Yale has been to only one Frozen Four, and that came in 1952, so it’s nothing but a distant memory in New Haven, Conn. But if the Bulldogs get to the event in Washington, D.C., next month, they’ll be led by a man who at least knows the area well.
Keith Allain, the head coach who has taken the Bulldogs from the depths of the ECAC Hockey standings to league champion in just three seasons, was a Washington Capitals assistant coach for four years on Jim Schoenfeld’s staff. He also spent four years as a European scout for the Caps.
Allain takes his Yale team to Albany, NY this weekend for ECAC Hockey’s playoff championship (five of college hockey’s six leagues play their conference tournaments this weekend). Regardless of the outcome, the Bulldogs can expect to have their names called during Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show (11:30 a.m., ESPN2) and will make their first NCAA appearance since 1998, the same year they won their last conference title.
That 1998 team, in fact, made Yale’s only trip to the NCAAs since that third-place finish in 1952. Entering this season the coaches and media both pegged Yale for seventh in the 12-team ECAC Hockey; the Bulldogs are currently seventh in the national polls. All of that adds up to further proof of the impressive work Allain has done.
“Every time someone has picked against them they have won,” said Joe Gladziszewski, who covers ECAC Hockey for InsideCollegeHockey.com. “They’ve got something special going on in that room.”
Did Allain ever think his team could come this far, this fast?
“That’s a tough question,” he said. “I knew going into this season that we had a really good group here, but you never know how that is going to translate into wins and losses. I knew we were going to get better, but I can’t tell you that I expected us to win the league title going into the season.”
Allain, deservedly, gets a lot of the credit for Yale’s success and was named the ECAC Hockey Coach of the Year. On the ice the Bulldogs’ standouts include forwards Sean Backman and Mark Arcobello – named the best 1-2 forward tandem in ECAC Hockey by one rival coach– and goaltender Alec Richards.
Backman, in fact, offers another Capitals connection. His father, Mike, is a former Caps scout, and Sean took part in the team’s summer development camp in 2007. Sean is a smaller, shifty, skilled forward along the lines of current Ottawa Senator Ryan Shannon, who starred at Boston College. A two-time team MVP at Yale, Backman is leading the team in goals for the third year in a row.
If Yale reaches the Frozen Four, it may not bring the number of fans that a traditional power like North Dakota would (presumably alum John Kerry would be back in the Verizon Center stands, however). Nevertheless, there’s a lot of energy on campus and at Ingalls Rink (a.k.a. the “Yale Whale”), the unique and raucous home ice for the Bulldogs.
“There’s great excitement,” Allain said. “There are great hockey fans here, some really passionate, diehard Yale hockey fans who have been starved for success. We play in a great building, and it’s been really neat for our players to experience the enthusiasm and excitement that we have had at home.”
Allain, meanwhile, would be excited to return to the area that he and his family once called home.
“It’s one of those things that you almost don’t want to think about,” he said. “There are so many things that have to go just right between now and then. But that said, to come back to Washington to coach and be a part of the Frozen Four would be really special.”
Allain’s tenure in Washington ended with the 1997 changes that saw George McPhee replace David Poile and Ron Wilson replace Schoenfeld. But he is still thought of fondly in D.C.
“He is a quality guy, and his intelligence was evident,” Capitals president Dick Patrick said. “He is knowledgeable and very passionate about the game. I’m not at all surprised to see the success he has had at Yale, and in addition to what he’s done on the ice, I’m sure he’s helping those young men become solid citizens as well.”
Allain also has good memories of his time with the Capitals.
“My family loved living in Maryland,” he said. “That was one of the best times of our life. Caps fans were always great – both in the arena and when you would see them around. We still have good friends in the area.
“From a hockey perspective the one highlight that really stands out was when we upset Pittsburgh in the playoffs in 1994,” he added. “Those Pittsburgh-Caps series were always really exciting, and they had a great team, not far removed from their Stanley Cups. It was a great playoff series and a lot of fun to be a part of it.”
Fifteen years later, Allain could be just four games away from another highlight in Washington, D.C.