I do usually watch the Frozen Four action, which for years has been televised on ESPN 2, but I must confess that I have not previously paid close attention to the earlier rounds. Frankly, I haven’t had a vested interest in keeping up with these matchups. Until this year.
There exist six Division I college hockey conferences, four of which are prominent: the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), Hockey East and the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC). These may not be household names like the ACC or Big East, but just about every NHL team has players who have come from schools in those conferences, including the Lightning. In the WCHA, Matt Smaby went to North Dakota, Ryan Malone
to St. Cloud State while Richard Petiot honed his game at Colorado College. In the CCHA, Adam Hall
played at Michigan State and Paul Szczechura at Western Michigan. Marty St. Louis is a Vermont grad. (UVM is now in Hockey East, but was a member of the ECAC when he was in school). Mike Lundin went to Maine, also in Hockey East. As for the ECAC, Mike McKenna is a St. Lawrence alumnus, Jeff Halpern starred at Princeton, Noah Welch went to Harvard and Cory Murphy played for Colgate. Even the Lightning coaches have connections to the college game; associate coach Mike Sullivan played at Boston University in Hockey East and Cap Raeder coached at Clarkson in the ECAC.
My alma mater, Yale, also plays in the ECAC, but has tasted only very intermittent success over the years. But last Saturday, for the first time in school history, Yale won the ECAC Championship. This came out of the blue. The Bulldogs were picked to finish seventh in the conference in both pre-season ECAC polls.
The University has matriculated some pretty good players to the NHL. Montreal’s Chris Higgins and Toronto’s Jeff Hamilton both went there. Back in the mid-80s, Yale produced Randy Wood and Bob Kudelski, both of whom enjoyed successful NHL careers. There have been a host of very good minor league players as well who at one time donned the Blue and White. But compared to annual powerhouses in the ECAC like Harvard, Cornell, St. Lawrence and Clarkson, Yale’s hockey accomplishments have been limited. During my four years there, from 1987-91, the team finished below .500 every season. The school’s biggest win during that time frame occurred in my sophomore year, when Yale handed arch-rival Harvard a 3-1 defeat. It was one of only three losses all season for Harvard, which eventually won the 1989 NCAA title. Other than that game, Yale won single-elimination playoff games on the road during my junior and senior years, which gave the Bulldogs the right to face the conference’s top seed. They were then quickly dispatched in both series.
But despite the on-ice struggles during that period, Yale hockey gave me a gift that I cherish to this day. It was the gift of opportunity. The Ingalls Rink Press Box is where I announced my first hockey game. In all, I did close to 60 hockey games on our college radio station, gaining enough experience to help me land a job with the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs right after graduating. The hockey program undoubtedly gave me much more than I provided in return.
So it was with great pride that I watched Yale rally to edge St. Lawrence, 4-3, last Friday on the NHL Network in the ECAC semifinal game. Yale trailed, 3-2, with under two minutes left, but scored a sixth attacker goal to tie it and then got the winner on the next shift. Incidentally, Mike McKenna and I had a small (very small) friendly wager on that game. Although he referred to the outcome as a “fluke”, he did pay off the bet by handing me a piece of paper with dimes taped onto it. On Saturday, Yale shut out Cornell, 5-0, to win the league’s championship. The team has set the school record for victories and head coach Keith Allain has been named the national Coach of the Year by College Hockey News. It has been a hockey season unlike any other in school history.
Yale has earned the second seed in its Eastern Regional Bracket, which will be played near New Haven at the Bridgeport Sound Tigers’ home rink. It’s just the school’s second NCAA bid in the last 56 years. On Friday, the Bulldogs will face Marty St. Louis’ Vermont Catamounts. The winner will take on the victor from the Michigan-Air Force contest. Whether my team advances remains to be seen. But in my book, if you’re seeking a true Cinderella story in an NCAA Tournament, look to the ice, not the hardcourt.