell in love with the game,” Stevens said. “Having him be there for me through times kind of helps me just because he’s been through it all, and he can teach me along the way. I think it’s a huge advantage that I had over people who are not in that situation. Whether that’s helping me out after a game or picking up on things that coaches don’t necessarily see … it’s really helpful to lean on him with advice like that.”
Collegiate hockey players often take a year off after high school in order to develop their skills and possibly even get noticed by NHL scouts. But this gap year is often made up when players get signed by a professional hockey team during college, and the player opts to pursue the big leagues rather than a degree. Though for the Bulldogs, this is rarely the case.
Although Yale sends plenty of players to the pros, athletes enter their collegiate career looking to sport the Blue and White for all four years of eligibility.
“I was drafted out of high school, so I was already committed [to Yale] before I got picked,” Stevens said. “The plan from the start was always to come to Yale. Obviously, Yale is a great school, so if you’re here, you might as well graduate and get your education. That’s been the plan since the get-go, and we are sticking with it. There’s never really been a thought of leaving early or not graduating from here.”
When asked about his decision to come to Yale, St. Ivany presented a similar sentiment. A fourth round 2018 Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, he had always dreamed of playing professionally, and the California native cited the strength of the Yale program in developing great players as part of his reasoning to come to New Haven.
Out of the last 10 players on the Bulldog roster who went pro, only one of them, goalie Alex Lyon ’17, opted to forgo his ultimate year at Yale after signing an entry-level contract with the Flyers. All nine others completed four years at Ingalls Rink. Even in 2013, when the Elis won their first national championship on ice, it was rare for a player to abandon the Blue and White prematurely in order to sign with a professional team.
“A lot of players coming up through the system being drafted out of high school or junior hockey leagues have it in the back of their heads that they are going to sign early at an elite school,” St. Ivany said. “So, predominantly those kids will tend to go to schools where they can receive an athletic scholarship and where their entire focus is on hockey. Whereas at Yale … all the players are not only trying to pursue excellence in hockey, but they are trying to pursue excellence in academics as well. So I think that more often than not, you’re trying to stay for all four years here at Yale, so I think sometimes it’s harder to recruit higher draft picks to come here because they have in the back of their head that they are going to be leaving early anyways.”
Most other competitive collegiate men’s ice hockey teams do not retain their players as easily. At No. 1 Minnesota State, only four out of the most recent 10 players to go pro have exhausted their four-year NCAA eligibility. Exiting the 2017–18 season, six players entered professional leagues at the No. 2 University of Denver, yet four of them were juniors. Other teams with similar recent history, such as Union College, who won NCAAs in 2014 yet does not appear in the top 30 this season, also often lose players early to professional leagues. In the 2017–18 season, they had five AHL affiliates, only one of whom made it to senior year.
Though the Blue and White may not secure the No. 1 high school draft pick, this does not necessarily hinder the squad. Players expressed that the precedent of putting Yale before professional ambitions fosters a valuable culture on the team.
“I think that something a lot of us have pride in is that even though our whole team is high, elite prospects, we play as a team to have success,” St. Ivany said. “Knowing that we are all going to be here together for four years and the fact that we don’t have any players leaving early allows you to be really close with your fellow classmates.”
While other Ivy League teams show an increased level of retention, even schools like Harvard lose players to the NHL more often than Yale. Of the current six players in the NHL who previously sported Crimson, three of them left the collegiate hockey scene early.
While rare at a place like Yale, going pro before graduating is something that each player ponders. St. Ivany told the News that while it would be difficult to prematurely leave a place like Yale, he is taking the process year-by-year.
“I’m not as far developed as I want to be, and I’m not ready to play at the next level yet, but it’s hard to say in the future,” St. Ivany said. “I think it would be tough to leave a place like Yale — having all the teammates and how much you enjoy playing for the Y.”
St. Ivany is not the only witness of an internal emotional pull to remain a Bulldog for as long as possible.
Stevens recognized the tightness of the team as a highlight of his time at Yale and attributed it as one of the reasons why he initially chose the school.
“The culture here is unbelievable which is something that I’ve never really been a part of growing up,” Stevens said. “The guys definitely make it the best experience.”
The quartet, three of whom have already started for the Bulldogs so far this season, hope to guide the Blue and White past the ECAC quarterfinals, where they fell last year to Clarkson.
The Yale men’s hockey team made its first debut in the oldest existing intercollegiate hockey game which resulted in a 2–2 tie against Johns Hopkins in 1896.
Margaret Hedeman | firstname.lastname@example.org