Sporting Life

Speed demons

Sam Rubin

Sam Rubin

The Elis celebrate their first-ever Eastern College Athletic Conference championship. View full image

As the crow flies, the 2008–09 Yale men's hockey season ended about 20 miles from where it started. But the distance from New Haven to Bridgeport does not begin to measure how far the program has come in the last year.

Preseason polls predicted that the Bulldogs would finish seventh in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC). Instead, the team ranked as high as No. 5 in the nation during a charmed season that brought Yale the Ivy League championship, the ECAC regular-season championship, and the ECAC tournament championship. As a final prize, the Bulldogs won a spot in the NCAA East Regional competition.

"When I came in, we had a reputation as kind of a gutter team," says center Mark Arcobello ’10, who in 2006 joined a Yale program that had lost 45 of 65 games during the previous two seasons. "To turn it around in three years -- it's pretty great."

When Arcobello arrived on campus as a 165-pound 18-year-old, he wasn't the only new face in the locker room. Forward Sean Backman ’10, a five-foot-eight, 165-pound, long-haired ball of kinetic energy, was also making his debut, and Keith Allain ’80, a former Yale goalie, was in his first season as head coach.

Allain, who favors a fast, aggressive style, paired the two freshmen and watched as they led the team in scoring. Since then he has stockpiled more pint-sized players. "If you look at our roster, we probably have two forwards over six feet," Arcobello says. "We have a lot of short guys with speed, so we try to out-quick big defensemen and win all the races to loose pucks."

This tenacious style began to pay off this season over a winter break home stand in which Yale beat two of three nationally ranked opponents -- and suddenly had the ECAC's top-scoring offense. In January the Bulldogs won at Cornell's Lynah Rink for the first time in almost a decade. The next day, Yale stunned Colgate by erasing a four-goal third-period deficit to win, 5-4, in overtime. "That was the turning point in our season right there," says Backman. Yale won its next six games.

The Bulldogs reprised their Colgate magic in the ECAC tournament semifinal against St. Lawrence, turning a sure 3-2 loss into a 4-3 win in the span of 22 seconds. The team then walloped Cornell, 5-0, to claim Yale's first-ever ECAC tournament title and to guarantee their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998.

It was there, in front of a record 8,478 fans in the Arena at Bridgeport, Connecticut, that the magic finally ran out. The bigger, stronger Vermont team prevented the frenetic Bulldog forecheck from gaining any traction in a 4-1 decision. But the loss did little to cloud Yale's newly burnished reputation. Led by Allain -- who was chosen coach of the year by College Hockey News -- the Bulldogs are nationally relevant for the first time this decade.

"I don't know if one year makes a trend, but one of my goals is for every kid who comes through this program to have the opportunity to play in a national tournament," says Allain.

It's a long way from seventh place in the ECAC.  

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