Yale Daily News

The year was 1896 when Yale competed in its first-ever intercollegiate hockey match. In the 125 years that have followed, the Bulldogs have played at least one game every season — a historic trend that will be coming to an end this winter.

“Yale was the first college hockey team ever created,” captain and defenseman Phil Kemp ’21 said. “In over a hundred years, Yale has always competed on the ice. Just thinking about that makes me sad, that my teammates and I weren’t allowed the opportunity to show what we could do as a group. … We pour our heart and souls into our seasons, competing for our teammates and our university. Watching other teams play right now is heartbreaking. To be a senior the one year in 125 that Yale hockey does not compete is hard to wrap your head around. Our opportunity was taken away from us and that will probably never stop stinging.”

While its origins are long debated, most historians agree that the first organized game of ice hockey was played in a Montreal skating rink in 1875. After the sport’s inception in Canada, it took nearly 20 years for ice hockey to make its way to the United States.

It was not until Yale student Malcolm G. Chace, class of 1896, was introduced to the game by members of a Canadian hockey club in 1892 that he, alongside several of his Ivy League friends, decided to adopt the sport at their respective schools. In no time, ice hockey swiftly replaced the once-popular ball-and-stick game of ice polo in the Ancient Eight.

After athletes from Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Columbia and Brown competed in Canada for four years, the first intercollegiate ice hockey event, a contest between Yale and Johns Hopkins University, was played in 1896. In a game described as a “hard-fought duel,” the Blue and White, led by Chace as their captain, tied the Blue Jays 2–2.

While the Johns Hopkins program was disbanded for 90 years due to a lack of student support after the conclusion of the 1898 season, the Elis steadfastly marched ahead. After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the vast majority of collegiate ice hockey programs were forced to cease operations on account of students joining the military. Yale stood strong and trudged on. In the 1930s, with the country engulfed in the Great Depression, many schools had no choice but to suspend their programs owing to a shortage of resources. Yet the well-funded Bulldogs continued to play. As had been the case during WWI, most universities placed an impermanent termination on their ice hockey teams with the onset of World War II. And again, the Blue and White were a notable exception. 

The men’s hockey team in 1896. (Photo: Courtesy of Yale Athletics)

In fact, in the 125 years that have separated Yale’s first-ever intercollegiate match against Johns Hopkins from its most recent ice hockey contest this past March — a thrilling double-overtime victory against Union that would have sent the Elis to the ECAC quarterfinals if not for the coronavirus — the Bulldogs have played at least one game every season.

They are the only ice hockey program in the country that can say that.

Yet, this renowned feat of perseverance is coming to an end this winter. On the evening of Nov. 12, Ivy League officials cancelled all winter sports.

“We understand the reasoning behind the decision and we accept the decision, but that doesn’t make it any easier,”  head coach Keith Allain ’80 said. “Big picture, we take great pride in the history of Yale hockey being the oldest program in the country, playing each and every year since 1896. Playing Yale hockey is not merely something we do, being Yale hockey players is a part of who we are. On a personal level, we have seven seniors who will never put the Yale jersey on again and that is extremely painful. So there is a huge void.”

With the Ancient Eight’s joint cancellation of winter sports, less than half of the ECAC conference will not be playing this season. Nevertheless, ECAC officials worked diligently during the offseason to put in place various schedule models for the teams that now remain. Moreover, the remaining five Division I hockey conferences that make up the NCAA have all released schedules for the 2020-21 season.

As it stands, along with the six Ivy League schools that compete at the NCAA hockey level, three more Division I programs have opted out of the ice hockey season: RPI, Union and Alaska Anchorage.

“It’s a shame that the administration couldn’t do more to help the team compete, especially the seniors in their final year,” former forward Luke Stevens ’20 said. “You work your whole life to play your senior season at college, and I can’t imagine how those guys feel. You see most other D1 teams competing … for one of the most storied programs in college hockey to sit on the sidelines and watch I feel is a shame.”

Stevens plans on continuing his hockey career with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins — an AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

According to former goalkeeper Corbin Kaczperski ’20, the decision to cancel this winter season will be felt throughout the Ancient Eight as well as the ECAC for years to come.

“I think it’s a travesty that Yale and the entire Ivy League is not playing this year,” Kaczperski said. “I think the effects of this will be felt around the Ivy League for years to come. With top-end guys transferring out of schools to go and have the opportunity to keep playing, the skill level will consequently become so watered down in the ECAC that it will really struggle to be competitive in the years to come. It will also be harder to recruit since possible recruits may feel that athletics is not a priority for the Ivy League and that if they are serious about playing hockey, there will be opportunities elsewhere at schools that will work for them to play”

Kaczperski added that he understands that the league canceled games for the safety of the players.

Several Bulldogs have already entered the NCAA transfer portal. One such potential transfer is junior defenseman Jack St. Ivany ’22 who led the Blue and White last season with a team-high 15 assists.

Jared Fel | jared.fel@yale.edu