Courtesy of Yale Athletics

Walking through the tunnel and stepping out onto the ice in front of an electric crowd at Ingalls Rink is a feeling Yale hockey players get to enjoy almost every weekend during the winter season. While the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed them of reliving this experience, senior forwards Kevin O’Neil ’21, Dante Palecco ’21 and Tyler Welsh ’21 look to make the most out of their final season of NCAA eligibility as graduate transfers to the University of Connecticut, Sacred Heart University and Long Island University, respectively.

In February, the Ivy League granted senior athletes a one-time waiver that would allow them to compete as graduate students during the 2021-22 season at their respective Ancient Eight institution. Despite this historic gesture, many Yale athletes expressed confusion about the announcement, which was released after 50 Yale graduate programs and all but one professional school had already closed their applications. Palecco, O’Neil and Welsh were no exception.

“I would have been elated to come back here and get another year with my teammates,” Palecco said. “I committed to Yale in the first place because I believe in what they preach and wanted to be a part of this brotherhood, and would do anything to extend that past four years. [The announcement] seemed as if it was an empty gesture.”

Welsh shared similar sentiments, relaying to the News his disappointment with the manner in which the league handled the situation.

“If there were prior warnings when they canceled our season in November that they would grant athletes an extra year, it would have helped a lot.” Welsh said.

In a tweet on Feb. 11, O’Neil stated that while he thought the waiver was a “nice gesture,” he still wondered if Yale was going to offer any deadline exceptions for athletes applying to these programs. At least one Yale program did so, the MBA program at the School of Management.

Although they have already laced up their skates for the final time as Bulldogs, all three players secured the chance to play a “super” senior season away from Yale.

O’Neil — who is departing from the Blue and White with 17 goals, 27 assists and three ECAC All-Academic Team selections — will now don the same colors at the University of Connecticut. The 5-foot-11-inch, 180-pound right winger joins the Huskies with 94 NCAA games already under his belt. O’Neil was also named as a finalist for ECAC Hockey’s 2020-21 Student-Athlete of the Year Award.

According to Daniel Connolly of The UConn Blog, the Pierson College physics major “is expected to be an immediate contributor” to the UConn squad.

“O’Neil will also be a veteran presence with big-game experience, something the Huskies lacked,” Connolly wrote in an article published on March 23.

Fellow winger Palecco also plans to remain in Connecticut to continue his hockey career and further his education.

At Sacred Heart University, Palecco said he will strive to capture a championship title while also working toward a master’s degree in investment management and finance. The New Jersey native told the News that he was drawn to the Pioneers by their previous success and by the coaching staff’s evident excitement about their future plans for the team.

“That was something I wanted to be a part of, so it made sense to help them as much as I can,” Palecco explained.

In his last three seasons at Yale, Palecco notched 26 total points in 91 appearances, while also picking up an ECAC All-Academic Team selection during his sophomore campaign.

For Palecco’s roommate, Welsh, next season will offer both a new challenge and a sense of familiarity.

It will be the first time since his stint in the British Columbia Hockey League with the Victoria Grizzlies that Welsh will be pulling on the same sweater as his younger brother Nolan at Long Island University.

“I’m really excited to join my brother at LIU,” Welsh wrote in an email to the News. “That was one of the main reasons I chose there. I think it will be a cool experience potentially playing on the same line as him.”

In addition to reuniting with his brother, 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound Welsh is also looking forward to getting more ice time in a very competitive schedule and stepping in as a leader for the second-year program. As an older player who has dressed for 93 games and skated on the Bulldogs’ top line during the 2019-20 season, Welsh’s experience is set to make an impact on the LIU squad, which is mainly composed of underclassmen. In terms of academics, Welsh intends to pursue a masters in data analytics and business intelligence.

Although their future endeavors will take Palecco, O’Neil and Welsh away from New Haven, the bonds and lessons they have gained from their time at The Whale will not be easily forgotten.

“I definitely grew as a player since coming to Yale,” Welsh explained. “I went from not being in the lineup my first couple of games freshman year and grew into bigger roles on the team each year.”

For Palecco, the opportunities and sense of brotherhood that he acquired over the last four years are among several things he will always remain grateful for.

He described to the News what an “honor and privilege” it was to throw on the Blue and White jersey and compete with his “brothers” on Saturday nights.

“It makes the days a lot better when you know you are heading to the rink with a group who is bought in and loves being around each other,” Palecco noted. “These guys are like brothers to me and hopefully, we will be friends forever.”

Long Island University (3–10–0), Sacred Heart University (6–10–2, 6–6–1 AHA) and the University of Connecticut (10–11–2, 10–10–2 Hockey East) all participated in the 2020-21 season.

Trisha Nguyen covers men's ice hockey and field hockey as a staff reporter. Originally from St. Louis, she is a sophomore in Saybrook College majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology.