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Yale’s hockey tradition is more distinguished for its longevity than its success. In 1896, Malcolm Chace captained Yale’s team against Johns Hopkins in the country’s first collegiate ice hockey game. But in the 2,014 games it has played since then, the Yale men’s hockey program has picked up just 953 wins. So you can imagine my anticipation two years ago when I attended the home opener against St. Lawrence University. After all, the team was coming off an exhibition win against the Canadian school Dalhousie, and two convincing victories over Division I independent Air Force. An avid hockey fan (and an aspiring player) all my life, I was excited by the prospect of finally rooting for a winning team. But after only one period, my hopes were dashed. St. Lawrence was bigger, faster, and a whole lot better—they won the game 7–2. The next night Yale faced Clarkson, and the result wasn’t much different: Yale lost 3–0. That first weekend was a sign of things to come, as the Elis went on to lose a school-record 23 games and failed to make the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
This past November, after disposing of another Canadian school (this time McGill) in an exhibition contest, and once again defeating Air Force, Yale played host to the same two squads from upstate New York. But I was older and wiser; my expectations this time around were low—and wrong. The Bulldogs defeated defending champion Clarkson 2–1, and disposed of St. Lawrence 3–0 the following night. Four months later, Yale had won its first-ever, regular-season ECAC championship with a 23–9–3 record (17–4–1 within the league itself) and gone on to become the winningest team in Yale history, breaking the record of 20–10 set by the 1985–86 squad, and earning a place in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1952.
The season was not an unalloyed triumph—two losses to Princeton and Harvard in the ECAC Final Four at Lake Placid and a first-round loss against Ohio State in the NCAA West Regional destroyed the hopes of postseason glory for the Blue. And the team managed to score just one goal in its final eight periods after leading scorer Jeff Hamilton ’00 went down with a separated shoulder several minutes into the start of the Princeton game. Nonetheless, the achievement of this year’s squad couldn’t be dimmed. At season’s end, captain Ray Giroux ’98 was honored as the ECAC Player of the Year (the first Eli ever to win the award); Alex Westlund ’99 brought home the Dryden Award, given to the league’s top goaltender; and Tim Taylor was named ECAC Coach of the Year (for the third time). No team since Malcolm Chace brought collegiate hockey to Yale has achieved so much.
I’m not the only one whose early expectations of the Bulldogs were wrong. In fact, the 12 ECAC coaches who participate in a preseason poll each year had the Elis pegged for tenth. Given that Yale had finished no higher than tenth over the previous four seasons (and only once that high at all), this seemed a safe bet. Nobody, including Taylor and the players themselves, expected Yale to be looking ahead to the NCAA tournament at the beginning of March, when most Yale teams of the recent past have hung up their skates. After his Elis picked up their 20th win in a 7–2 shellacking of St. Lawrence, Taylor himself admitted that “it would be stretching our positive outlook—which we did have—to say that we thought we’d be where we are now.”
The low esteem in which Yale’s team was held heading into the season turned out to be a mixed blessing. It’s often easier to play as the underdog, and the Elis most likely benefitted in the early games from opposing teams’ low opinion of their abilities. (They probably suffered towards the end for the opposite reason.) But because of Yale’s undistinguished recent past, even the first Yale victory ever at Harvard’s 18-year-old Bright Hockey Center (3–1 on November 15) wasn’t enough to convince some skeptics, and it took an 11–0 drubbing of traditional powerhouse Cornell at Ingalls Rink in early February to put an end to talk of a “fluke” season.
Suddenly, the skeptics and naysayers fell silent, and the not-so-pretty past faded into distant memory. (Says Giroux: “In a way those losses helped strengthen the guys.”) The last Yale team to have a winning percentage this high was the 1950–51 squad, coached by Murray Murdoch—now, at 95, the oldest living New York Ranger—to a 15–2–1 mark. Students, alumni, and local hockey fans alike responded by filling Ingalls Rink beyond capacity for eight consecutive games (a school record) at the end of the season.
When Harvard came to town for a second-semester rematch on Valentine’s Day, several hundred Yale undergraduates formed a rowdy mob outside the rink before the doors were opened an hour ahead of the 7 p.m. start. By 6:05, not a single student seat was available, and by 7:00 the building was filled well past its 3,486 person capacity. Among the thousands in attendance were veteran sportswriter William Wallace ’45W of the New York Times and a Sports Illustrated photographer, who had arrived early enough to set up his own personal lighting devices around the rink. (In its March 2 issue, SI printed an article about the Cinderella success of the Elis). The masses were not disappointed. Yale jumped out to a 3–0 lead in the first period, but a Harvard resurgence kept the game too close for comfort until Hamilton notched another of his league-leading 27 goals in the third period to seal the victory at 5–3.
Elated as they were by the results of the Harvard game, the Elis got a scare when they tied Dartmouth and lost to Vermont, dropping their lead in the ECAC to one point over second-place Clarkson. Although the team held on to capture the title with wins against Union and Rensselaer, another scare soon followed when tenth-seeded St. Lawrence came to New Haven for the preliminary round of the ECAC playoffs.
For two straight nights, Yale needed a last-minute goal just to salvage a tie against the poorly-ranked Scarlet Knights. In the third and deciding game, the Blue once again got a couple of late scores, but this time came away with a 4–1 victory.
That was the 23rd and last game the Bulldogs would win, and the team’s losing efforts at Lake Placid the following weekend were compounded by the fact that both losses came against the school’s top rivals. Hamilton’s injury against Princeton (a game which Yale eventually lost 2–1) had shaken up all of Yale’s lines and defused its once formidable power play. Indeed, the team’s frustrations boiled over in the third period against Harvard, and by the end of the stinging 4–1 loss, an ECAC record of 134 penalty minutes had been handed out.
The Ohio State game didn’t end up any better (a 4–0 loss), but with Hamilton and defenseman Daryl Jones ’98 (who was injured early in the first period) sidelined, Yale still managed to outskate the Buckeyes for nearly 30 minutes. The Elis’ performance made an impression on John Markell, the Ohio State coach. Markell said that despite playing in a conference with such perennial powerhouses as Michigan (which went on to win the national championship in an overtime victory against Boston College) and Michigan State, he hadn’t seen a team as fast and aggressive as Yale in a long time.
It’s unlikely that this year’s Yale squad can match the 1985–86 Elis in terms of talent at the top—Randy Wood ’86, Bob Kudelski ’87, and Bob Logan ’86 all went on to careers in the National Hockey League. But even the talent-laden 1985–86 bunch couldn’t finish ahead of all 11 ECAC opponents in the regular-season standings, as the current group did, nor could it beat out the other five Ivy League teams, leaving one to wonder about just what lay behind Yale’s terrific season.
To be sure, the current group does have its share of stars: Giroux was named a first-team All America defenseman and was selected as one of ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to the country’s top collegiate player (this year’s award went to Chris Drury, of Boston University); Hamilton is on pace to challenge the record for career points by a Yale player; and Westlund’s save percentage was one of the top ten in the nation, as well as the best in Bulldog history. But the term that seems to come up again and again when Taylor and his players talk about their success is “chemistry.” Hamilton says he’s heard from his older teammates that in past seasons the upperclassmen on the team hadn’t spoken to younger players much, but this year, “the team chemistry was like nothing I’ve ever seen—everybody would give their right arm for anybody else.”
Taylor agrees with Hamilton’s assessment, noting that this year’s team chemistry has been “exceptional.” And for Taylor, this season (and its chemistry) couldn’t have come at a better time. When the current senior class arrived at Yale as freshmen, there was speculation that Taylor, now in his 20th season as head coach, would not be returning. He had left Yale the season before to coach the U.S. Olympic Team at Lillehammer—a team that had to settle for just one victory in the eight games it played. Taylor was exposed to a lot of criticism from the national media afterwards. Says senior Geoff Kufta ’98, “I think he wasn’t sure if he’d fit in at Yale anymore.” But Taylor did return, and four years later has been rewarded with an endowed coaching position, funded by Malcolm G. Chace ’56, the grandson of the captain of Yale’s original hockey team. And in mid-April, he was given the Spencer Penrose award as the NCAA Division I coach of the year by the American Hockey Coaches Association.
In a season that includes both Ivy and ECAC division titles, there are bound to be memorable victories. But one of the most lasting memories of the year came in a losing effort. With the team playing its final game, against Ohio State, out in Michigan, Yale’s athletic department brought in two extra-large television screens and rented a satellite dish to televise the game at Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Despite the short notice (word went out to the campus the morning of the event), hundreds of Yale students turned out, filling nearly half of the basketball stadium. They cheered to the very end.
While the season may have had a magical quality that went beyond everyone’s expectations (“I don’t know if it could ever happen again,” Kufta says), freshman right-winger Ben Stafford ’01 hasn’t experienced anything else, and he isn’t prepared to return to second-rate status. Asked about the team’s ambitions for 1999, he says, “I don’t think anybody’s going to be happy with anything less than what we did this year.”
Malcolm Chace would be proud.
Memories on Ice
I arrived at Yale, as a transfer student, in the mid-sixties. My undergraduate days thus happily coincided with the end of what became known as the Morrison Era, in honor of Jack Morrison ’67, the brilliant stick-handler who dominated what was arguably one of the last golden ages of Yale hockey. (Before the 1985–86 season, that is, and before the present one.) I had by then abandoned my own marginal hockey career, and I spent much more quality time at Sterling Library than at Ingalls Rink. Really. But some of my most enduring New Haven memories, my dreams even, nevertheless unfold not in the stacks but beneath the soaring carapace of the Whale: Morrison swinging wide, gathering steam, and then driving for the net; Steve Holahan ’69, between the pipes for the Elis, crouching and pouncing, and occasionally scurrying into the corner to sweep away unwelcome pucks.
The term “power forward” hadn’t been invented yet, but that’s exactly what Jack Morrison was: fast, strong, blessed with a wicked wrist shot, immovable from in front of the net. Together with his linemates, Warren Gelman ’67 and Jack Walsh ’67, he was part of an offensive unit so smooth and synchronous, and so productive, that, had we only the wit back then, we could have called them the Assembly Line. Part of their harmony stemmed, no doubt, from the years they had already played together at the Nichols School in Buffalo, but in New Haven their on-ice awareness of one another developed into something like ESP. (Next to spicy chicken wings, in fact, this threesome may be that city’s greatest export ever.)
Yale’s record in those years may not suggest how good the team really was, because it was also a golden age elsewhere. Not the least thrilling thing about being a Yale fan then was the dazzling parade of guest artists who came to town: Harvard’s scrappy Mechem brothers, for example, and stolid Ben Smith (most recently the coach of the women’s Olympic team); and, most memorable of all, the Canadian wizards from Cornell, backstopped by the future NHL Hall of Famer Ken Dryden. He had already developed that habit of resting his chin on the end of his goalie stick, during lulls at his end, and seeming to contemplate the ice from a lordly and meditative remove.
Golden ages always gleam brighter in memory, but in grumpy, valetudinarian moments I’m tempted to think that in those heroic days there was less dump-and-chase, more end-to-end rushing and personal pyrotechnics. One explanation, if I’m right, is that this was before organized youth hockey had, for better and for worse, so thoroughly altered the game’s educational system by emphasizing from an early age team play and team discipline at the expense of individual skills—at the expense even of fun sometimes. I’m talking about the sixties, remember: We were accustomed to doing our own thing. It’s also true that, both at Yale and elsewhere, the difference between the best players and the rest, between the first line and the third, was often considerable, and uneven matchups frequently afforded the truly gifted a fair degree of freedom in which to perform.
This is not to say that there are no stars anymore. The current Yale squad has at least three—Hamilton, Giroux, and Westlund—whose skills and creativity are the equal of anything we witnessed back in the bell-bottom period. But what separates them from the rest is a notch almost infinitesimal (Yale beat Cornell 11–0 this year without three of its starters, for example—something that could never have happened in the old days), and in spite of all this team’s brilliant accomplishments, the gap separating it from the rest of the league is equally small. For years now, the ECAC has maintained a kind of anxious, nail-biting parity, in which on a given weekend virtually any team can beat any other. This year’s record is all the more remarkable for having been achieved under conditions of (by the old standards) extreme arduousness, and it’s been fashioned, for the most part, by extraordinary teamwork.
And the current Elis are superior to their forebears in yet another respect—in eliciting a level of deafening, roof-lifting fan support that outdoes anything we sixties guys managed on even our most dope-addled, testosterone-fueled evenings. Before this year’s Harvard game, undergraduates were lined up an hour early outside the rink, many in costume and with their faces painted, and once inside, urged on by the Yale band and its toga-clad percussion section, they kept up a non-stop din, hurling at the Harvard goalie invective of far more syntactic complexity than we would have been capable of. And let’s not forget the team, which played its heart out.
The whole evening, for us old-timers lucky enough to be there, was a reminder that a good hockey game, when you think about it, is a lot like youth itself: fast, intense, emotional, punctuated by noisy collisions and brief intervals of punition, and so vivid that even when it's long over, it lingers warmly in the mind.
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